A Sinister Hand Rocks This `Cradle'

XXX "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," with Annabella Sciorra, Rebecca De Mornay. Directed by Curtis Hanson, from a script by Amanda Silver. Alderwood, Crossroads, Gateway, Lewis & Clark, Metro, Oak Tree. "R" - restricted, due to language, violence. --------------------------------------------------------------- Mothers, stay home! Run your households yourselves! Take care of your own children! Don't let a stranger near them!

That's the gist of "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle."

But while the message of Amanda Silver's screenplay may be unpalatable to some, this nanny-from-hell thriller is so artfully paced and performed that there's little resisting it.

Claire Bartel (Annabella Sciorra, fresh from Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever") lives in suburban bliss with her husband Michael (Matt McCoy) and their 5-year-old daughter Emma (Madeline Zima). But with a baby on the way and a busy schedule of volunteer work, Claire is in the market for some household help.

Enter professional nanny Peyton Flanders (Rebecca De Mornay), whose secret connection to the Bartel family only the viewer knows. Peyton soon makes herself indispensable to her employers, hatching secrets with little Emma, expanding the baby's feeding schedule in a most unusual manner, and dangling an erotic lure toward Michael while helping him plan a surprise birthday party for his wife.

What Peyton doesn't reveal is that she's out to destroy Claire. In a delicious game of domestic subterfuge that plays like a remake of Joseph Losey's "The Servant," Peyton undermines Claire's existence while seducing her with a smooth impersonation of the ideal mother's helper.

Only two people don't buy into Peyton's act: the Bartels' mentally disabled yard hand, Solomon (Ernie Hudson), who catches Peyton going well beyond the call of nannyhood in tending to the baby; and family friend, Marlene (Julianne Moore), a ruthless real estate agent who firmly believes you should "never ever let an attractive person take a power position in your house."

After all, Marlene says, the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.

With no guns and no car chases, but with one hell of a motive to power it along, the film edges its way toward a nerve-jangling climax. The adrenaline jolts work all the better because they hit so close to home. And there's plenty of dark humor to spice things up along the way.

This is De Mornay's film and she's a wicked treat, looking daggers at her enemy one moment and then glazing over with sweetness the next. Good as she is, she's almost upstaged by Moore, whose no-nonsense Marlene single-handedly reverses the repentant yuppie trend of last summer. Marlene is an acid-tongued, dressed-to-kill hustler, and she's not about to apologize for it.

Sciorra, in a less showy but crucial role, makes Claire as credible as she is credulous. Together with the affable McCoy, she anchors the movie solidly enough for De Mornay to pull off her fancy footwork without ever losing balance. Hudson, as Solomon, is marvelously alive to his childlike character's worries and whimsy.

Robert Elswit's cinematography is a crisp, clean affair, while Graeme Revell's score has some appropriate shivers to it. The film was shot in Tacoma and Seattle, and lovingly renders the Puget Sound region's lush, rolling landscapes and silvery water vistas.

Director Curtis Hanson isn't exactly subtle in managing the logistics of getting Peyton into the Bartels' house. But once he gets her there, he knows how to use her boldly and exquisitely. He also has a good eye for behavioral quirks that trigger doubt or distrust.

With its shrewd targeting of 1990s family worries (who's going to look after the kids when both parents are so busy?), "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" shapes ordinary domestic routine into an unnerving tale of suspense.

Baby-sitters, beware! You may not get another job after the parents come home from this one.