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Claire Bartel (Annabella Sciorra) is mother to Emma (Madeline Zima) and pregnant with her second child. At a routine checkup, Claire is molested by an obstetrician, Dr. Victor Mott (John de Lancie), who is replacing her retired doctor. Claire tells her husband, Michael (Matt McCoy), about being sexually violated and the couple decide to report the incident to the authorities. Four more women come forward to corroborate the Bartels' story and Dr. Mott commits suicide to avoid being arrested by the authorities.
Dr. Mott's pregnant widow (Rebecca De Mornay) meets with her lawyers and is told that her husband's assets have been frozen, that she will eventually have to leave their luxurious home after having the baby, and that the lawsuits may still continue. Upon hearing this, Mrs. Mott goes into premature labor, but hemorrhages badly and loses her baby, causing her to require an emergency hysterectomy. Later on, while still recovering in the hospital, Mrs. Mott sees a news story on television showing Claire as the woman who alerted authorities about her husband. Mrs. Mott blames Claire for her personal losses and financial ruin.
Months pass and Claire gives birth to a boy, Joey. The Bartels have hired a worker named Solomon (Ernie Hudson), a man with a developmental disability, to perform some handywork around the house, such as building a new fence. Solomon takes a liking to the family and wishes to hold baby Joey, but Claire asks him not to. Michael is insistent that the Bartels look for a nanny to help with the children. Claire, in the process of building a greenhouse in the couple's backyard so that she can start a side plant business, goes along only reluctantly, believing she is perfectly capable of doing both as well as being wary of hiring a complete stranger to take care of Joey. Mrs. Mott, now under the pseudonym Peyton Flanders, applies for the position and is hired after deliberately placing the back of one of Claire's earrings (which was constantly falling off) into baby Joey's mouth and feigning the baby's rescue from potentially choking.
Mrs. Mott begins to subtly terrorize the family in a delusional attempt to replace Claire. She begins breastfeeding Joey in secret (which causes him to no longer take his own mother's milk), encourages Emma to keep secrets from her mother, tempts Michael with her sexuality and plants the thought in Claire's head that Michael may be having an affair with close friend and former girlfriend, Marlene Craven (Julianne Moore). Mrs. Mott furthers this notion by suggesting that he and Marlene plan a surprise birthday party for Claire, thus leading to Marlene and Michael having to meet in secret. Marlene earlier warns Claire to not let "Peyton" get too close to the family, quoting the line, "The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world" from the poem "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" by William Ross Wallace.
Mrs. Mott continues with her attempt to destroy the family and tries to turn Emma and Michael against Claire. Solomon, who has been wary of "Peyton" from the beginning, accidentally catches her breast-feeding Joey. An enraged Mrs. Mott confronts Solomon and threatens to get rid of him. She initially plants the idea in Claire's head that Solomon, who is by now a good friend of Emma, is inappropriately touching Emma. Later on, Mrs. Mott plants a piece of Emma's underwear in Solomon's tool wagon, allowing Claire to discover it. Believing Emma has been molested, Claire fires Solomon. An angry Emma protests that Solomon never touched her, but Claire refuses to listen, causing Emma to begin disliking her mother and grow distant from her.
Mrs. Mott continues to drop hints to Claire about Michael's whereabouts as he and Marlene plan Claire's surprise party. Mrs. Mott steals Marlene's cigarette lighter and plants it in one of Michael's shirts. On the day of her surprise party, in order to get her out of the house Claire is asked to bring the shirt to the cleaners, where she discovers the lighter. An enraged Claire returns home and confronts Michael about the lighter by vulgarly accusing him of having an affair with Marlene, only to realize that there is a house full of people, including Marlene and her husband Marty, waiting in the next room who have clearly heard her exclamations. A hurt and embarrassed Marlene storms out while Claire is shaken up due to the whole episode.
Claire begins to have her doubts about "Peyton" since all these episodes have occurred since she started working for them. She expresses her concerns to Michael while they discuss taking a vacation, one on which Claire doesn't want "Peyton" to accompany them. Mrs. Mott overhears their conversation and grows more enraged and psychotic. She decides to murder Claire by propping open the glass skylights in Claire's greenhouse ceiling with a shovel by the door, with the idea that, when Claire opens the door to the greenhouse, the shovel will fall over, causing the skylights to lose their support and come crashing down on her. Meanwhile, Marlene has become very suspicious of "Peyton". A realtor by trade, Marlene comes across Dr. Mott's house, which is still up for sale. She notices in the listing that there are wind chimes located outside the nursery, distinctly remembering a similar gift that "Peyton" gave Claire for Joey's nursery.
After some investigating Marlene comes across a newspaper clipping at the library showing Dr. Mott's funeral in which there is a picture of Mrs. Mott mourning alongside family. Marlene rushes over to the Bartel house to warn Claire only to find that she is not home. She angrily confronts Mrs. Mott, who, threatened with exposure of her true identity, decides to use the trap on Marlene instead and lies that Claire is in the greenhouse. Marlene storms outside calling for Claire and pushes open the greenhouse door where she is killed by the glass. Mrs. Mott, who knows that Claire suffers from asthma, seizes the opportunity and goes around the house emptying all of Claire's medicinal inhalers by piercing them with a sharp pin. She then takes Joey for a walk in his stroller. While she is out, Claire returns and heads for the greenhouse where she sees Marlene's body, which causes her to have a severe asthma attack. She searches desperately for her inhalers only to find them all empty and collapses unconscious after trying to call the police.
After recuperating, Claire finds an urgent phone message from Marlene in the pocket of her jeans. After investigating the situation, she realizes that "Peyton" is Mrs. Mott. Claire returns home and punches Mrs. Mott in the face, then tells a shocked Michael that "Peyton" is really Dr. Mott's widow, and fires her. Mrs. Mott attempts to allege that she and Michael were having an affair, but Michael immediately denies this and orders Mrs. Mott to leave at once. However, Mrs. Mott re-enters the house as they prepare to leave and lures Michael down to the basement where she hits him with a shovel, knocking him down the stairs and breaking his legs. Upon being found by Claire, Michael orders her to hide the children and call the police. Mrs. Mott then stalks Claire and the children as they hide. After knocking down Claire with the same shovel, Mrs. Mott attempts to take Emma and Joey to herself as her new family, but after seeing Mrs. Mott assault her mother, Emma turns on her and escapes to the attic with Joey. Mrs. Mott eventually finds them there attempting to escape, with the help of Solomon, who has returned due to his vow never to let Mrs. Mott hurt the Bartels. She assaults Solomon with a fireplace poker until Claire reaches the attic where she and Mrs. Mott fight. During the scuffle, Claire fakes an asthma attack, causing Mrs. Mott to let her guard down, revealing to Claire of her secret breastfeeding for Joey. Mrs. Mott then turns her attention to Solomon once again. Claire then catches Mrs. Mott by surprise and pushes her out of the attic window. Mrs. Mott tumbles down the roof of the house and is impaled when she hits the fence below.
Soon after, a repentant Claire offers Solomon his job back and allows him to hold Joey, finally demonstrating her trust in him. They all go down to help Michael, as police sirens come by to the house.
- Annabella Sciorra as Claire Bartel
- Rebecca De Mornay as Mrs. Mott
- Matt McCoy as Michael Bartel
- Ernie Hudson as Solomon
- Julianne Moore as Marlene Craven
- Madeline Zima as Emma Bartel
- John de Lancie as Dr. Victor Mott
- Kevin Skousen as Marty Craven
Cybill Shepherd originally was assigned the role of the nanny.
The Hand That Rocks the Cradle opened on January 10, 1992 and grossed $7,675,016 in its opening weekend, bringing Hook down to #2 from its 4-week triumph at #1. The film lasted at #1 for four consecutive weeks, then was upended by Medicine Man. By the end of its run, the film earned a domestic total of $88,036,683 It was also placed at 24 in Bravo's special 30 Even Scarier Movie Moments.
The Hand That Rocks the Cradle was released on DVD on December 8, 1998. The film was presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio, approximately 1.85.1. The only special feature included on the DVD is the film's original theatrical trailer.
The film's plot was reproduced for the Hindi film Khal Nayika (1993) starring Anu Agarwal as the nanny, Jaya Prada as the wife, Jeetendra as the husband, and Varsha Usgaokar as the wife's friend. The same plot was also reproduced for a Telugu film titled Kavya's Diary (2009) starring Charmi and Manjula Ghattamaneni.
- The Hand That Rocks the Cradle at AllRovi
- The Hand That Rocks the Cradle at Box Office Mojo
- The Hand That Rocks the Cradle at Rotten Tomatoes
- Movie stills
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