Claire Bartel is happily married and pregnant with her second child. At a routine check-up, she is sexually molested by her new obstetrician, Dr. Victor Mott. Traumatized, she tells her husband Michael, who encourages her to report him to the state medical board. Her initial accusation prompts four more women to come forward with similar accusations, and multiple charges are prepared against Dr. Mott by the district attorney's office. Guilty, Dr. Mott commits suicide. Later, Dr. Mott's pregnant widow is told by her lawyers that her husband's assets have been frozen because of the lawsuits and that she will lose her luxurious home. Mrs. Mott goes into early labor after fainting from the stressful news her lawyer gives her, causing her to lose her baby and, after hemorrhaging, is given an emergency hysterectomy. While recovering in the hospital, she sees a news story featuring Claire as the woman who went to the state medical board, leading Mrs. Mott to swear vengeance.
Claire eventually gives birth to a boy named Joey, and, looking for a nanny, hires Mrs. Mott under the alias "Peyton Flanders". Mrs. Mott begins waging a campaign to undermine Claire. She begins breastfeeding Joey in secret (which causes him to no longer take Claire's milk) and encourages her daughter Emma to keep secrets from her mother and tries to turn her against Claire. She also secretly destroys Michael's office proposal. Knowing that Claire's close friend Marlene had been Michael's ex-girlfriend before he married Claire, Mrs. Mott also suggests to Michael that he arrange a surprise party for Claire, leading Marlene and Michael to meet in secret. Claire accuses Michael of having an affair with Marlene, only to find the party-goers waiting in the next room.
Solomon, an intellectually disabled handyman who has been assisting the Bartels, discovers Mrs. Mott breastfeeding Joey. Mrs. Mott then plants a pair of Emma's panties in Solomon's toolbox, leading Claire to fire him. Emma tells Claire that Solomon never did anything to her, but Claire refuses to believe Emma, causing her to turn against her mother as Mrs. Mott had planned. Unknown to the family, except for Emma, Solomon begins to keep a watchful eye over them.
Claire begins to doubt "Peyton" and tells Michael so. Mrs. Mott overhears, then sets a trap for Claire in the greenhouse. Meanwhile, Marlene finds out Mrs. Mott's identity; Marlene plans to warn Claire, but Mrs. Mott tricks her into going into the greenhouse, where she is killed by the falling glass. Mrs. Mott, who knows that Claire suffers from asthma, empties all of her inhalers. When Claire finds Marlene's body, she has an asthma attack and is briefly hospitalized. As Michael is distraught over Marlene's death and his wife's condition, Mrs. Mott, wearing a sheer white nightgown, attempts to seduce him; he rejects her advances.
Claire eventually uncovers the truth about Mrs. Mott, confronts her, and reveals the truth about "Peyton" to Michael as Mrs. Mott claims that she and Michael are having an affair. Michael kicks Mrs. Mott out, and Claire then tells him to call the police as she realizes that Mrs. Mott rigged the greenhouse to kill her and not Marlene. Michael tells Claire to get Emma and Joey so that they can head to a hotel to be safe.
Later, Mrs. Mott breaks into the house and lures Michael down to the basement where she knocks him down the stairs and breaks his legs with a shovel. Mrs. Mott then attempts to take Emma and Joey, but after seeing Mrs. Mott assault her mother, Emma locks Mrs. Mott in the nursery. Mrs. Mott escapes, and hears Joey in the attic. She enters and sees Solomon aiding the children's escape. Claire enters and Mrs. Mott attempts to kill her, but stops after Claire appears to be having another asthma attack, allowing Mrs. Mott to mock her. As Mrs. Mott tries to take Joey, Claire gets back up, having faked her asthma attack, and pushes Mrs. Mott out of the window, impaling her on the picket fence and killing her. Touched at how Solomon risked his life to protect her family, Claire welcomes him back into their lives as they leave the attic while the police and paramedics arrive at the house.Annabella Sciorra as Claire Bartel
Rebecca De Mornay as Mrs. Mott / Peyton Flanders
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
Filming locations were Issaquah, Washington; Seattle, Washington (Mott's residence at 2502 37th Ave W in Seattle); and the Bartels' residence at 808 N. Yakima Ave. Tacoma, Washington.
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 four-week stay 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 film has received mixed to positive reviews from critics, currently holding a rating of 63% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 46 reviews and a rating of 6.5/10 on IMDb.
Gene Siskel stated that he "had trouble accepting the premise of this picture because of the casual way in which the nanny is hired in an early scene by the mother," citing that the premise is unrealistic. However, he gave praise to Julianne Moore's character, saying, "much more believable, is the supporting character of the mother's best friend" and that "the friend is a terrific character, it's too bad she doesn't have more scenes in the picture." He mentioned that his "biggest objection to Hand That Rocks the Cradle is to its scenes with the children in jeopardy or psychic pain." Siskel finally remarked that "there are some fun thrills in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle to be sure, but I found a lot of it distasteful, too." Roger Ebert, however, had a higher opinion of the film, stating that he "found this film worked" and that "It touches on a fear and that's why it appeals to us." Ebert praised De Mornay's performance in the film, saying, "she does, I think, a very good job, a very, very sound job of being the villainess in this film and I think it's an effective performance" and that he found the scenes of the children "very interesting because I saw them as a portrait of the evil of that woman"
Vincent Canby of The New York Times said of the film that "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" is meant to scare audiences more or less in the way that the patrons of the early nickelodeons were frightened when they saw the image of a train rushing at them. Audiences aren't asked to think, only to react" and that "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle proves again that not thinking isn't especially easy even today. Though Mr. Hanson is a slick movie maker, he is not an especially persuasive one here. Don't be gulled by those who would compare The Hand That Rocks the Cradle to Fatal Attraction, which features three strong characters who, in one way or another, are ready to answer for their actions." He added that "Mr. Hanson creates the occasionally effective shock effect to satisfy those who want to squeal in mock fright. More often the devices he uses are such tired tricks as the crosscutting between two sets of simultaneous, often innocent, actions to create the illusion of suspense that can't be sustained." Rebecca Hawkes of The Daily Telegraph gave the film a rating a 3 stars out of 5 and said that "It’s a tense, viscerally unsettling moment, that helps make the film into something more than just a fun, formulaic thriller", while Sue Heal of The Radio Times rated the film 4 stars out of 5, stated that "This is pure unbridled hokum, of course, but extremely effective until the last 30 minutes, when the plot rapidly self-destructs."
The Hand That Rocks the Cradle was released on VHS on July 8, 1992, on DVD on December 8, 1998 and Blu-ray on September 4, 2012. 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.