Patty Palmer (Griffith) and Drake Goodman (Modine) have just bought a large $750,000+ house in the San Francisco neighborhood of Pacific Heights, where they renovate it and plan to rent the two apartments on the ground floor in order to help cover the mortgage. When they meet Carter Hayes (Keaton), everything seems perfect, as he appears to be the ideal tenant... until they discover that he is a shady con artist who refuses to pay either the rent or the security deposit and changes the locks on all the doors.
In short order, he inflicts a campaign of terror on his hapless landlords through scare tactics, verbal baiting and turning his own apartment into a dark cockroach-infested den. It is all part of Hayes' elaborate scheme to use the California tenant laws against the Goodmans to obtain the property cheaply.
Ultimately, though, he goes too far, inspiring Patty to seek revenge.
Pacific Heights contains examples of:
- Ax-Crazy: Hayes eventually becomes this after being at the receving end of having his own life ruined.
- Cat Scare: Involving a cat and a bird.
- Depraved Bisexual: In the original script, Hayes was supposed to be bisexual and sexually menace both Patty and Drake. In the final version, it is merely suggested.
- Floorboard Failure: Damaged, rather than totally collapsed, floorboards play a key role in the climax. Carter Hayes is impaled on gas pipes protruding from the floor because he himself had stolen the appliance they were attached to.
- Hoist by His Own Petard:
- Carter Hayes is impaled on gas pipes protruding from the floor—protruding because he himself stole the appliance they were attached to.
- Also, his own tactics are used against him by Patty; his habit of assuming the identity of his last victim is what allows Patty to send him into financial meltdown and get him arrested.
- Hollywood Law: Hayes engages in various outrageous illegal acts against his landlords, who become legal victims as they are thwarted from any recourse by a system of indifferent police, judges and attorneys, as well as Hayes using the loophole. This movie was a nonstop sequence of Hollywood Law and legal victim, as well as vigilante justice as the victims were driven to take the law into their own hands, which the police even stated would be the only real recourse.
- Hypocrite: Hayes rants about how Patty's actions ruined his life by destroying his credit and poking around in his private life, proclaiming that she "crossed the line" even though he did everything he's accusing her of in the first place.
- Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Carter, on a pipe, that he exposed himself. Irony...
- Laser-Guided Karma: In the climax, Carter is impaled on gas pipes which were exposed during his own theft of the appliance they were connected to.
- Never My Fault: Hayes constantly flouts the law and habitually ruins people lives but, when Patty finally turns the tables on him and he experiences some consequences, he blames her for "crossing the line".