Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Wicked (Flipped Out Productions, 1998)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I spent most of the earlier part of the morning watching Wicked, a 1998 movie (apparently a movie-movie, though I was watching it on a recording from the Lifetime channel) starring Julia Stiles as Ellie Christianson, older of the two daughters of Ben (William R. Moses, one of the blankly sort-of handsome sandy-haired lanky guys Lifetime usually casts as its male leads) and Karen (Chelsea Field) Christianson. They live in Casa del Norte, a gated community that turns out to be such a hotbed of sexual experimentation and moral busy-bodiness that Peyton Place looks like a convent by comparison. Ben is having an affair with the family’s blonde maid, Lena Anderson (Louise Myrback) — who looks like she could be Ellie’s older sister even though she doesn’t have one — while his wife is sleeping with (or at least getting fucked by) Lawson Smith (Patrick Muldoon, a much hotter guy than William R. Moses), who as the film opens is getting dumped by his wife, who’s leaving him and taking the kids with him because he’s so irresponsible economically. (When they leave they do so in a yellow moving van labeled “Ryker” — obviously the Ryder company didn’t want their product placed in such a kinky movie.)

The synopsis on the Lifetime Web site suggested a good-bad movie in which Ellie takes over her mom’s role after her mom’s death and even gets her dad to have sex with her — and that plot thread is indeed there, but there’s a lot of other stuff as well. About a third of the way through mom doesn’t just die, she’s murdered by a carefully unshown person beating her to death with a ceramic Greek “tragedy” mask, after her window is shattered by a golf ball — which implicates Lawson because all he seems to do all day (besides have affairs) is practice golfing. Ellie not only makes it to bed with her dad, she also starts bossing her younger sister Inger (Vanessa Zima) around just like mom used to, and when dad ultimately rejects her and marries Lena (who’s established as a legal immigrant whose work visa is about to expire, so no matter how it looks to the rest of the community she has to marry him in a hurry so she can legally stay in the U.S.) she has a hissy-fit, getting drunk at the wedding, passing out, spending the night in a sand bar at the local golf course and getting herself picked up by Lawson, who allows her to go in another direction that her mom went before her.

The filmmakers, director Michael Steinberg (who relentlessly overdirects this movie, doing a lot of dizzying panning that’s supposed to represent Ellie’s point of view and being utterly unable to build up any suspense because he’s constantly interrupting sequences with flashy camera angles and inexplicably wrenching edits) and writer Eric Weiss (I was amused that the screenplay for this was written by a guy with the same “real” name, except for the omission of the “h” at the end of “Eric,” as Houdini!), can’t seem themselves to decide which direction they want to take the story in — and the ending is really frustrating; the local police officer, Detective Boland (an aged, bloated Michael Parks), catches Ellie and Lawson together with blood on them and shoots Lawson dead — without any attempt to stop him or take him alive (as if one of the services this gated community offers is summary execution of any criminal caught in the act, without any bothersome ideas about due process getting in the way).

Ellie is also dead when the detective checks out the scene after shooting Lawson, and it’s left ambiguous whether Lawson killed Ellie because she wouldn’t run away with him (as he earlier may have killed Ellie’s mom because she wouldn’t run away with him) or whether Ellie was the real murderer of her mom (implied by the presence of the murder weapon and her mom’s wedding ring in Ellie’s orange suitcase, the one she was periodically packing and threatening to leave with) and was herself killed by her sister Inger, who in the film’s last ambiguous closeup is shown holding the “comedy” mask — the matched one from the set whose “tragedy” mask was used to kill her mom — and gazing hatefully at her new stepmother, as if she’s going to repeat the cycle and herself kill her (step)mother and seduce her father.

There was an intriguing film clip representing a movie Ellie is watching on TV — a blonde woman driving in a car through a ferocious rainstorm — that at first I thought was from Hitchcock’s Psycho (which would have been appropriate, since that film is also about a person who kills his mother and takes her place), but the site reports that the blonde woman is actually Candace Hilligoss and the film is Carnival of Souls — though Steinberg would have been well advised to take Hitchcock’s relative restraint as a model for his own directorial style instead of putting us through so many bizarre pans and other camera effects that just took away from the kinky pleasures of the story he was trying to tell — and frankly Eric Weiss would have been better off if, instead of having the mother be murdered, she’d just died (of cancer or some other long-term disease), with Ellie having gradually taken over her mom’s role as mom weakened and then offered herself to her dad as a substitute after mom died.