Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Obsession (LIfetime, 2006)

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

I also spent a good chunk of the morning watching a TV-movie I recently recorded from Lifetime, The Obsession (not to be confused with Obsessed, which was actually a better-than-average and genuinely clever Lifetime production which for the first half led us up the garden path and appeared to be about a woman stalking a well-known surgeon because he’d had an adulterous affair with her and then abandoned her, and only in the second half was it revealed that the woman was delusional and the affair had only existed in her head). This one was sort of The Climax meets Lolita: Deborah Matthews (Daphne Zuniga), a career-obsessed architect, is in the process of divorcing her husband Jason (Nels Lennarson, billed fifth — which seems oddly high since he only makes brief appearances at the beginning and end of the film) when the movie opens. She’s a busy architect and he’s already left town for a job on a boat in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico (it’s never quite made clear by writer Christopher Morro just what this job entails), and her daughter Erika (Elise Gatien) is upset that her parents have finally broken up and even more upset that she learned about it by seeing the case file in her mom’s bag. “When were you going to tell me?” she asks, understandably.

The 16-year-old Erika is also an aspiring ballet dancer of unusual talent (at least so we’re told; in the dance routines we actually see she sort of clumps around on point, making the moves but not showing much in the way of grace), whose coach, Leonard Capas (Herbert Beaverstone), suddenly quits the ballet school a week before Erika’s big audition for a career-making internship with Ballet America. Fortunately — or so it seems — the school’s owner, Mrs. Darnell (Patricia Dalquist), lands a replacement almost immediately: Reed Halton (Sebastian Spence), a (relatively) young and hunky ex-dancer who took up coaching a year and a half before after his wife, also a dancer, was killed in a hit-and-run accident by a drunk driver; he explains his knee was injured in the same incident and he had to give up performing as a result. Reed insinuates himself into the lives of both female Matthewses, putting Erika through an intense, grinding practice routine to hone her skills for the audition and in the process changing most of Capas’s choreography in order to make it more openly spectacular and impressive to the Ballet America judges; and making a play for Deborah and actually getting her to have sex with him (her first time since hubby left nearly a year before).

Needless to say, we know that Reed Halton is up to no good well before any of the other characters do — the smoldering glances he casts at Erika as she dances for him are indication enough — though when Deborah and her girlfriend from work, Linda Irving (Jenny Levine), do an Internet search on him they find that he’s got a criminal record as a sex offender: he was the drunk driver responsible for his wife’s death after she tried to leave him, he continued to stalk her, and she took out a restraining order on him which he, of course, ignored. What’s more, Reed — acquiring the almost supernatural power of many Lifetime villains — killed Capas in his home and faked it to look like a suicide, typed up Capas’ “resignation” letter and printed it out on the same computer he used to print his own application for Capas’ job, and had been stalking Deborah and Erika for a year and a half. He was even responsible for the breakup of Deborah’s marriage, since he planted a condom wrapper in Deborah’s husband’s car and used Photoshop to fake a picture of Deborah’s husband kissing another woman and e-mailed it to Deborah, thereby leaving her accusing him of having an affair while he, who really hadn’t been, hadn’t the slightest idea of what she was talking about.

In the end, the cops unravel it all after homicide detective Phil Mackey (William MacDonald) realizes that Capas was actually murdered, and they offer the Matthewses protection — which Reed eludes by luring Mackey to a trap, knocking him out and stealing his car (though, being one of those movie crooks who’s brilliant in some respects and stupid in others, he neglects to steal Mackey’s cell phone or gun!), then heading to the Matthews home for a final confrontation, in which she threatens to murder Deborah unless Erika goes off with him and becomes his lover — she agrees, or at least pretends to, to keep her mom alive until the police, alerted by Mackey once he came to, arrive and shoot Reed dead when he shows up in the doorway with his knife and refuses to drop it. (Since his weapon was a knife without a gun, they could have shot him in the legs and incapacitated him, then taken him alive, but it seems Christopher Morro was more interested in satisfying his audience’s thirst for revenge than giving his villain a shot at due process. The hint of The Climax comes in Reed’s scrapbook, which at least suggests that the reason he obsessed over Erika was that she reminded him of his dead wife, but the gap in writing quality between Morro’s script and either The Climax or Lolita only underscores the gap in acting skills between Sebastian Spence and the people who played this part in The Climax and the two films of Lolita: Boris Karloff, James Mason and Jeremy Irons.

The Obsession is one of those frustrating movies that takes a highly provocative premise and gets only the most superficial dramatic and entertainment values out of it, and director David Winkler doesn’t indulge in any of the oddball angles and “flanging” effects that make some Lifetime movies almost unwatchable but he doesn’t bring much in the way of suspense or thrills either — and, quite frankly, the nicest-looking male in the film is not Sebastian Spence (the role of Reed Halton needed tall, dark and handsome and got sandy-haired, pasty-faced, buff but only moderately attractive) but Nolan Funk as Erika’s boyfriend Jesse, who gets stabbed by Reed in the dressing room of Erika’s audition after Reed’s given Erika the you-have-to-give-your-all-for-art-and-you-can’t-waste-your-time-on-a-man lecture Boris Karloff gave Susanna Foster in The Climax and Anton Walbrook gave Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes (which one imdb.com poster counterpointed to The Obsession as the best and worst films ever made about ballet, respectively); Funk’s a bit on the gawky side but he has a nice face, and as Reed’s true nature comes out Winkler’s direction and Adam Sliwinski’s cinematography on Funk become more flattering, the better to make him seem like a preferable alternative for Erika to her ballet-teacher psychopath. One credit that jolted me at first was “Original Music by Peter Allen” — “Just how old is this movie?” I asked myself before realizing that this must have been another Peter Allen!