Friday, July 31, 2009

Love Thy Neighbor (Marvista/Lifetime, 2006)

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

This morning I saw a quite interesting movie I’d recorded off Lifetime: Love Thy Neighbor, a 2006 production from something called Marvista Entertainment (whose logo was actually a view of a seascape with a rock-like island off to the right side — for once one of these paper production companies picked a logo with some real-world tie to its name!), directed by Paul Schneider from a script by Kraig Wenman and dealing with a woman named Laura Benson (Alexandra Paul, top-billed) who’s raising her teenage daughter Erin (Ksenia Solo) more or less on her own. She and her husband Jim (Gary Hudson) are still together, but his job — he works for a major aviation company flying around the world to sell their civilian planes to airlines — keeps him away from home so much Laura is practically a single mother. A couple of burglars, one identified in the cast list only as “Shooter” (James Binkley) and his accomplice, Jack Kim (Sean Baek), decide to take advantage of her male-free lifestyle and break into her house while she and Erin are alone there; they kill the family dog, Fred, but this alerts the police and they arrive at the house, not in time to catch the burglars but at least in time to scare them into fleeing — and later they do catch the shooter while he’s burglarizing another home and Laura learns from the lead police detective on the case, Zeller (John Bourgeois), that the burglar team previously robbed, raped and killed an 80-year-old woman.

Nonetheless, both Laura and Erin suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and, with at least one of the burglars still at large and threatening to return to keep them from testifying, during one of his occasional returns home Jim (ya remember Jim?) decides that the way to keep his wife and daughter safe is to buy a home in a gated community with built-in burglar alarms, a guard at the front gate and heavy-duty security. Erin decides she likes the new house “except for the Alcatraz stuff,” but not surprisingly, this being a Lifetime movie, the security isn’t enough to deter either Kim (who’s eventually arrested, only to be released on bail) or a new threat to the Bensons: their next-door-neighbor, Janis Rivers (Shannon Lawson), who arrives all chirpy and chipper, baking them a key lime pie to welcome them into the neighborhood and offering to be their best friend. Janis has a daughter, Jenny (Michelle Killoran), who’s Erin’s age and virtually catatonic — it’s all too believable that someone with a relentlessly talkative mother who demands to take charge of any and all social situations would respond by shutting up and essentially shutting down.

It’s not surprising that neither Ksenia Solo nor Michelle Killoran look even remotely like the actors purportedly playing their parents — indeed, Killoran would be more believable as Alexandra Paul’s daughter (since at least they’re both blonde) than as Shannon Lawson’s — but that’s a common movie casting faux pas and it doesn’t affect the film much. Anyway, Janis keeps her game face on, constantly offering quotes from 19th century authors and buddying up to the Bensons — including Jim on his rare returns home — until both Laura and we suddenly see a different side of her when her ex-husband Alan (John Jarvis) shows up to return Jenny after a weekend visitation and Janis goes ballistic over his return late and even more so when he tries to give her an affectionate pat on her shoulder. “Don’t touch me! Don’t you ever touch me!” she snarls, giving us a quite different view of this person than the virtual Stepford Mom we’ve seen before. Things really go into overdrive when both Erin and Jenny try out for the high-school girl’s soccer team; Erin makes it but Jenny doesn’t, and Janis takes Laura out to lunch and in a tearful plea asks Laura to pull Erin off the team to make room for Jenny.

Laura, not surprisingly, refuses — and from then on it’s all-out war as Janis calls in an anonymous (false) report that Erin has been seen taking steroids, forcing her off the team until she can be drug-tested — and when the drug test is about to come back clean, Janis strikes again and tells the school principal that the coach has been having an affair with the mother of one of the students in exchange for giving his paramour’s daughter special treatment. She also fakes a threatening note, made up of words clipped from magazine headlines in the best tradition of 1930’s gangster movies, that purports to come from Kim and threatens that he knows where Laura lives and will come back and kill her the way he did her dog — “Ruff Ruff.” Things really heat up when Janis butchers Laura’s cat (a stray cat wandered in when they were moving in and Erin joked to her mom, “It looks like we’ve been adopted,” words she later used about Janis as well) and confronts her in her home (Laura makes the mistake of turning off all that high-tech security and letting her in, thinking it’s Detective Zeller), beating her up and trying to stab her with a knife and club Erin to death with a fireplace poker — and there’s a hot confrontation scene which ends with Janis falling through a stair rail on the top floor of the house and crashing to the floor below, though the blow only stuns her and she’s taken into custody alive at the end.

Love Thy Neighbor (one wishes they could have found room to play Bing Crosby’s 1934 song of the same title from his film We’re Not Dressing, creating the ironic effect the makers of Watchmen went for when they had the opening murder take place to the strains of Nat “King” Cole’s “Unforgettable”) is a pretty generic example of what Maureen Dowd derisively referred to as Lifetime’s “pussies in peril” movies, but at least it’s well constructed and suspenseful (though Paul Schneider — as if consciously seeking to copy the style of his far more famous near-namesake, Paul Schrader — pretty relentlessly overdirects), and it has one first-rate performance: Shannon Lawson’s as the villainess. The sort of person politely referred to as “a woman of size” — big but not completely unattractive and sufficiently hot that she can bat her eyes (and other things) at security guard Crowley (Rod Crawford) and thereby get him to see her conflicts with Laura her way — Lawson probably didn’t get many offers for roles this big and meaty, and given one she seized every opportunity.

The character basically comes off as a grown-up version of Rhoda Penmark from Maxwell Anderson’s play The Bad Seed (the Production Code Administration mandated that she die in the movie, but in the play she lives while her mom dies), able to conceal her psychopathology under a mask of sweetness and lovability and to turn her nature and her whole affect around on a dime as the spirit moves her, suddenly letting loose the monster underneath the relentlessly chipper perfect-suburbanite exterior. An unhinged woman with a record of assault and domestic violence (“She has a mean right hook,” Zeller warns Laura a few scenes before Laura finds herself on the receiving end of it), whose final descent into madness appears to have been sparked when her ex-husband (the typical lanky, sandy-haired milquetoast Lifetime’s casting department generally likes in roles like this) sued for custody of Jenny and looked like he was about to win, Janis is a vividly written character brought to intense and unforgettable life by Lawson’s finely honed acting.