Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Kidnapping in the Family (Michele Brustin Productions, Rysher, Scripps Howard, ABC, 1996)

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

The movie I was watching this morning was A Kidnapping in the Family, one of Lifetime’s recyclings of a TV-movie originally made for ABC in 1996, at (or actually a little past) the controversy over ritual Satanic abuse of children and the craziness that led people to believe that certain women had volunteered as “breeders” for Satanic cults to generate children that the cult members could ritually abuse and then sacrifice. Supposedly based on a true story — though the melodramatics of David Birke’s script made it difficult to believe — A Kidnapping in the Family deals with the dysfunctional relationship between DeDe Cooper (Kate Jackson) and her 22-year-old daughter, Sarah Landers (Tracey Gold, whose curly blonde locks make her almost unbelievable as brunette Jackson’s daughter), who’s living at home following her divorce from Chris Landers (Matt Hill), a hot-looking but also rather dim blond who looks more like Sarah’s younger brother than her ex-husband.

During their teen marriage they produced a son, Kyle (Robert Bishop), whom DeDe and Sarah are fighting over — the film opens with Kyle’s fifth birthday party and Sarah brings him a present but DeDe brings him a better one and mom feels upstaged by grandma again! After a flaming argument in which DeDe lays down the as-long-as-you’re-under-my-roof-you’ll-live-by-my-rules law, Sarah decides to walk out then and there, finding a temporary place with her father and Alisa (Chilton Crane), the woman her dad married after he and DeDe broke up, getting a job at a video store and rebuilding her life. She also stops bar-hopping and builds a more-or-less serious relationship with computer programmer Jack Taylor (Jeff Yagher, whose shoulder-length hair makes it look like he was auditioning for a Jimmy Page biopic and got cast in this by mistake, but who’s still great fun to look at — both he and Matt Hill are considerably hotter than the guys who get cast in Lifetime’s own movies these days!), whom she agrees to marry mainly because Kyle needs a father and having a husband and a stable home life will make the courts look more kindly on her in her custody battle with her mom for Kyle.

In the meantime, Kyle has told a story about a devil sticking him with a hot poker, and as a result her mom comes to the conclusion that he’s being sexually abused by a Satanic cult; that Sarah is willingly handing over her kid to the cult and watching as the cult members abuse him; and that the reverend of the local church is the true head (the “Satanic avatar,” explains a loony-tunes cult “expert” who’s called in as a consultant by the police) of the cult and using his public identity as a man of God to cover up his real one as a man of the Devil. Fortunately, since Kyle is the only witness to any of this, Sarah is able to prove her innocence by sneaking back into her mom’s house (she still has the key!) and stealing the tapes on which DeDe was coaching Kyle on what to say to make the ritual abuse story stick and provide the “evidence” that she needs to take her grandson away from his mom permanently.

When Sarah gets the tapes, she plays them for the family court judge and gets her kid back, and then a year elapses — she’s now married to Taylor and pregnant with his biological child, but mom hasn’t given up and she hooks up with a representative from an organization called “Project Shepherd” that operates a nationwide underground railroad devoted to hiding kids from abusing parents. The rest of the movie consists of DeDe’s struggle — along with her daughter Josie (Sarah’s younger sister) — to keep Kyle hidden from Sarah, and Sarah’s efforts to find her despite the strain this puts on her marriage to Jack and her ability to parent her younger son (and, not surprisingly, at one point she blurts out that the only reason she married Jack was to provide Kyle a father — and she accuses Jack of not caring about Kyle because he’s not his biological son) — including the tabloid TV shows she goes on to try to keep the case before the public, leading to a final climax in a train station in Portland in which DeDe and Josie have both been arrested but they’ve turned over Kyle to a Project Shepherd representative and Sarah and the FBI agents investigating the kidnapping (under the post-Lindbergh laws from the early 1930’s that made kidnapping a federal crime if the victim was transported over state lines) have to find the man and the boy in the train station before they can disappear with Kyle forever, place him with a foster home, change his name and hide him permanently. Sarah leaps onto the train at the last moment and chases the balding middle-aged man who’s holding Kyle, alerting the police just in time before the train departs.

It’s a nice suspense ending, though a bit pat, and the film overall is entertaining despite the overwrought melodramatics of Birke’s script and Colin Bucksey’s direction. It helps that the acting is good; Tracey Gold makes Sarah’s transitions from irresponsible playgirl to committed mom to avenging lioness utterly convincing, and Kate Jackson (who always struck me as the best actress of the three original Charlie’s Angels stars — Jaclyn Smith always struck me as the best-looking one of the bunch but Jackson clearly had the acting chops) matches her in her descent from concerned parent to implacable revenge figure, utterly convinced of her own rectitude and determined to the last not to yield to Sarah’s entreaties to help her find Kyle (though Josie, less committed to the Cause, ultimately breaks down and gives Sarah the information that enables her to find her son at last). A Kidnapping in the Family is the sort of movie that has a strong enough story that even the overwrought melodramatics of the script and direction can’t take away from its basic strength.