Sunday, March 2, 2014

Happy Face Killer (Front Street Pictures/Lifetime, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a Lifetime movie together, Happy Face Killer, more or less based on a true story — I say “more or less” because one of the key characters in the version Lifetime showed as a dramatization was totally invented, though some of the factual details Richard Christian Matheson worked into his screenplay weren’t in the “Behind the Headlines” documentary on the same crimes Lifetime showed after it (actually a Bill Kurtis production from 2004), including the killer’s love of torturing animals to death when he was still a boy and his interest in becoming a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The completely invented character was FBI special agent Melinda Gand (Gloria Reuben, a compactly built young woman who turns in an effective performance as a woman on the defensive not only about her status in the department — at one point her immediate superior asks her out on a dinner date and she defensively points out that she could consider that sexual harassment — as well as the usual turf wars between the FBI and local law enforcement even though they presumably want the same thing, to catch the criminal), who takes jurisdiction when the first victim, bar hanger-on Sissy Peyton (Emily Haine), turns out to have been killed in Washington state but dumped across the border in Oregon, thereby giving the FBI jurisdiction. In reality, at least according to the Kurtis documentary, the FBI never got involved in the case of the “Happy Face Killer,” t/n Keith Hunter Jesperson (David Arquette, who’s so ruggedly handsome in the role it’s no surprise he turns out to be the villain; usually Lifetime’s good guys these days are tall, lanky, sandy-haired guys of nondescript appearance and no particular sex appeal). Jesperson, like his real-life counterpart, was born in Canada but grew up across the border in Washington, where his parents moved while he was still a child, and though there are eerie flashbacks to some of his childhood crimes against animals (like bashing a pigeon’s head in with a hammer and putting a live cat in a microwave) while he’s committing his adult crimes against humans, the twin triggers that seem to have set him off were receiving a letter from the RCMP that his application had been denied and a hand-written hand-delivered note from his wife that she was leaving him. The real Jesperson had a kind of blond teddy-bearish appeal as a young man but was considerably more zaftig than David Arquette — and as he grew older his face and body hardened into the stereotypical image of a truckdriver, which is how he made his living — thereby giving him the opportunity to move around from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, while he had enough street smarts (presumably gained from his study of criminology in preparation for the Mountie exam) to vary his M.O. each time so it took the authorities two years to realize they had a serial killer on their hands.

But the real curveball that got thrown to law enforcement — in life as well as in Matheson’s script — was the confession of a totally unrelated person to the first murder. Delores Pavlinac (Kelly-Ruth Mercier), a middle-aged grandmother, grandly informed the police that her ne’er-do-well boyfriend had committed the crime (in real life her first name was Laverne and her boyfriend was John Sosnovske, though he had a different name in the film — in fact, all the characters except Jesperson himself had their names changed, presumably, in the words of the old Dragnet tag line, “to protect the innocent”), and as she embroidered her story she turned from an unwilling witness to a willing participant in the rape, torture and murder of Jesperson’s first victim. This got so under Jesperson’s skin that, while still doing everything he could to elude capture, he left a message on a restroom wall confessing to the crime and including a detail the cops had not released to the media (the victim’s fly had been cut off her jeans by the killer and kept as a souvenir) and also started making a diary on videotape — though the authorities in Multnomah County, Washington doggedly insisted that Sosnovske and Pavlinac were guilty of the first murder despite the series of notes Jesperson kept writing various officials and media outlets saying he had done it — and signing them with the same “smiley face” emblem he had drawn on his victims’ bodies either in their own lipstick or their own blood. There’s a sort of backhanded social critique of the whole concept of police interrogation — the extent to which sufficiently determined cops can wrest confessions even out of the totally innocent — and also an intriguing motive for Pavlinac to lie: apparently Sosnovske had physically abused her and she thought if she could get him sent up for murder, that would be her way out of her abusive relationship. Happy Face Killer is a good, workmanlike Lifetime thriller, powered by good performances by Arquette and Reuben — indeed, Reuben’s character would probably be a good candidate for a TV series if that could be done without the producers admitting that she’s completely fictional — and about the only fault I’d find with it is it’s way too gory; Matheson and director Rick Bota avoid the kinds of Lewtonian stylistics that could have made their movie more watchable and actually scarier, in favor of an almost clinical approach that shows what Jesperson did to the eight women he killed in such graphic detail one wishes the Production Code people were still around to prohibit the depiction of “imitable details of crime” in a film.