Sunday, May 4, 2014

A Daughter’s Nightmare (Sepia/Lifetime, 2014)

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

I watched the “world premiere” of a Lifetime TV-movie called, in the best tradition of Christine Conradt’s titling strategies even though she didn’t write this one, A Daughter’s Nightmare. It’s one of those Lifetime productions (the company is credited as “Sepia Films,” even though the movie is actually in color) that takes place in Washington state so the actual shoot can be just across the border in British Columbia, Canada (specifically the town of Kelowna), and it starts at the funeral where the heroine, Dana (Victoria Pratt), is burying her husband after he lost a long battle with lung cancer. The main attendees are Dana’s daughter Ariel (a quite good Emily Osment) and the late husband’s veterinarian brother Cameron (Richard Karn), though in the background we see a heavy-set man lurking around. When next we see him we learn that his name is Adam Smith (Paul Johansson, physically well cast in that he’s not drop-dead gorgeous but he looks good enough to come off as a plausible romantic partner for Dana) and that he has a nice-looking but disturbed young son (stepson, actually, a point screenwriter Shelley Gillen is careful to make) named Ben (played by the quite hot Gregg Sulkin in a performance that avoids the twin traps of playing a psycho — the obvious wall-crawling one of Lawrence Tierney and the ridiculously boyish approach of Anthony Perkins in Psycho), whom Adam has taken to a therapist (Janet Anderson) and who resists being labeled as having a mental illness. Ben and Ariel attend the same college, and since Ariel makes it a point of going home to mom’s place every weekend, Adam makes it a point of giving Ariel a ride so he can meet Dana, whom he intends to start dating.

Of course, being the male protagonist of what Maureen Dowd called a “pussies-in-peril” movie, his intentions are considerably darker than that, though Gillen and director/cinematographer Vic Sarin (whose name in the credits led me to joke, “Oh, no! It’s directed by a poison gas!”) take their time letting us know just what they are. They do make a point that Adam had wanted to become a doctor, only his grades weren’t good enough for medical school so he became an ER nurse instead — which gives him a point of commonality with Ariel, who’s studying to be a vet like her uncle — and it also gives him an entrée with Dana. He meets Dana at a grief group Ariel told him she was attending — when the sequence started and she introduced herself with a full name, and was told, “First names only, here,” I joked, “My name is Dana and I’m an alco- — oops, wrong group.” They start dating and he starts doing things like bringing her breakfast in bed and giving her something called “wellness tea,” explaining that he gets it from a Chinese herb shop and it has to be steeped for precisely eight minutes, no more, no less. With their parents quickly on their way to item-hood Ariel and Ben find themselves seeing a lot of each other, too, though Ben’s occasional outbursts of movie-psycho twitchiness (including slamming his fist into a dorm-room mirror) make her skittish about getting too deeply involved with him. As the relationship between Adam and Dana progresses, Dana’s state of health declines; she starts feeling weak and her eyesight gets worse, and Adam says the only cure is rest and she ought to stay in bed, relax, and drink some more of that tea. Meanwhile, while on a date with Ariel, Ben suddenly tries to cross a street against a red light, and when she catches up to him and spares him from long-term damage he explains that he suffers from color-blindness and tunnel vision, facts he didn’t want to share with her previously for fear she wouldn’t want to date him if he seemed “disabled.”

Things come to a head on Ariel’s birthday, after Adam has scored two tickets to a Dixie Chicks concert for that night and wants Dana to go as his date (the use of a real band name in a movie like this is a bit of a surprise, even though the concert sequence consists of a few snatches of instrumental music and two women with guitars photographed exclusively from behind), and when she protests that she can’t possibly leave her daughter alone on Ariel’s birthday, Adam offers the ticket to Ariel and says he’ll give the other one to her mom. Of course, he doesn’t — instead he gives it to Ben and the two young sort-of lovebirds sit through the concert rather glumly — leaving Dana to think her daughter stood her up on their annual big night and also leaving her alone with Adam, who’s out to do with her something dire the writers still haven’t made clear. Ultimately Ben’s eye starts to hemorrhage and Ariel takes him to the emergency room, where the doctor who sees him tells him his eye problems are due to the ultra-high doses he’s been receiving of a drug called Ethambutol. This drug, which really exists (I took down the name so I could do a Web search later and find if it was a real drug or Shelley Gillen made it up), is an antibiotic specific for tuberculosis and mycobacterial infections, and is important enough as an anti-tubercular that it’s on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines every basic health system should have. Unfortunately, its adverse (“side”) effects include optic neuritis, red-green colorblindness, peripheral neuropathy, hepatotoxicity, arthralgia and other nasty-sounding things, including “milk skin reaction.” Even before the ER doctor finds Ben full of higher-than-normal levels of Ethambutol (without any evidence in his body of TB, MAI or the other infections it’s supposed to fight) Ariel has guessed Adam is poisoning her mom — only she makes a mistake; she steals the leftovers from the breakfast Adam made her, which test normally, not realizing that he’s administering Dana Ethambutol in that so-called “wellness tea.” It also turns out his motive is false Munchhausen’s syndrome — though it’s not clear if Adam wants to make the people close to him (including his previous two wives, one of whom died under his ministrations — the fact that he told Dana his wife died of TB should have been a giveaway) sick so he can “cure” them or he’s a psycho who wants to kill them.

In the end, A Daughter’s Nightmare builds to a Conradtian climax in which Adam takes Dana to a deserted cabin by a mountain lake, while Ben (now that we know he’s not the crazy one — his stepdad is) and Ariel go out to try to trace her (they find out where he is by calling drugstores to see if anyone has just filled an Ethambutol prescription — information no pharmacist would actually give out, given medical confidentiality and all that) and Adam confronts Ariel and comes close to strangling her before the cops arrive at last and arrest him for the murder of his previous wife and also Cameron, Dana’s former brother-in-law, who had a history of heart attacks and therefore was particularly vulnerable to the effects of Ethambutol. There’s also an intriguing character named Brooks (Jaden Rain), a pre-pubescent boy who always seems to be staring at Adam just when he’s doing something intimidating — including wondering how he’s going to dispose of the corpse of Max, his dog, whom he killed with Ethambutol, apparently to test it or something. Though there are a few familiar Lifetime-style plot holes in Gillen’s script, it’s actually a quite chilling suspense tale, made more interesting by the absence of much in the way of outright violence (Adam is essentially a poisoner rather than a thug, and it makes him a considerably more interesting villain), the ambiguity over Adam’s motives and the nice reversal that that hot young man the young girl is dating isn’t the crazy one in his family — his (step)dad is. It also helps in the verisimilitude department that Victoria Pratt and Emily Osment look enough like each other to be credible as mother and daughter (though, oddly, Paul Johansson and Gregg Sulkin also resemble each other enough that they’d be credible as father and son even though the script tells us they’re not biologically related). A Mother’s Nightmare is not a great movie, but it’s a genuinely chilling thriller, several cuts above the Lifetime norm.