Monday, June 23, 2014

Stolen from the Womb (Lighthouse Pictures/Borderline Distribution, 2014)

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

Last night I watched the second showing (the night after the so-called “world premiere”) of Lifetime’s latest “pussies in peril” genre piece, Stolen from the Womb — whose very title is a “spoiler.” It’s yet another one about the Psycho Woman from Hell, who in this case is Chelsey Miller (Laura Mennell), a dark-haired beauty who works as a real-estate agent and has a husband, Jesse (the nicely hunky Corey Sevier), who owns a construction firm in the town of Pineville in what’s pretty obviously Vancouver, British Columbia, standing in for the U.S. Pacific Northwest. In the opening sequence Chelsey is in the hospital at the end of a pregnancy, only the baby is stillborn (the script by Vivian Rhodes and Jennifer Notas makes the usual confusion between a miscarriage — a pregnancy that ends spontaneously before it goes full-term — and a stillbirth, which is what we see here: the pregnancy runs the full term and the baby is born, but is dead at birth). Then we get a “Two Years Later” title and we eventually learn that Chelsey had two more pregnancies that went wrong — miscarriages instead of stillbirths this time — and her doctors have warned her that getting pregnant again will be dangerous for her health. Their failed attempts at reproduction have so strained the Millers’ marriage that Jesse has moved out, but apparently their last tumble in bed together produced at least a conception, and Chelsey uses the promise of a baby at long last to win Jesse more or less back into the relationship. She joins a pregnancy-training class headed by a yoga instructor (Heather Feeney) — just why modern-day women are supposed to need so much training for something that’s a natural part of female life and which women had been doing for hundreds of thousands of years pretty much on their own before doctors came along and “medicalized” it is a mystery — and there she meets the Good Girl, Diane King (Larisa Oleynik). She and her husband Rob (Sebastian Spence, who played the Psycho from Hell himself in a previous Lifetime movie, The Obsession, in which he was a crazed ballet teacher trying to get in the pants of his underage star student; he wasn’t particularly impressive in that role — I wrote in my notes on that film that the part “needed tall, dark and handsome and got sandy-haired, pasty-faced, buff but only moderately attractive” — but he was a lot more interesting there than playing the gooder-than-good suburban husband he is here) are expecting their first child and hanging out a lot with her friend Paula, her husband and their children. (“Once you have one of your own, you won’t spend so much time doting on mine,” a rather exasperated Paula tells Diane.)

Chelsey and Diana befriend each other at the yoga class, but Chelsey doesn’t stay pregnant very long: she has yet another miscarriage, but she starts padding herself out (the scene in which she abandons the cushion she’s been using for this purpose and puts on the medical prosthesis she’s ordered to make it more convincing is one of the most chilling in the film), continues to pass herself off as pregnant, and hatches a nasty and malignant plot: bereft of a fetus of her own, she’s going to kidnap Diane just as Diane is about to give birth and claim Diane’s baby as hers. Alas, though that only happens in the last half-hour of this film and is supposed to be a Big Surprise, Lifetime’s promos (and indeed the title itself) gave it away big-time and left the audience (this audience, anyway) sitting rather impatiently through the intervening parts of the movie, blowing what was supposed to be a slow, suspenseful buildup in the Rhodes-Notas script and Terry Ingram’s workmanlike but uninspired direction and wondering, “When is Chelsey going to kidnap Diane already?” The last half-hour at least is appropriately chilling — Chelsey drugs Diane at a roadside café (and leaves Diane’s cell phone there, which makes it absurdly easy for her husband and the cops to trace her) and takes her to a deserted house in Brewster, a five-hour drive from Pineville (Chelsey knew it would be deserted because the company she works for was trying to rent it out). When Diane comes to, Chelsey has strapped her to a bed in a classic bondage pose and is ready to help her deliver her baby — she’s got a bunch of medical tools at the foot of the bed and plans a D.I.Y. delivery — only Diane convinces Chelsey (truthfully) that the baby developed a hernia while in Diane’s womb and the doctors had planned to do a C-section and operate on the kid as soon as they “untimely ripped” him from mom’s body. Thinking she can pass herself off as a woman who’s just given birth, Chelsey smears some of Diane’s blood between her own legs and takes the baby (a boy Diane and Rob were planning to name Johnny — after Johnny Appleseed[1] — but Chelsey wanted to name Alexander, after her stillborn daughter Alexandra) to the hospital — where, by sheer coincidence (or authorial fiat), Diane has also been taken after a neighbor taking out his garbage, heard her screaming, called 911 and thereby made it possible for Rob and the police to rescue her. Eventually Chelsey is sedated and taken into custody, the baby boy is operated on and Diane finally gets her child back — while the final scene is Chelsey in a mental ward (obviously the justice system has decided she’s too bonkers to stand trial for kidnapping), holding a doll and talking to it as if it were a real-life baby.

Stolen from the Womb probably wouldn’t seem so mediocre if Lifetime hadn’t done a far better film on the same theme eight years ago: that one was called Cries in the Dark and, despite the rather generic horror-thriller title, came off as far superior. Though Cries in the Dark is considerably more gruesome than Stolen from the Womb — its writer, Kraig Wenman, actually had the bad girl murder the expectant mom and literally steal her baby from the womb (it was established that the villainess in that one was a dental hygenist and had learned enough to do D.I.Y. surgery) — it was also a far more exciting thriller, excellently directed by Paul Schneider and with stellar performances from Eve LaRue Callahan as the victim’s sister, a cop; and Adrian Holmes as her police partner, a drop-dead gorgeous African-American detective named Darrell Wynn. (I posted a review of Cries in the Dark to and pleaded with Dick Wolf to hire Holmes as Christopher Meloni’s replacement if and when Meloni left Law and Order: Special Victims Unit — alas, Wolf wasn’t listening and instead hired the unspeakably awful Danny Pino for the role!) Next to Cries in the Dark, Stolen from the Womb is a lot more flat and ordinary, sucking up to the usual Lifetime clichés instead of transcending them — and with one rather odd bit of typecasting that rankled me a bit. Remember how in the old “B” Westerns the good guys wore the white hats and rode the white horses, while the bad guys wore the black hats and rode the black horses? Well, in Stolen from the Womb — as in a lot of other Lifetime movies — the good girl is blonde and the bad girl is dark-haired. To the extent that anything redeems Stolen from the Womb, it’s Laura Mennell’s cool performance as the psycho — writers Rhodes and Notas help the actress out by not making her too evil too soon, allowing her to seem sympathetic and also keeping her sufficiently in control that she can still do her job and perform effectively at work (all too many movie psychos act so flamboyantly “off” one wonders how they can keep a job!) even while manipulating the people around her. But it’s the sort of actor’s triumph that makes one wish Laura Mennell would get either a sympathetic role or at least a more interesting, complicated villain in her next film!

[1] — A private joke between them: they learned the gender of their baby-to-be at the stage in pregnancy when the fetus is the size of an appleseed, and thereby nicknamed him “Johnny” — which stuck.