Sunday, July 6, 2014

Killing Daddy (Reel One Films 6/Lifetime, 2014)

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

The film was Killing Daddy, billed as a “World Premiere” on Lifetime’s “Saturday Night SoCial” feature — and for some bizarre reason inflicted with a 24-hour countdown credit for their series Witches of East End, which is supposed to be having its season premiere tonight. This credit hovered uncertainly and annoyingly over the action on the upper right corner of the screen — and one wonders what the marketing philosophy is behind inflicting so many on-screen promos on viewers that they literally get in the way of the program you’re airing now. Killing Daddy was a pretty typical Lifetime plot line: a monumentally dysfunctional family consisting of daddy George Ross (William R. Moses), his two daughters — nice girl Laura (Tori Anderson) and bad girl Callie (short for Calista) (Elizabeth Gillies, top-billed) ­— and his long-time housekeeper, Emma Granger (Cynthia Stevenson), who it’s intimated became George Ross’s lover after his wife went crazy and died in a mental institution. When the film opens we’re in Independence, Missouri, where Callie is living; she tries to run out on a motel bill by offering to have sex with the desk clerk — “Just give me 10 minutes,” she tells him — only before she can execute the clean getaway she wanted those 10 minutes for there’s a savage knock on her door which turns out to be from her ex-boyfriend Jake Watkins (Sebastian Pigott, easily the hottest guy in the film). Jake and the desk clerk end up fighting each other and Callie makes her escape by stealing Jake’s SUV — only to abandon it in the middle of the woods when it runs out of gas. Eventually she makes her way to Philadelphia, where she grew up — the writer, Trent Haaga, doesn’t bother to tell us how — and where her daddy has just had a stroke which has rendered him helpless: he’s still conscious but he’s unable to walk or speak. He’s released from the hospital, where his doctors are stunned that his family has refused their offer of a professional caregiver and insist they can look after him themselves. Laura and Emma do a responsible job taking care of him, while Callie comes in and offers to relieve them — then spends just about every moment with him yelling at him, accusing him of ruining her life, and psychologically torturing him as much as possible, knowing that she can shriek at him to her heart’s content and he can’t do a damned thing either to stop her or defend herself. Eventually Callie hatches a plot to kill daddy (well, the title gives it away so it’s not really a spoiler, is it?) and gain his multi-million dollar fortune. There’s the minor little detail that he’s written a will disinheriting her, but Callie has a solution for that: she seduces her dad’s attorney, Hanover (Tom Barnett), secretly films them having sex with her smartphone, then threatens to show the video to Hanover’s wife unless he shreds the will and probates an earlier one in which daddy split his $11 million estate evenly between his daughters and gave only a token $100,000 payment to his faithful housekeeper.

Just as Callie is leaving Hanover’s room and getting back into her car, she encounters Jake, who tells her that thanks to her escapade back in Independence he owes $10,000 to some drug dealers for the consignment of crystal meth he had in the back of his SUV when she stole it, and he demands immediate repayment. Callie promises him $25,000 if he will kill her dad for her, and while Callie and Emma are watching an American Idol-style TV show in the living room, Jake sneaks into the house (I think Callie simply left the front door open for him), manages to make it silently up the stairs to dad’s room, smothers him with a pillow and then leaves, though not before making an obnoxious and loud demand for his money forthwith that risks betraying his presence and blowing the whole thing. What Callie doesn’t realize is that Jake recorded her solicitation of her dad’s murder on his smartphone, and he threatens to blackmail her with the recording unless she gets more money from dad’s estate and gets it pronto. She offers to meet him at his motel and ends up killing him — the approach she makes to him, in which she appears to be offering him sex and shoots him instead, is one of the most chilling moments in Curtis James Crawford’s intriguing and suspenseful direction — and burning the motel down to make it look like he died in a fire. From then on Killing Daddy is a tale of how Callie is eventually going to be found out and brought to justice, and how many more people she’s going to kill before that happens — and the script shows Callie as mean-spirited and gratuitously cruel, notably to Emma, whom she ordered out of the family home even though Emma recalls that George Ross promised to leave it to her. “Daddy lied,” Callie says matter-of-factly. Emma finally pieces it together when she sees a story on TV about the motel fire that contains a photo of Jake, whom she recognizes as the man she saw lurking around the church during George Ross’s funeral, and Callie confronts her and says that it’s her own damned fault Callie is going to have to kill her — “You wouldn’t leave well enough alone! You had to keep digging!” Emma says that Callie killing her isn’t going to do any good because she’s already left a phone message for Laura, who was flying to China on a business trip but will get the message as soon as she arrives, and at the end Callie is cornered by Emma and Hanover, who manage to convince her she’s crazy just like her mom was; eventually she’s taken into custody but found to be bonkers enough she’s going to spend the rest of her life in a mental institution instead of in prison.

Killing Daddy is a frustrating movie because it’s quite good as it stands but could have been considerably better; Elizabeth Gillies turns in a first-rate performance within the limits of what the script has to offer her, but it doesn’t offer her very much. The big problem with Killing Daddy is that Callie is such a one-dimensional villainess; though Crawford and Haaga are talented enough to play a bit of the double game Alfred Hitchcock and his writers were so good at —making us sort-of root for the villain and at the same time feel guilty for doing so — we’re never given even a shred of sympathy for Callie. Through much of the movie I thought it was going to be revealed that Callie’s dad molested her when she was a kid — a plot twist Lifetime has used so often it’s become one of their more annoying clichés but one which in this story would have least given us a reason to feel sorry for her instead of seeing her as just a relentless, amoral monster. Instead the big payoff we’re given at the end to explain Callie is that she inherited her mom’s mental illness (does anyone out there still seriously believe mental illness is hereditary?), and the final scene shows her sitting cross-legged in the rec room of a mental hospital, babbling to herself, now totally out of it (a pretty obvious borrowing from the final scene of Anthony Perkins in Psycho, in “Mom” persona boasting that her son Norman “wouldn’t hurt a fly”). At least we get to heave a sigh of relief that both Laura and Emma survive the events of the story — the only two people Callie actually kills are a stroke victim who’s near death anyway (and who’s been reduced to such a pathetic death-in-life state it’s arguable that his demise is really a deliverance) and a belligerent creep we’ve been led to hate even more than we hate her. (That’s Lifetime for you; every time they cast a genuinely sexy male he’s a bad guy, and a violent, mean, stupid bad guy at that.) Killing Daddy was good clean dirty fun, but there’s an air of unfulfilled promise about it, a sense that with a bit more care in the scripting and a better developed central character it would have been a suspense gem.