Monday, August 3, 2015

Patient Killer (Concord Films/Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched last night’s “world premiere” on Lifetime, a surprisingly good thriller called Patient Killer starring and directed by Casper Van Dien, a name I hadn’t heard of in ages but one who rose to semi-stardom in the 1990’s playing mostly science-fiction roles in Star Wars knockoffs but coming down to Earth (literally and figuratively) long enough to play James Dean in a TV-movie biopic called James Dean: Race with Destiny. (I guess that title was one of those bad ideas our friend Chris Schneider once said was inevitable.) Van Dien wasn’t the only person associated with this film who had roles both in front of and behind the cameras; the “producer” credit went to Barbie Castro, who also has a key role in the film (though she’s heavy-set, brunette and doesn’t look at all like the Barbie doll), while one of the credited “executive producers” is her husband, Eric R. Castro. The film is really a vehicle for Victoria Pratt as Dr. Victoria Wrightmar, successful psychiatrist who still does 50-minute “talking cures” and refuses to prescribe her patients medication. She’s also written at least two books, one of which — about her real-life attempts to hypnotize a patient into recovery which ended ignominiously when the patient, Dylan McNait (David Chokachi), shot himself (the first thing we see in this movie is a man with his shirt off — “I like this movie already!,” I joked to Charles — getting up and offing himself; then we cut to Victoria waking up in the middle of the night, having relived her former patient’s suicide in her dreams) — was a commercial failure, but the one she’s just put out and is doing book signings for is a major success.

The title might have led one (it led me, anyway) to think the story will be about someone stalking her patients and killing them one by one, but the piece is actually a Gaslight-derived tale about someone close to the female lead systematically driving her crazy for reasons that aren’t explained until the very end. Among her patients are Derek Barris (Patrick Muldoon), an obsessive-compulsive (Dr. Wrightmar deliberately puts her paintings off center and her books out of order when it’s time for his sessions to test his will power to resist his urge to reorder them) and also borderline schizophrenic; and Blaire Bennett (Barbie Castro), who has dreams that she’s killed someone but can’t remember who and is fearful that she really did commit murder, then forget about it except when her subconscious mind reminds her during her dreams. (I wanted to tell her, “Lady, you haven’t really killed anyone. You’re a character in a Lifetime movie — not a Cornell Woolrich novel!”) There are also two men in Victoria’s life, her current boyfriend Jason Turner (Casper Van Dien) and her former mentor (and, it’s hinted, her former lover as well) Dr. Eric Sylvan (Richard Burgi), who’s never got over her decision to leave their association (professional and/or personal) and go out on her own. Victoria’s trials include a break-in at her office in which her voice recorder and laptop are stolen — a devastating event because these contain her carefully made and archived recordings of her sessions, and their loss is going to compromise her past and present patients’ confidentiality big-time — and both her boyfriend Jason and her patient Derek are attacked with Tasers like the one carried by her assistant, Nancy Peck (played by Stacey Dash as the obligatory African-American voice of reason even though she’s considerably younger than most of the actors of either gender who get cast in this role).

At one point Victoria suspects Nancy and/or Eric, jointly or severally, of being behind the attacks on her, and both Charles and I had guessed that the person going out of their way to drive Our Heroine crazy would be Eric, if only because it was hard to believe in any other reason for the character to be there, and also due to writers Brian D. Young and Bryan Dick (whose biography — written by himself — doesn’t reveal any family connection to legendary science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick, though this movie has enough twisted characters and weird references to their pasts it’s what might have resulted if Philip K. Dick had tried his hand at a mystery) dropping so many hints that he was still in unrequited love with her. Derek seems like a red herring, and the police detective on the case, Cameron (Antoni Corone in yet another channeling of Peter Falk’s Columbo), ultimately becomes convinced that Victoria is staging the whole thing herself because she really is going crazy, especially when he catches Victoria having sneaked into Nancy’s home to accuse her of whatever’s going on (little, if any, of which rises to the level of indictable crime), whereupon Nancy uses her Taser on Victoria and debates whether or not to press breaking-and-entering charges against her boss. In the end the bad guy turns out to [surprise!] Blaire Bennett, who wanted to destroy Victoria because she blamed the therapist for the suicide of her brother, Dylan McNait (ya remember Dylan McNait?), only Victoria subdues her, gets her gun from her, turns her over to the police and offers to continue to be her therapist. Patient Killer is a farrago of clichés that all have been done better in other movies, and yet it’s also quite a capable work, keeping us on our toes throughout, offering a genuinely surprising plot resolution and stylishly directed by Van Dien, who shows off a real camera eye far ahead of what most Lifetime directors can manage.