Monday, August 17, 2015

Sorority Murder (Pender Street Pictures 3, Reel One Entertainment, Shadowland, Lifetime, 2015)

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

The “feature” I watched last night was yet another Lifetime “world premiere,” Sorority Murder, directed by Jesse James Miller (just what were his parents thinking when they gave him that name?) from a script by J. Bryan Dick and Ken Sanders, and set in the fictitious “Whittendale University” world that has also given us such previous Lifetime movies as The Surrogate, Dirty Teacher and Sugar Daddies. (At least this one finally and definitively identifies “Whittendale University” as being located in Vermont, though like most Lifetime movies this is actually Everywhere, Canada “playing” Everywhere, U.S.) I was only a bit disappointed that Ken Sanders’ usual writing partner, Barbara Kymlicka, wasn’t involved this time, if only because my own dirty mind couldn’t help but imagine what might have happened if Mr. Dick and Ms. Cum-Licker got together! The plot of Sorority Murder is pretty much the usual Lifetime same-old, same-old: Jennifer Taylor (Scarlett Byrne) is an architecture student who’s just transferred from a community college to Whittendale and is hoping the school will be a home away from home, since her real home is dominated by Melissa Taylor (Sarah-Jane Redmond), her mother, who’s become an alcoholic since Jennfer’s dad died and spends a lot of time either drinking at home or hanging out at skuzzy bars with an equally pathetic boyfriend identified in the cast list just as “Drunk Guy” (Jeffrey Klassen). Casting directors Don Carroll and Candice Elzinga deserve credit for having come up with two women for these roles who actually look enough alike they’re credible as mother and daughter; the suspension-of-disbelief all too many movies require when people who don’t look at all like each other are passed off as biological relations is a pet peeve of mine. Anyway, Jennifer seems to have got her wish when she’s recruited by Alex Johnson (Nicole Muñoz) — that’s right, a woman named Alex — to join the school’s most prestigious sorority, whose official name is Beta Sigma something-or-other but whose Greek letters appear to spell out the English expletive “Beh.” The student leader at the sorority is a domineering bitch named Breanne Bartley (Clare Filipow, who turns in easily the most powerful performance in the film and makes it a pity she exits so early), who’s viciously insulting towards Jennifer and says she’ll never really be one of them. Jennifer moves into the sorority house and rooms with Alex, who’s on Breanne’s shit list for having put the moves on Breanne’s boyfriend Eric (Madison Smith). Anyway, Breanne is found murdered outside the house while most of its residents are at a party being given by the fraternity next door. Jennifer hadn’t planned to go because she had a major assignment due the next day — a model she had built of the building she’d designed in her architecture class — only she finds the model smashed, blames Breanne and angrily confronts her not only about the destruction of her model but a previous prank in which a dead rat was placed under Alex’s bed. (Thinking of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, I joked, “It could have been worse. She could have served it to you for dinner.”)

So naturally, when Breanne turns up dead, Jennifer is instantly the prime suspect — especially since the woman was killed with a knife stolen from Jennifer’s collection of X-Acto knives. Jennifer and Alex accuse each other of Breanna’s murder, and Jennifer determines that the only way she can convince the typically dull movie cops (Patrick Sabongui and Rukiya Bernard) she didn’t do it is to act like an Alfred Hitchcock hero and find out on her own who did. Alex is shown writing a long letter to Jennifer apologizing for something or other, but Jennifer never gets to see it because in the meantime Alex gets stabbed with a pen, and though she’s still alive when Jennifer returns to her room it never occurs to her to do something sensible, like call 911 and see if she can get an ambulance to the room to save Alex’s life. Instead Alex babbles something about “the basement” to Jennifer, and Jennifer breaks into the sorority house’s basement and finds a series of file boxes containing visual records of the sorority’s hazing rituals. It’s a nicely amusing touch that the media on which the films were taken is appropriately updated in each box: actual film canisters in the early days, VHS tapes in the 1980’s and DVD’s and flash drives for the later ones. Alas, the latest videos aren’t in the basement; one of the actual killers, Natalie Swanson (Elise Gatien), gave the box containing them to her brother, who works in a storage facility and hid them there — and, conveniently, Jennifer finds Natalie’s cell phone after she overpowers her and locks her into the basement. Even more conveniently, Natalie’s texts to her brother contain the address of the storage facility — one would think she would have already known where it was and therefore wouldn’t have to be told — and Jennifer recovers the records, plugs the flash drive containing them into her own phone, watches the video and learns both who the killers are — Natalie, Gabrielle (Sarah Dugdale) and Carly (Melissa Roxburgh) — and what their motive was.

It seems that Breanne had taken a marking pen to various parts of their bodies and told them to have plastic surgery on those areas if they wanted to be admitted to the sorority, and though they had the operations (I guess we’re supposed to assume if they or their parents could afford to send them to Whittendale they could afford to have plastic surgery) they were so humiliated at being “called out” by Breanne they decided not only to kill her but to use Alex to recruit Jennifer to the sorority just so they could frame her for the murder and set her up as their “fall girl.” It ends with a typically over-the-top Ken Sanders climax in which the bad girls have overpowered Jennifer and taken her to the woods outside campus, where they intend to hang her from a tree and make it look like she killed herself — “Careful not to leave any bruises,” one of the plotters says; “it’s got to look like a suicide” — only her mom, who in the meantime has started going to A.A. meetings and sobered up, uses the GPS tracker on Jennifer’s phone to find her and lead the cops there in time to rescue her. Earlier, while mom was still drinking, there was a superb scene (if cribbed from A Star Is Born) in which mom got arrested for DUI after a bar date with that sleazy boyfriend and her daughter, in an embittering role-reversal, had to bail her out; the dramatis personae also include a hot-looking young guy named Darren (Orion Radies, whom I’d certainly like to see more of) who helps Jennifer find the killers and looks headed towards becoming her boyfriend when it’s all over. Sorority Murder is pretty typical Lifetime fare; it’s actually better acted than usual, and director Jesse James Miller (will he ever get to do a movie about his namesake?) brings it to the screen with a real flair for suspense and atmospherics, but he’s done in by the relentless ridiculousness of the Sanders-Dick script and the sheer obviousness of the conventional thriller tropes the lazy writers used to pad out their film to the obligatory Lifetime running time. Still, Orion Radies was aesthetically impressive and Clare Filipow genuinely powerful as the bitch who gets her comeuppance … permanently.