Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Murder Pact (Synthetic Cinema International, Stargazer Films, Lifetime, 2015)

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

Last night’s Lifetime movie was The Murder Pact, an unusually well done thriller (especially considering the source!) which begins with a nice-looking but rather, shall we say, heavy-set young woman named Camille (Alexa PenaVega — that odd spelling of her last name, with the two words jammed together but with a capital letter in the middle as if she were a computer program, is what both the official credits and gave us) belting out a power-rock ballad as an audition piece for some bored Broadway producers who are really looking for an established star to play the lead in their next show and only agreed to see her as a favor to her 1-percenter boyfriend Will LaSalle (Beau Mirchoff). Will seems to have it all — money, social position and good looks — and he never lets anyone forget it; he’s officially engaged to Camille but that doesn’t stop him from bedding any young woman who’ll hold still for him. What’s more, he’s got his bedroom bugged so he can photograph his sexual encounters and relive the experiences any time he wants by playing them on his laptop. The principals are Camilla, Will, Will’s less secure friend Rick (Michael J. Willett, who incidentally has his hair dyed blonde on his head shot though he’s dark-haired in this movie) and Annabel (Renée Olstead), a hanger-on and (of course) occasional trick of Will’s who’s also an aspiring dancer and is super-concerned about her weight.

All of them are students at Camden College, a New England university whose most prominent architectural feature is a spectacularly ugly round building that looks like Frank Gehry re-imagined the Capitol Tower. Will has living parents but they almost never see him — a picture of his dad hangs over his mantel as if it’s keeping an eye on him, but we never see his mom at all and his dad (John Heard) only makes a brief surprise appearance towards the end to warn Will that he can do everything he likes as long as he doesn’t besmirch the LaSalle family name. If he does, dad solemnly warns Will, he’ll be disinherited at once. That happens in the middle of an event that has completely discombobulated Will’s carefully constructed life: Heidi (Madeleine Dauer), yet another young co-ed Will has got drunk, drugged and put the make on, takes a tumble off the railing on one of the Camden dorm balconies and falls to her death. It appears to be an accident — director Colin Theys, working from a script by John Doolan, makes it look even to us as if that particular section of the railing was just loose and gave way under Heidi’s weight — but while the altercation on the balcony was going on a student photographer named Lisa (Sara Kapner) happened by and took photos of the whole thing. Lisa contacts Will and his friends and threatens to blackmail them, demanding $4 million for the photos or she’ll take them to the police and Will will get popped for Heidi’s murder. The four principals meet to discuss how they’re going to handle the situation and collectively decide that as members of the financial and social elite they have way too much to live for to let a nobody from “the other side of the tracks” as Lisa get in the way and threaten their futures. So, at Will’s instigation, they decide they’re simply going to kill her.

Will insists that Camille, as the queasiest and most conscience-stricken of the four, commit the actual murder, and so Camille wraps an industrial plastic bag over Lisa’s head and knocks her off. Then Will buries her under the floorboards of his family home’s basement — in a plot twist writer Doolan admitted in the credits he borrowed from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (he bills it as an “adaptation” of the Poe story, which it really isn’t, though his script invokes several Poe tales, including “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Premature Burial”) — he says he saw Lisa’s eyes twitch as they were sealing the floorboards back over her, and Camille assures her she did the job right and Lisa is dead. Only the conspirators keep reporting sightings of items of Lisa’s they buried with her but seem to be coming back to life, as if she were still alive and haunting them — and their consciences affect Rick and Annabel to the point where Rick starts doing drugs and gets himself kicked off the school’s rowing team, and Annabel gets lost during a ballet rehearsal in which she and the corps are supposed to be doing a routine to Richard Rodgers’ “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” Just when those about him are freaking out — and Rick has become the apparent third victim, falling off his rowboat in a drug-induced stupor and ending up comatose after one of his teammates inadvertently hit him under water with his oar — Will’s dad flies back from Europe (and almost immediately leaves again, as if even he can’t stand being around this self-indulgent, arrogant psycho creep he has somehow fathered) and gives him the warning about being allowed to do anything he wants (was his dad really including murder in that?) as long as he doesn’t besmirch the family name. The film builds to a trick ending [big-time spoiler alert!] in which it turns out Camille and Lisa plotted the whole thing; Camille merely faked killing Lisa and let her out again after Will left the basement, and Lisa set up all the mysterious “appearances” of her stuff — including her camera, whose materialization in Rick’s bedroom was what drove him to his overdose. They did it not only to split the $4 million in blackmail money they finally got Will to pay (Will starts to key in the password to his cell phone to transfer the money to the account Lisa had set up to receive it, then drops his phone and Camille picks it up and completes the transaction) but also to teach Will a lesson in humility and show him he can’t just go through his life treating other people like garbage without facing the consequences.

Writer Doolan even did something I was suspecting he would when Camille’s opening audition scene resulted in her not getting the part because no one had ever heard of her: he ripped off Chicago for a tag scene in which the producer and director (the same ones) call another audition and recognize her instantly as the woman whose photo was shown everywhere in connection with Will’s arrest (though it’s not clear just what Will got arrested for — since Lisa didn’t die and the other two deaths in the story were genuinely accidental, the most he could get popped for was attempted murder). Doolan even created an eccentric character, Detective Dakoulas (Sean Patrick Thomas), an African-American who seems through most of the movie to be doing the Columbo schtick and trying to annoy Will and his (presumed) co-conspirators into confessing, but in the end he turns out to be someone Camille and Lisa recruited from a Camden College acting class (though he’s so much older than the other protagonists it would be more believable if we were told he was an acting teacher) to pose as a cop for their scheme. The Murder Pact is actually well done, a genuinely suspenseful thriller with a legitimate surprise ending, and though some of it seems a bit arbitrary — the climax takes place at a masquerade ball Will is throwing (a family tradition he insists on carrying on even though his folks, who usually host it, are out of town) that seems more to reflect a desire on the part of writer Doolan and director Theys to do a knockoff of Eyes Wide Shut (also a story of decadence among the 1 percent!) than anything else — and the moral about spoiled rich kids thinking they can do literally anything they like because their (or their parents’) money will always be there to buy them out of it is done well here but was done even better in the previous Lifetime movie Restless Virgins — for the most part this is an amazing film, and it’s especially nice to watch a Lifetime movie in which the two male protagonists are definitely exciting, hot young men (Beau Mirchoff as Will even has something of a James Dean quality, though Dean never played a character who was born to this much money), even though inevitably, given Lifetime’s well-established iconography, hot young man = black-hearted villain!