Sunday, January 3, 2016

The House Sitter (Moody Independent/Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was a Lifetime movie called The House Sitter — note that it’s three words instead of two, though it’s an oft-used title: lists a Housesitter (no article) from 2007 (“Waitress Elise’s dream to become a painter isn't going anywhere, unlike her ex Gerry's, so she eagerly accepts to house-sit a month the country estate eccentric gentleman Frank inherited), a The Housesitter from 2012 (“For more than a century an elite secret society from a prestigious New England university has engaged in a macabre rite of passage. Now, a rival they did not know they had has sent a killer”) and another The House Sitter from 2015 (“A house sitter considers the possibility he may not be alone; after he starts hearing strange noises during the night”). The fact that this title has been used so often may explain why this one was originally filmed under the title Welcome Home — though it’s cut so closely to the Christine Conradt format, albeit written and directed by others (Marcy Holland is the writer and Jim Issa — any relation to Darrell? — is the director), they might as well have called it The Perfect Housesitter. It’s basically the same-old, same-old Lifetime formula that’s got pretty threadbare after they’ve been making these movies for over a decade. It begins with a confusing prologue in which a young woman and her boyfriend come to the home of her parents, from whom she’s been estranged for years, and finds that they’re seated at the dining table with their throats slit. Through most of the film I was unclear as to whether that was going to be the denouement we should expect from the main story or whether that was a crime committed by the title character similar to what she was planning to do to the other central characters (it turned out to be the latter).

The main characters are the Lawrences: father Kyle (Sean O’Brien), mother Sara (Kate Ashfield) — who speaks with an impeccable upper-class British accent throughout; presumably Kyle, whose own vocal tones are nasal American Midwest, met and married a British woman lo those many years ago — and their two daughters. One of them, Lauren, the older, died before the main action begins — she fell through the ice at a frozen lake where the Lawrences were vacationing — and the other, younger daughter Amy (Shelby Young) is alive but all too conscious that her parents considered her second-best when her sister was alive and still do even though she’s now the only one they’ve got. Amy is dating a cute guy named Travis (Guyon Brandt) but draws back from having sex with him. The titular house sitter is Rebecca (Ashley Dulaney, who turns in a nice psycho performance, though these nice psycho performances are starting to impress me less and less simply because as a regular Lifetime watcher I’ve seen too damned many of them — indeed, as engagingly twitchy as Dulaney is, I think Young as Amy out-acts her!), who agreed to look after the Lawrences’ home while the three of them went on some sort of business trip that ended early. Rebecca pleads with the Lawrence parents that she has no place to stay since the residents of the next house she’s supposed to house-sit are still there and aren’t planning to leave for a few more days. No problem, says Mrs. Lawrence (Mr. Lawrence is a bit more dubious, as usual in these productions); Rebecca can stay in their guest room — though Rebecca “accidentally” takes a wrong turn and ends up in the dead sister Lauren’s old room, which the Lawrences have kept unchanged as a sort of shrine to her. Amy goes ballistic when she sees Rebecca pawing through her sister’s belongings, but Rebecca apologizes in her best smarmy, mock-sincere manner.

Eventually it turns out that Rebecca is on a campaign not only to take the place of the dead Lauren in the Lawrence family but to push Amy out of the way — Sara is totally taken by her and Kyle is snowed, but Amy realizes, as she puts it, that someone as relentlessly perky as Rebecca is not to be trusted. To turn Amy’s parents against her, Rebecca drugs her water and forces her to pass out in bed, then tells them Amy has been drinking. Next Rebecca seduces Amy’s boyfriend Travis (ya remember Amy’s boyfriend Travis?) and, while they’re in the sex act, shoots them with Amy’s smartphone (luckily for Rebecca’s scheme, Amy went out without it), carefully framing the image so the red bra of Amy’s Rebecca is wearing is visible but her face isn’t, then reports to her parents that she’s found a salacious video on Amy’s phone. Eventually it all works up to the scene anticipated by the “teaser” opening in which Rebecca clubs Amy twice to make sure she doesn’t interfere, then offers to serve Kyle and Sara a dinner — only she ties them to their dining chairs and stabs Kyle so he won’t resist, and the Lawrences would be on their way to the same fate as the mystery couple in the opening scene if it weren’t for Amy, who comes to and distracts Rebecca long enough to get the gun she’s been holding on the Lawrences. It doesn’t fire, but Sara is able to undo her bonds in the confusion and she is the one who gets to grab a blunt object and take Rebecca out with it — though it’s unclear whether she kills Rebecca or just incapacitates her long enough for the police to come and take her into custody. The House Sitter is a pretty ordinary example of the Lifetime formula, a bit below par because writer Holland and director Issa tread on the thin edge of risibility through most of the film and go over it a few times — though they do create some chilling moments, including the scene towards the end in which Rebecca is holding a gun on Amy and telling her she no longer belongs in the family, and Amy is somehow able to hold on to her composure in spite of this stranger “hooking” all her worst fears about her parents looking down on her and wishing it had been she who had died instead of her sister.