Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Stepchild (Lifetime, 2016)

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

Alas, after the relative quality of Mommy’s Little Girl, the next film Lifetime showed, The Stepchild, was a major step down, closer to the level of Lifetime’s usual sleazy trash. It begins with a weird sequence that shows director Roma Roth, who also co-wrote the script with Gemma Holdway, has a flair for the Gothic: it involves a dream in which the titular stepchild, Ashley Bennett (Sara Fisher), is clutching a snowball globe which breaks and gets all bloody when she spies the dead body of her father on the living-room floor of their home. Dad is named Bill Bennett and his first wife — Ashley’s mom — was schizophrenic and ultimately committed suicide by drowning herself in the bathtub (by coincidence also the way Althea Flynt offed herself in The People vs. Larry Flynt, which Charles and I had just watched). Then he remarried; his new wife is Beth (Lauren Holly), though he’s often not home because he’s busy building a major real-estate development company (we know it’s a major firm because its office walls are festooned with photos of the skyscrapers they’ve built all over the world) with his business partner John Blackwell (Paul Johansson). Then Bill Bennett is himself murdered in what appears to have been a home-invasion robbery gone awry — only after the killing John Blackwell moves into the Bennetts’ home, ostensibly to sort out the business affairs of the company so it can continue, and probate Bennett’s will, and Ashley becomes convinced her stepmom (whom she never calls “mom,” only “Beth”) and Blackwell are having an affair and Blackwell actually killed her dad and merely faked it to look like a robbery gone bad. For most of the running time that’s what we’re led to believe, too — especially after Ashley finds a letter in the home office her dad used to use and Blackwell has taken over saying that as a 49 percent owner Blackwell couldn’t sell the company without her dad’s permission — though Roth and Holdway also throw us an alternate suspect: Ashley’s boyfriend Michael (the boyishly cute Keenan Tracey), an aspiring rock musician who wants to relocate to L.A. and take Ashley with him. Michael had a motive to kill Ashley’s dad because Bill Bennett, like one of the feuding families in Romeo and Juliet, didn’t approve of Michael and didn’t want her daughter to be involved with him.

Ashley visits her dad’s old office one day and Blackwell interrupts her conversation with her dad’s former secretary Josie (not identified on but played by a lithesome young African-American actress I found appealing). Josie offers to meet Ashley at a coffeehouse the next morning but doesn’t show because a carefully unshown assailant kills her in the meantime. Ashley finds her address (she actually tricks one of the other secretaries at the firm into giving it to her), finds Josie’s house unlocked, lets herself in and finds Josie on the floor, dead — only instead of calling the police immediately she flees down the block, and by the time she does call the police and they come out there, the body has been removed and no one knows for sure if Josie is even dead. This gives Blackwell and Beth the excuse they need to put Ashley into the psych ward of the local hospital (the building is carefully emblazoned with a big letter “H” on the side so we know what it is), where she was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and is under the care of a psychiatrist who writes her a prescription for psych meds — only the night she starts them Blackwell offers her champagne and, under the polypharmaceutical influence of both the alcohol and drugs, she goes out for a manic late-night drive and runs her car off the road. Now the therapist is convinced she’s schizophrenic and needs to be institutionalized, only before that can happen she escapes. It helps that the police detective on the case believes her story — or at least believes that Bill Bennett was killed with a convex object (like a snow globe), not a tool home-invasion robbers would be likely to use as a murder weapon. But when the detective comes to visit Ashley and explain his suspicions, she hasn’t escaped yet; she’s in Big H Hospital under the care of that sinister woman psychiatrist who gave her the prescription in the first place (and who I thought might turn into someone hired by the principal villain to make Ashley think she’s crazy and justify placing her into a mental institution far away from her own community — one recent Lifetime movie actually did include a psychiatrist in the pay of the villain to declare the heroine crazy, but perhaps fortunately Roth and Hollway didn’t go there) and she regards the detective as yet another authority figure determined to prove she’s crazy so they can lock her away.

When she escapes she goes to her home intending to confront Blackwell — only before she can do that someone else clubs Blackwell with something or other and he ends up bleeding on the Bennetts’ floor, and just then there’s a commercial break (the last one) and when we return — after having sat through some of the most repulsive promos ever concocted, including one for a Lifetime series called Little Women, about little people (whom we formerly called “midgets”) and their emotional and child-rearing problems that seemed to me like the 21st century’s equivalent of dwarf-tossing — Roth and Holdway pull their Big Switcheroo on us: not only was cute young Michael the real killer of Bill Bennett and Josie, but his motive was that he was actually having a sexual affair with Beth — yes, Ashley’s stepmother (which at least explains why Michael hadn’t had sex with Ashley and, unlike most young boyfriends in Lifetime movies, didn’t seem to be in any hurry to get her to, either). They were having away at each other in the Bennetts’ marital bed when Bill came home unexpectedly and caught them (which at least gave us a nice shot of Keenan Tracey nearly nude as he hurriedly put his pants on), and on the spot Bill said he would not only divorce Beth but cut her off without a cent. So Michael grabbed the snow globe and clubbed Bill with it, then staged the scene to look like a home invasion, and together Michael and Beth decided to get her 100 percent control of the real-estate company by framing Blackwell for the crime — even though that meant they had to silence Josie, whose big revelation to Ashley was supposed to be that her stepmom and Michael were having an affair (how did she know?).

After the tight-knit, fast-moving, well-acted Mommy’s Little Girl, The Stepchild (a title so overused that even though 2016 is less than one-quarter over there have already been two movies called that with listings on sank back to the Lifetime norm; though Roma Roth’s direction shows a real flair for the Gothic, especially in scenes without dialogue, the film as a whole is pretty slowly paced and we’ve got a lot more time to think about the holes in the plot than we did in Mommy’s Little Girl. Besides, as Alfred Hitchcock realized, a whodunit is actually less interesting as a plot device than a story in which we know from the outset who the criminal is and the suspense is in how long it will take for the other characters to figure it out and what danger they will be in when they do — and ironically, though Ashley Bennett is supposed to be one of the good guys, Rachel Pellinen, the child actress who plays Ashley in the flashbacks to her own childhood (particularly the sequence where she found her mom dead in the bathtub), has the same sinister pigtails of Patty McCormick in The Bad Seed and looks more like her than Emma Hentschel did in Mommy’s Little Girl!