Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Cheerleader Murders (Marvista/Covert/Lifetime, 2016)

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

 I turned on the Lifetime “world premiere” movie aired last night, The Cheerleader Murders. Overall it was another case of a genuinely talented Lifetime director (David Jackson) doing the best he could with a teminally silly Lifetime script (by Matt Young). It opens with a powerfully Gothic scene in which Ellie Fuller (Samantha Boscarino, nice-looking and appropriately spunky for the role but with the annoying habit of seemingly changing her hairdo in each scene) tells us via voice-over narration that she feels she is cursed, that she’s under an evil spell and takes it with her everywhere she goes. It all began, she says, when she was a freshman (freshperson?) in high school and her older sister, a senior, broke up with her boyfriend — only her boyfriend wasn’t about to take no for an answer. Instead he came to her family’s home with a shotgun, killed her sister (he pulled aside the shower curtain and cornered her in the shower like Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho, a scene I would be quite happy never to see a visual quote from again) and for good measure killed their dad when he tried to intervene. Now she and her mom (who for some reason Matt Young never explains were spared the bloodbath) are living in a different city, it’s “Three Years Later” (as a typical Lifetime subtitle tells us), and she’s now a senior herself. She’s also got a hot boyfriend named Nicholas (Austin Lyon, who wouldn’t be bad casting for a biopic of Elvis if anyone really feels a need out there to make another biopic of Elvis), son of the San Vicente High School football team’s coach Dan Reeves (Henderson Wade, considerably less hunky than his on-screen son but at least close enough in appearance we can believe they’re genetically related). Ellie’s mom (Michelle Fuller, who likewise looks enough like an older version of Samantha Boscarino we can believe in them as mother and daughter) encourages her to get out more and in particular to attend a study party given by her friends and fellow San Vicente cheerleaders Morgan (Hannah Kasulka) and Dee (Amanda Leighton), though predictably the three girls do much more gossiping than studying, and when Morgan makes a slighting remark about Ellie not having a (living) father, Ellie gets insulted and leaves for home. It’s a lucky thing for her, too, because the next thing that happens is a mysterious intruder comes to Morgan’s home, kills her (and subsequently severs a head and arm and dumps them in a site where a ditch is being dug — presumably to provide water for a large farm, since this is set in California’s Central Valley and a large orchard is a key setting for two of the action scenes) and kidnaps Dee.

The exact credentials of the law enforcement officials who respond to the murder are unclear, since the sign on the office door says “San Vicente Police Department” but the cars the cops use and the insignia on their uniforms identify them as sheriff’s deputies (which under California law means either San Vicente is unincorporated and directly governed by its county, or it’s a city that contracted with its county’s sheriff for law enforcement services), and to make it even more confusing, sitting in on the investigation led by the local sheriff, police chief or whatever he is (the site is unclear as to who plays this role — it does identify Juan Rodriguez as “Cop” — but he’s the typical avuncular African-American Lifetime’s casting people like in roles like this, though he’s light enough he could be part-Latino) is an FBI agent, Ramon Martinez (David DeSantos), who’s twitchy enough that we at least briefly believe he might be the killer. The filmmakers throw us quite a few red herrings as the story goes on, including unpopular student Ben (Davin Crittenden, who looked reasonably cute to me but whom we were supposed to see as the school’s wallflower — and there’s a great scene in which Ellie goes to his house and his mom is a skinny, slatternly, rude piece of work even more screwed-up than her son), who writes Ellie a threatening note and puts it in her locker but is not responsible for the even more threatening texts she gets; and a homeless guy who comes upon Ellie as she’s mourning at the improvised memorial set up for Morgan where her body (or bits of it, at least) was found, but it’s not hard to figure out that Coach Dan Reeves is really a killer (and after the recent revelations that former House Speaker Dennis Hastert molested at least four male students during his days as a high-school teacher and wrestling coach, it wasn’t hard to believe in a story about a villainous coach). At one point Dan actually frames his son — Ellie’s boyfriend Nicholas — for the crimes, and Nicholas responds by slashing his wrists in his cell and committing suicide once he’s arrested.

Then Ellie gets trapped on Dan’s farm — where she’d already gone to try to rescue Dee, and she managed to get her out of there but Dan, clad in a hoodie and face mask that made him unrecognizable, got to her and knifed her as she was trying to get into Ellie’s car — and in the final action scene Dan is about to kill Ellie when her mom, of all people, drives up and accidentally but helpfully runs into him and kills him, saving her daughter’s life and sparing the cops the seemingly onerous task of proving his guilt in court. (Mater ex machina.) There are all too many instances of the normally level-headed Ellie tearing off after the bad guy (or whom she thinks is the bad guy at the moment) in court instead of doing the sensible non-movie thing of reporting her information to the police, and so many gaping plot holes in Matt Young’s construction the movie approaches unbelievability and frequently goes over, but for all his borrowings from Hitchcock (it’s clear from those farm scenes he’s seen North by Northwest) he’s a quite good suspense director and also has a real flair for the Gothic. Much of the movie takes place at night and manages a convincing noir atmosphere despite the color and the outdoor settings — and cinematographer Denis Maloney helps Jackson’s cause by giving us a rich and vibrant palette instead of making everything dirty green or brown. But Jackson’s good work is sabotaged by a silly script whose writer seems more intent on giving Lifetime’s audience the clichés it’s used to instead of telling a coherent and genuinely thrilling and scary story — sort of like that bizarre speech Sarah Palin gave for Donald Trump in Wisconsin, in which she seemed so intent on giving the audience all her and Trump’s talking points she didn’t bother with that annoying task of trying to connect them into a coherent presentation. (At one point she just shouted, “Reagan!,” and got the response she wanted out of an audience of people already conditioned to regard the 40th president as a paragon of intelligence, dedication and virtue.)