Sunday, August 28, 2016

Unwanted Guest (Marvista Entertainment/Lifetime, 2016)

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

Last night’s Lifetime “world premiere” TV-movie turned out to be unexpectedly interesting even though it was pretty much another chip off the old Lifetime log — Unwanted Guest, a 2016 production from MarVista Entertainment (I’m not sure whether the “v” in the middle is supposed to be capitalized; I’ve seen it both ways and the name on their actual logo is all caps), co-produced, written and directed by Fred Olen Ray, who apparently has enough of a “rep” he’s done similar productions that have had at least some semblance of a theatrical release. The film opens at a college campus in the L.A. area — we know it’s L.A. because we see a Los Angeles Fire Department paramedic vehicle on the scene — where just before break (which break is not made especially clear, though I think it was supposed to be Christmas or the end of the year or whatever the current politically correct euphemism is) a student trips down a flight of stairs to his death. Roommates Christine Roberts (Valentina Novakovic) and Amy Thomas (Kate Mansi) are broken up about the death, and when Amy complains to Christine that her parents are out of the country and therefore she was planning to spend the break in their dorm room, Christine impulsively, like many a stupid Lifetime heroine before her, invites Amy to spend the break at her place with her mom Anna (Beth Littleford) and her stepfather, Charles Benton (the surprisingly hot Ted King — when director Ray showed him shirtless and flashing a pair of nice nipples I fell in lust with him immediately and waited for a soft-core porn scene which, alas, never materialized). Amy, who arrives at the Benton manse (a typical 1-percenters’ dwelling since Charles is a sensationally successful copyright attorney — at one point in the proceedings the plot comes to a dead stop so Charles and his staff can have a conference about the horrors of digital copying and the need to pass laws holding Internet service providers and Web site owners responsible for any “unauthorized” material on their sites — no comment except that I think the advent of digital copying has rendered traditional copyright unenforceable and useless, and the basis of copyright law should acknowledge that it’s impossible to keep people from copying material and shift to making sure they pay for reuse) as a mousy little thing wearing glasses and with her hair tied back, quickly loosens up, starts wearing contacts (of course Dorothy Parker’s famous lines, “Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses,” get quoted, though writer Ray garbles them) and lets her hair flow freely, turning herself into a delectable piece of young womanhood that sets her sights on seducing Charles. She sets her sights on quite a few other things as well; on her first night at the Bentons’ Amy steals a bottle of dad’s wine and shares it with Christine — only Christine’s glass is drugged with a chemical tranquilizer that hasn’t been manufactured since the 1950’s but is easily synthesized from readily available ingredients if you know enough about chemistry, which Amy does because she was a pre-med student and was one of the three students at her university who had a key to the school’s chem lab.

Later, ostensibly helping Christine’s mom Anna cook for a major dinner party Charles is throwing for three of his business associates — plus his law partner Ken, an even more drop-dead gorgeous guy who immediately takes a shine to Amy and starts hitting on her — in fact she kicks out the step-stool on which Anna is standing to get a heavy Dutch oven and Anna falls and breaks her legs in two places. By now we’ve long since realized that that guy back on the campus didn’t just fall to his death accidentally — Amy tripped him after drugging him with the same stuff she’d later use on Christine (and on Anna, slipping it into her juice drinks), and we learn about it from the police who are investigating the murder and trying to locate Amy. For a while during this movie I was expecting and hoping that Fred Olen Ray would insert an explanation for What Made Amy Run — but later on I liked that he didn’t; aside from Amy going after Charles (either out of lust, gold-digging hope that she could get a rich husband by displacing and disposing of the other women in his life — his current wife and her daughter — or a mix of both) it’s not entirely clear what she wants or why she’s killing or severely injuring all these people to get it. Like Shakespeare’s Iago, Amy becomes a more powerful villainess precisely because we’re not let in on the secrets of her motivations. Ultimately, having rendered both Anna and Christine hors de combat, Amy finally does get Charles to have sex with her — though, darnit, director Ray plays the old coy Production Code-era did-they-or-didn’t-they routine on us and did not give us the soft-core porn scene between Ted King and Kate Mansi I’d been expecting, hoping for and even drooling over the prospect of, and it’s only at the end, when Charles tells Amy he “made a mistake,” that it’s definitively nailed down that they did have sex. Amy also impersonates the other characters on the phone; she poses as Anna and cancels a business lunch date Anna (a wanna-be realtor — or is that RealtorTM? — who’s occasionally showing properties but hasn’t actually sold one in months) had been counting on; she also poses as Christine and tells the police when they call that Amy has already left; later, when Ken tells Charles in Amy’s presence that he told the police Amy was still staying at the Bentons’, Amy gets revenge by cutting the brake lines of Ken’s car (a really cool 1960’s Corvette Sting Ray) so he loses control of it on a mountain road and dies.

It all ends with Charles, clueless as to why Anna and Christine both keep getting sicker but anxious to call in a professional live-in nurse rather than trust Amy to take care of them, telling Amy that she’ll have to leave. Unfortunately, he stupidly does this in his kitchen while Amy is holding a kitchen knife, and while she doesn’t stab him with it she gets awfully close to doing so until — surprise! — Anna, despite having a leg broken in two places and being in excruciating pain when Amy’s drug cocktails aren’t knocking her out, drags herself into the kitchen, sneaks up behind Amy and injects her with a poison Amy had previously prepared to knock off Anna and make it look like an accidental overdose of her pain meds. Unwanted Guest is a title so obscure it isn’t yet listed on at all — I had to glean the information from the above from other Web sites that ran pre-broadcast articles on it — and yet it’s one of the better examples of the typical Lifetime psycho thriller. The story is well constructed and makes sense, Amy is a powerfully ambiguous character (as, indeed, are the other three principals) and the actors rise to the challenges of Ray’s script and create multidimensional characterizations. Ted King is especially good as the man who’s being given the full-court press by a professional seductress — his close-ups eloquently reveal his character’s conflict over lust vs. loyalty, and we “get” that his brain and his dick are struggling for control of his consciousness — and Kate Mansi is appropriate as the bad girl, playing with the right weird combination of surface perkiness and deep evil. (It’s not her fault that a thousand other young actresses have played this same part in one Lifetime movie after another, and after a while they start to blend together.) The other two women have little to do but play victims, though Valentina Novakovic is appropriate towards the end as she realizes the elaborateness with which her supposed “friend” has deceived her. Unwanted Guest is very much to the Lifetime formula, but within it Ray managed to create a work of genuine suspense and moral complexity — only Christine Conradt among Lifetime’s usual writers matches him in the ability to create multidimensional characters even within the limits of this set of clichés (and if she’d written this no doubt she would have called it The Perfect Guest!) — the sort of entertainment we hope for from Lifetime and all too often get thrown a much less well digested blend of their usual clichés instead.