Sunday, September 11, 2016

Girl in the Box (GIAB Productions, Randy Murray Productions, Lifetime, 2016)

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

Last night I put on the latest Lifetime “world premiere” movie, Girl in the Box. This was based on the horrific true story of Colleen Stan (Addison Timlin), which I’d read about previously in a true-crime paperback, who in 1977 was hitchhiking her way from Eugene, Oregon (where she lived in a difficult relationship with her mom and stepfather) to Westwood, California. She got as far as Red Bluff, where after turning down a couple of would-be pickups (one from a group of guys who were all too excited at seeing a young woman alone — though given what happened to her afterwards being gang-raped would have definitely been the lesser of two evils! — and one from a couple who weren’t going far enough for her to want to bother with), she got in a car with Cameron Hooker (Zane Holtz) and his wife Janice (Zelda Williams). Lifetime showed this and then a documentary about the same case in which Colleen Stan agreed to participate and revisit the scenes of her humiliation and seven-year ordeal: the home in which the Hookers lived and in which she was imprisoned in their basement and routinely suspended from a ceiling beam by her wrists and beaten by Cameron; later the trailer they moved into when Cameron’s landlord started to get suspicious and told them that for insurance purposes he was going to have to enter their basement and inspect their furnace; and the truly horrific contraption Cameron built for her after that, since the mobile home didn’t have a basement. Instead he built her a box, barely big enough to accommodate her, with an air pump to let in more-or-less fresh air and a bedpan for when she needed to use the bathroom, but not only was there no room to move in the box, it was kept bolted shut.

At one point the Hookers decided to take a vacation to Lake Tahoe — and they just left Colleen in the box for four days, without any food, until they returned. For the first few months or so Cameron treated Colleen as little more than an animate sex doll — though ironically one of the conditions Janice had set for helping Cameron kidnap Colleen was that he could beat her, whip her, torture her and do all the S/M (actually something of a misnomer because genuine S/M is carefully negotiated and consensual, with strictly observed limits and “safe words” the bottom partner can use to get out of a scene; psychopathic perverts like Cameron Hooker all too often use the term “S/M” to describe what they’re doing — often defending themselves in court by saying the things they were doing to their victims were consensual S/M — and therefore give responsible S/M practitioners a bad name) he wanted to on her as long as they didn’t actually have sexual contact. Indeed, Janice had yielded to Cameron’s interest in kidnapping a young woman as his S/M slave precisely because she didn’t want him to whip and torture her. Not surprisingly, in writer-director Stephen Kemp’s script, Janice becomes the most morally conflicted character, joylessly participating in her husband’s crime but in some ways as much of a victim of him as Colleen — and Zelda Williams turns in a magnificent acting performance that brings home the dilemma, both of how do you explain that a basically decent person would go along with her sicko husband’s behavior and to what extent she was culpable and to what extent she was a victim herself.

About nine months into her ordeal Cameron presented Colleen with a printed-out slavery contract — he clipped it from an S/M magazine and, though neither the feature nor the documentary went into this, when she was interviewed for the true-crime book from which I first heard of this case Colleen said that the fact that it was printed and came from a magazine added credibility to the cock-and-bull tale Cameron told her to keep her from resisting or trying to escape. Cameron told her that he was part of an international secret network of slave owners called “The Company,” and that the Company’s agents were everywhere so even if she tried to escape, they would catch her and subject her to even worse tortures than the ones he was administering. He also said that if she escaped “The Company” would go after her family and kill them — and by rattling off their names and addresses he was able to convince her that the (fictitious) “Company” knew where they lived and could track them down and kill them if she escaped. And as if that weren’t enough, he told the tale of one Company slave who had escaped and gone to a police officer to tell her story — not knowing, of course, that the policeman was himself a Company member. And finally, Cameron told Colleen that his wife Janice was a Company slave whom he had rescued and was protecting. Judging from the documentary (and my memories of the book) Stephen Kemp told the story relatively factually, though with some odd changes; he has a set of marvelously kinky scenes in which Janice gives birth to a daughter (one of her justifications for going along with Cameron’s kidnapping of Colleen was his promise that if she did so, he’d have normal sex with her and thereby give her the child she’d long wanted) while Colleen hears the sounds of her labor from the box under the Hookers’ waterbed, but in real life that was the Hookers’ second child and their first had already been born and was eight months old and in the car when Colleen was kidnapped.

The film also builds up tension over Colleen’s demands to be allowed to go home and see her family, which in the movie happens shortly before she’s released but in reality happened about four years into her captivity — and the fact that she returned to Cameron after the visit (in which she introduced Cameron to her mom, stepfather and two sisters as her fiancé — which he was, sort of, since in the meantime Cameron had dug up the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar from the Bible and used that as a justification to “marry” Colleen) became a key point in Cameron’s defense when the police finally arrested him. Girl in the Box is one of those stories that’s so incredibly compelling even glitches in the telling can’t sap it of its interest, and one of the points it made (along with the earlier Cleveland Abduction, which was based on a more recent case) is how sadomasochism has been democratized. The people for whom it’s named, the Baron Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and the Marquis de Sade, were European landed aristocrats who didn’t have to worry about making a living and could therefore indulge in whatever sexual games they wanted to, with partners willing or unwilling; now, kidnapping people and holding them as sex slaves is something people with surprisingly proletarian backgrounds — Ariel Castro, the perpetrator of the Cleveland abductions, was a school bus driver (until he got fired), and Cameron Hooker worked in a lumber yard (which gave him the experience handling wood which he used to construct the big box, a smaller box which only encompassed the victim’s head and gave her so little air she thought she was going to choke to death, and the other ingenious gadgets he used to torture her) — and limited budgets can do. At one point Colleen asks Cameron, “Why are you doing this to me?,” and he replies, “Because I can.”

The biggest area in which I give Stephen Kemp points is that he’s able to make all three principals genuinely interesting characters rather than cardboard heroines or villains; Janice comes off as part-perpetrator, part-victim; Cameron shows off a real personal charm even though we hate him for his actions (one could see why a woman would fall in love with him and go along willingly with at least some of his demands, and the fact that he’s a nice person on the surface and a villain only underneath makes him scarier than if he’d been played as a typical looney-tunes movie psychopath with no superficially positive features); and Colleen comes off as a sympathetic victim but also an almost terminally naïve one. In the documentary she recalls that before she was taken to the Hookers’ home and locked in their basement, they stopped off at a gas station and allowed her to use the restroom — and she heard a voice saying, “Get out that window and leave now,” and was haunted for the next seven years and four months by that voice and how her life might have been different if she’d followed it. Later on she said her faith in God sustained her throughout her ordeal — she’d sometimes steal Janice’s copy of the Bible, and in the film Cameron is shown using that against her, citing one of the Bible’s many passages justifying slavery and emphasizing the slave’s duty to obey his or her master without question — but she’s shown not only as naïve and not especially bright, but slowly forming at least some degree of romantic affection for her captor. Indeed she showed so much romantic affection for her captor (in one of the later scenes she’s shown with her head on his chest, just like a normal couple!) that that became a major issue in her trial — even after she was set free (not by Cameron but by Janice, who let her go and took her to a bus stop either because she was genuinely horrified by the crime she’d been party to, she was jealous of Cameron’s growing romantic interest in Colleen or a combination of both) she continued to write Cameron letters and they frequently contained the words, “I love you.”

This became a major issue in Cameron’s trial — he was prosecuted by the one woman in the D.A.’s office in Santa Clara County (indeed, the county’s one woman lawyer, period) and his defense was that, while maybe he had kidnapped her originally (the initial kidnapping was outside the statute of limitations and therefore Cameron couldn’t be prosecuted for it), ultimately she fell in love with him and decided to stay with him voluntarily and endure all his tortures as (you guessed it) consensual S/M. At least that was his defense when he wasn’t pinning it all on Janice — who got complete immunity for her testimony against him — and saying that Janice and Colleen had become Lesbian lovers and cooked up a scheme to get rid of him by framing him. One of the cops who worked on the case called Cameron a “pure psychopath,” which for once is technically accurate — the general definition of a psychopath is someone who regards other people as simply objects he or she can use however he or she likes, without any account for their needs or feelings at all — to the point where they can kill people and not feel a shred of guilt or remorse; they were just in the way and s/he got rid of them. The film’s casting directors, Stephanie Gorin and Laura Durant, also deserve kudos for finding three people to play the principals who look strikingly like the real ones — though the Colleen Stan we see in the documentary is the one that exists today, 61 years old, a mother (of a daughter) and a grandmother (of a grandson), veteran of three failed marriages (though one of those both began and ended before she was taken captive) and still going through operations to try to fix the long-term injuries done to her by Cameron’s tortures and the chronic pain they put her through. She’s considerably heftier (but then that’s true of most of us who reach this age; I too am much larger than I was 40 years ago!) and her once-beautiful hair is stringy and hard to manage, and she’s also still oddly naïve about what happened to her, going through the old locations of her torture for the first time since she was set free and telling us she’s horrified and traumatized that she’s reliving it all, while the expressions on her face and her overall affect are virtually blank and matter-of-fact.

That, she says, was a survival skill she developed while Cameron was holding her; aware that they had murdered a previous captive because she’d screamed as Cameron was subduing and torturing her — he’d threatened to cut out her vocal cords but hadn’t known how to do it, so he killed her instead — she was determined not to scream, cry out or in any other way piss Cameron off by expressing displeasure at what he was doing to her. She carried this emotionless affect into Cameron’s trial and it was difficult for the A.D.A. to overcome it and get the jury to believe not only that these terrible things had happened to her but she’d been severely damaged by them. While I think Emma Donoghue’s novel Room and the film made from it (scripted by Donoghue herself and directed by Lenny Abrahamson) are the best works I’ve read and seen about the situation of a woman held in slavery and sexually tortured by an unscrupulous man — perhaps in part because as a fiction writer Donoghue was able to pick and choose from among the various things that could happen to people in that situation and thereby build an even more powerful and real-seeming tale than possible in a story at least partially based on fact — Girl in the Box is a quite good film, occasionally oppressive in the fantasy sequences Kemp put in to emphasize Colleen’s spirituality and its role in getting her through her ordeal (she never seems to have encountered what theologians call the “theodicy” problem — i.e., why an all-knowing and all-loving God would have let that horrible thing happen to her in the first place) but mostly well directed, well written and beautifully acted.