Sunday, November 20, 2016

Inspired to Kill (Feifer Worldwide/Lifetime, 2016)

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

Lifetime was offering two “world premieres” last night, and while I missed the first one I caught the second: Inspired to Kill, a genuinely surprising thriller from Michael Feifer’s Feifer Worldwide production company. Feifer is credited only as writer, but with no director credit on the film’s page I’m presuming he directed, too. The film takes place in Los Angeles and the central character is Kara Reed (Karissa Lee Staples), who shows up in L.A. to take a graduate-school writers’ workshop course at “Los Angeles University” (LAU), a decidedly fictitious institution of higher education. She’s arranged to room with Charlene “Charlie” Fratelli (Olivia d’Abo), who also co-owns a high-end coffeehouse with her business partner Tony (Daniel Booko) and arranges for Kara to have a job as a barista there. Early on we get a flashback to the effect that the whole world of dating and boyfriends is traumatic for Kara because the last man she was interested in, a publisher, was mysteriously murdered a year earlier in New York, which was what induced her to move across country and pursue her education in L.A. At the coffeehouse, Kara meets a cute co-worker, Jason (Matthew Atkinson), who obviously has a crush on her but is too shy to pursue it (even when she lets him take her home and even invites her in!), but one day at the coffeehouse she finds a tablet computer left behind by another patron. Jason tells her to put it in the coffeehouse’s lost-and-found drawer but Kara takes it home with her, opening it to find a home page identifying it as the “Property of P. K. Reese.” She gets a call on the tablet from Reese himself, who turns out to be crime author Paul Reese (Antonio Sabato, Jr.), and she agrees to go out with him for dinner. She also fends off the creepy advances of her writing professor, Cross (Jay Stevens) — so three of the male dramatis personae have the hots for her, which seems a bit extreme: Karissa Lee Staples is attractive in a perky sort of way but she’s not exactly drop-dead gorgeous. Cross calls Kara to his office and says he wants her to “pick my brain” and thereby help her become a better writer, but it’s all too obvious both to Kara and to us that what she wants her to pick is a considerably lower part of his anatomy. He grabs her arm but she manages to escape (“Just you wait!” I joked at this point. “I’m going to be elected President and then I can have you deported!”), and she tells Paul about the whole thing. Later, during one of his lectures, Professor Cross suddenly goes into a seizure and dies.

Then Tony, Charlie’s co-owner and on-site boss of the coffeehouse, fires Kara for missing so many shifts — and he ends up dead, victim of an assault that was part of an apparent attempt to rob the place. Charlie gets killed, too, after she and Kara have a jealous hissy-fit when Kara catches Charlie giving her friend Jason a hug — just why that freaks out Kara when she’s already hooked up with Paul and hasn’t shown any sign of reciprocating Jason’s “that way” interest in her is a mystery, but it does. Charlie throws Kara out of her place, making the acid comment that since she’s landed Paul as a sugar daddy it’s not like Kara doesn’t have another place to go. Meanwhile, the police, headed by Detective Fredericks (John Eric Bentley, yet another of the avuncular African-American authority figures Lifetime producers like to balance out the idiotic antics of their white characters), naturally suspect Kara herself of the murders, since each of the victims had hurt her in some way. (By this time a medical examiner has definitively established that the supposedly “accidental” seizure that killed Professor Cross was actually caused by poison.) Fredericks orders 24/7 surveillance on Kara, and our presumption is that someone else in Kara’s life is killing all the people who injure her in some way. We even get a scene between Kara and Paul in which he boasts that he’s turning her into a better writer by killing all her enemies for her, whereupon she tells him he’s crazy and dumps him for Jason. (This was already something of a surprise since I had guessed based on previous Michael Feifer scripts that Jason would turn out to be the killer and Kara and Paul would take him down and end up together at the end — while Charles, who came home when the film was about two-fifths into its running time, had guessed Charlie would be the murderer on the Perry Mason principle that the most peripherally involved character would be the killer.) Kara and Jason find an apartment together but Kara asks him to drive back to Charlie’s place, where she slips in despite the police crime-scene tape over the entrance. She says to Jason that she needs to retrieve Paul’s tablet, which will prove that he and not she committed the murders — but when she gets inside Charlie’s place [spoiler alert!] we get a flashback of Kara actually killing Charlie, sneaking up behind her and stabbing her with a knife.

It turns out that what Michael Feifer had in mind is an offbeat combination of A Beautiful Mind and Psycho: “Paul” was a figment of Kara’s imagination all along (something Jason eventually realizes when he looks at the tablet and sees a video of Kara talking to herself in her “Paul” identity) and she had started the cycle of killing everyone who got in her way when she discovered that Alan Sheldon, the New York publisher she was dating a year earlier, was already married, so she sneaked up behind him one night while he was outside and slashed his throat. (Knives seem to be her preferred method, though she’s adaptable enough to have poisoned Professor Cross and shot Tony with a gun.) Jason calls 911 on her and fortunately the police arrive to keep him from becoming Kara’s next victim, but there’s a tag scene showing Kara in a facility for the criminally insane — it turns out that she was P. K. Reese (the initials stood for “Paula Kara”) and had written successfully as a crime novelist until she went off the rails and started killing for real. Charles rated this higher than most Lifetime thrillers — the borrowings from Hitchcock especially impressed him, and the minor plot glitches that he’d been picking up during the running time were mostly explained as gaps and inconsistencies in Kara’s fantasy life. One that Michael Feifer can’t get away with that easily is the weird scene when Professor Cross gets poisoned and starts collapsing in class; the students all start panicking and muttering about having to go somewhere to call the police, and it seems that this is one classroom in a 2016 university where no one is carrying a smartphone! I liked Inspired to Kill — I’d have liked it even better with more soft-core porn between Karissa Lee Staples and Antonio Sabato, Jr. (and the fact that the cast includes at least minor-league film actors like Sabato and Olivia d’Abo also indicates it had bigger ambitions than just being another by-the-numbers Lifetime thriller), and maybe some between Staples and cutie Matthew Atkinson as well (hey, I like guys who look like the human male in Scooby-Doo!) — but for once a Lifetime writer-director concocts a “surprise” ending that’s genuinely surprising and still makes sense in connection with what has gone before, and the acting is consistently good throughout even though no one character really stands out from the rest.