Sunday, February 26, 2017

Deadly Lessons (Odyssey Media/Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Lifetime did the director (David DeCoteau) and writers (Eve Holdway and Taj Nagaoka) of Deadly Lessons no favors by scheduling the “world premiere” of their movie right after the “world premiere” of Infidelity in Suburbia because the juxtaposition of the two heightened their formula similarities — a woman menaced by a lover who turns out to be a psycho, her best friend who tries to warn her and is killed for her pains, even [spoiler alert!] a climax in which the heroine dispatches her psycho boyfriend by pitching him off a tall place (a second-story window in Infidelity in Suburbia, a spectacular scenic bridge in Deadly Lessons) — when Deadly Lessons was actually a much finer, more moving and more entertaining piece of work. This time the damsel who unbeknownst to her has just sent distress an engraved invitation is a college student named Lisa (Christie Burson), a third-year undergraduate with ambitions to be a doctor, and in the opening scene she’s with her friends Tiffany (Sammi Barber) and Patrick (James Drew Dean — obviously he uses the middle name because just “James Dean” was rather famously taken over 60 years ago; he’s nowhere near as hot and sexy as his namesake but he’s easy enough on the eyes) attending a class in ethics being taught by Michael Harris (Ryan Scott Greene).

Michael is a younger version of the tall, lanky, sandy-haired types Lifetime generally likes for their middle-aged leading men — usually as the husband the heroine is being sorely tempted to stray from — and for some reason he has to hold his lecture class outside on the campus lawn. (Is this university — an unnamed college in the Pacific Northwest so it can be “played” by locations in British Columbia, Canada — that crowded that he’s leading what amounts to an overflow class?) Michael is giving Lisa a hard time in class and, when the bell rings, he rather peremptorily announces to her that he expects her to meet him in his office immediately. We’re expecting that he’s going to hit on her, perhaps blackmailing her into having sex with him in return for a better grade, but [surprise!] as soon as they get into the office and close the door, they start sucking face. They’re already lovers, and what’s more, she’s as happy about that as he is. Only Tiffany and Patrick are spying on the lovebirds and use their smartphones to catch them being affectionate at Michael’s home that night — and they report him to the dean (Cedric De Souza). The dean immediately asks Michael to resign, but promises him a good recommendation so he can still get a job somewhere else in academe (was he a Roman Catholic staffer in his previous career?), and he says Lisa can continue at the college and it won’t go on her record that she slept with a professor. No way, says Lisa: where my man goes, I go — even though that means losing the tuition she already paid for that semester, losing her chance to continue in college and losing her relationship with her mother, who announces to her that if she does such a dumb thing as sacrifice her education and her ambitions for some guy, mom wants nothing to do with her anymore.

Michael and Lisa get married at city hall and move to Seattle, where he’s landed another teaching gig and they rent a house by a lake with a spectacular view. Lisa gets invited to a faculty barbecue and is asked by the host to bring her husband, only he begs off going and when she shows up, someone accosts her as “Wendy,” and she has no idea who that is. It turns out Wendy is the name of Michael’s former girlfriend, who (supposedly) committed suicide on the eve of their marriage — though of course we suspect Michael murdered her — and Lisa is already the spitting image of her. The resemblance becomes even closer when Michael buys Lisa a frilly off-white dress and tells her to wear it at all times when they’re home alone together — and later on Lisa finds a photo of Wendy wearing an identical dress. There’s also a sequence in which we see an old wooden trunk in Michael’s and Lisa’s hallway, and we have no idea what’s in there but we know from the sinister music we hear when it’s shown on screen that there’s something incredibly evil about it. As Michael and Lisa settle in and Lisa tries to do her best to make the marriage work — only Michael gets mad at her for things as trivial as burning his morning toast — he gets more maniacally possessive. She pleads with him to allow her something to do during the day when he’s teaching — either go back to school or get a part-time job — and he says the part-time job is O.K. as long as she can get home and have dinner ready for him when he returns from his teaching job. (Apparently her skills in the kitchen have improved since that disastrous early morning when she burned his toast.) Accordingly she walks into a coffeehouse with the horrible name “Crêpe Vine” and gets hired to start immediately (with no paperwork, which amazed Charles, who couldn’t believe that a business would just hire someone who walked in off the street without any documentation at all), only her boss turns into yet another one of the people who’s genuinely worried about her and her marriage. In between all these events, we’ve also seen Patrick hanging around Michael’s and Lisa’s home, setting up a possible red-herring ending in which it would turn out that Michael was blameless and it was Patrick who was wreaking all this havoc in Lisa’s life out of jealousy and bitterness that Michael got her instead of him. We also wonder if Patrick is perhaps the younger brother of one of Michael’s previous female victims … but writers Holdway and Nagaoka don’t go there.

Instead they have Lisa discover that Michael killed his first wife, a woman named Rachel, and Wendy — who ostensibly committed suicide but whom we’ve been thinking Michael killed — actually turns up in Crêpe Vine alive, having faked her own death and taken another identity because that was the only way she could get away from the psychotically possessive Michael. Meanwhile Tiffany (ya remember Tiffany?) has found out about Rachel online, but of course Michael kills her before she can warn Lisa. The case is ultimately unraveled by a woman detective with the Seattle Police Department, but because Michael and Lisa are living in such a remote area, Lisa has to confront Michael herself — she knocks him out with a frying pan but, rather than flee immediately, she picks the lock on that trunk (ya remember the trunk?) and grabs a tin case inside that contains photos of Rachel, and Michael catches her on a scenic bridge and they struggle until, you guessed it, Lisa gets the upper hand long enough to push Michael off the bridge to his death. Though obviously drawing on the same cliché bank as Infidelity in Suburbia, Deadly Lessons is a far more powerful and moving piece of work: Michael is a genuinely conflicted character, far more than the cardboard villain of Infidelity in Suburbia, and as the film progressed I found myself reminded of similar movies in the 1940’s in which naïve young women found themselves married to mysterious men with sinister secrets: Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, George Cukor’s Gaslight, Max Ophuls’ Caught. I’m not for a moment suggesting that David DeCoteau is in Hitchcock’s, Cukor’s or Ophuls’ league as a director, but he’s working with a script far more sophisticated than the Lifetime norm, with more complex characterizations in both the lead roles, and he’s alive to its complexities and fully realizes them on screen despite some bits in the movie that tend towards the usual Lifetime sillinesses. On its own Deadly Lessons is a quite impressive movie within the limits of the Lifetime formula, and though showing it right after Infidelity in Suburbia made the films look too similar, it also showed how much better DeCoteau, Holdway and Nagaoka did their jobs than David Winning and Christie Will did!