Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Neighbor’s Deception, a.k.a. Next Door (MarVista Entertainment/Lifetime, 2017)

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

Lifetime’s last “premiere” on April 8 was A Neighbor’s Deception, also known as Next Door, and this time it was a triumph of direction (Devon Downs and Kenny Gage have a co-director credit but, judging from their pages, it’s Downs who was probably the lead director — the only other film that credits them both is called Cynthia and on that one Downs is listed as director and Gage as producer) over script and overall production. The film begins with a long Gothic-horror scene in which a woman is being stalked in a house by an unseen assailant; she hides under the bed while her would-be killer is circling around the bedroom waiting for her to emerge, and when the assailant leaves the room she makes a break for it — only to be caught at the foot of the stairs, and … Then the film cuts to the good-guy protagonists, young couple Michael (Adam Mayfield) and Chloe (Ashley Bell, top-billed) Anderson, who are just moving into a new house and encounter their next-door neighbors, Gerald (Tom Amandes) and Cheryl (Isabella Hoffman) Dixon. Michael is an incredibly busy attorney, which means he works a lot of late nights — much to his wife’s understandable displeasure — and for once he’s played by an actor who’s stocky and dark-haired, and while not drop-dead gorgeous is quite a bit sexier than the tall, lanky, sandy-haired and rather blank-looking guys who are Lifetime’s usual “type” as the good-guy husbands. Apparently the two have been on the rocks as a couple since they were unable, after years of trying, to have children, and the last failure (we assume she had a miscarriage, though writer Adam Rockoff doesn’t specify that) propelled her into a nervous breakdown from which she’s only starting to recover — I guess moving out of the city and into the suburbs was supposed to ease her emotionally and help her recover.

Gerald turns out to be a retired psychotherapist who mostly does research now but still likes to see patients privately in his home; he offers to treat Chloe but we suspect, based on the way we see him looking at her when both couples have dinner together, that he’s really after her sexually. Of course Chloe gets suspicious of him and starts investigating his past, especially after she gets a series of anonymous phone calls while she’s out jogging in the country (she jogs at all hours of the day and night and we start to wonder if she has any social life or ever does anything away from home other than jogging). The stranger who keeps calling her turns out to be James Rooker (Ben Whalen), whose wife Caroline (Marissa Labog) was a patient of Gerald’s years before until he seduced her and she, too, mysteriously disappeared; James is convinced Gerald killed his wife and wants Chloe to prove it. Gerald had told Chloe he did both his undergraduate and graduate work at Middlesex University, but she finds out he never finished there: he was a graduate student and a teaching assistant when he seduced one of his pupils, who mysteriously disappeared just before the college hearing at which she was supposed to testify against him. She and Michael eventually learn that his family was from Bakersfield — Michael casually jokes about him being “Norman Bates from Bakersfield,” which freaks him out (and it surprised me, too, because my impression was that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho actually took place in Arizona) — when Chloe sneaks into Gerald’s house and finds a banker’s box of papers which gives her the clue as to where he came from originally. (There’s another nice long, largely silent suspense scene in which Chloe drops the banker’s box — crushing one of its corners — while Gerald is on his way home and arrives back while she’s still there: directors Downs and Gage shoot this in a way that deliberately and vividly evokes the film’s sinister opening.)

Chloe visits an old woman who was a friend of Gerald’s family in Bakersfield and learns from her that Gerald was not an only child, as he claimed; instead he had a sister named Cheryl and either Cheryl alone or the two of them together burned down their family’s house and killed their parents. Chloe realizes that the woman she’s been led to believe was Gerald’s wife was in fact his sister (an interesting inversion of the plot gimmick in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles in which the villain’s wife poses as his sister because, as Sherlock Holmes explains, “she could be more useful to him in the character of a free woman”), and ever since he signed her out of the mental institution she was incarcerated in after she burned down their parents’ home and killed them, she’s been knocking off anyone who threatened to expose him — and he, in turn, has been shielding and protecting her from the consequences of her actions. The film has an action climax in which the Andersons realize that Cheryl is the real killer, she tries to knock them off, they fight back and she dies — but in one of those annoying tag sequences they like so much, they depict Gerald as getting away with it and seeing yet another woman patient he’ll presumably try first to seduce and then to kill. A Neighbor’s Deception isn’t much of a movie, and the big “surprise” reveal at the end isn’t that much of a surprise (especially with the Psycho reference to clue us in — though I was thinking Rockoff was going for an even closer Psycho parallel in which Gerard would be committing murders under the psychotic delusion that he was his late mother), though Tom Amandes (about the only actor here I’ve heard of before) delivers a finely honed performance as Gerald — but it’s saved by Downs’ and Gage’s atmospheric neo-Gothic direction and the overall sense of menace they’re able to create even with a pretty bland, by-the-numbers thriller script.