Sunday, July 9, 2017

Deadly Secrets by the Lake (Reel One Entertainment, LMN, Harlequin, 2017)

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

The film Lifetime showed at 10 p.m. yesterday had the rather intimidating title Deadly Secrets by the Lake but was actually pretty good, effectively written by Roma Roth (also listed as one of the project’s four producers) and Al Kratina, and directed by Don McBrearty with an effective sense of atmosphere. Jennifer Riley (an actress saddled with the indigestible name “Stefanie von Pfetten” — the sort of name that in the days of classic Hollywood got changed: back then nobody thought anyone would go see a movie billed as “The Wizard of Oz, starring Frances Gumm”) is a New York City police detective who just arrested a man she caught in the act of preparing to rape the woman he’d already kidnapped, bound and gagged. She’s been in a relationship for two years with a man named Santos Alvarez (played by an actor named Tahmoh Penikett — it almost seems as if the casting director worked hard to find a co-star with as ridiculous a name as the female lead, and despite the name of the character he doesn’t look particularly Latino) but they’ve neither got married nor moved in together, and her life gets upended when she receives a call from her father back home in the small town of Thornwood Heights, where she grew up (and whose precise location is unclear — I wondered if it was supposed to be a lakefront community in upstate New York or a Midwestern town on one of the Great Lakes, though of course this being a Lifetime movie the actual location was somewhere in Canada!).

Her dad is the police chief of Thornwood Heights but an ambitious deputy, Lewton (Dean Armstrong), is trying to push him out of that position. It seems one of Chief Riley’s other daughters, Lauren (Ferelith Young), has been arrested for murdering Victor Townsend, the owner of the blog for which she worked and which was trying to expose the misdeeds of the town’s richest man, coal magnate Connor Blake (Chris Gillett). Lauren was found next to Victor’s corpse, with his blood all over her and the knife that killed him in her hand, but of course Our Heroine Jennifer is convinced that her sister can’t have killed anybody, and she’s determined to investigate the case herself even though she has no jurisdiction — as Lewton viciously reminds her when he addresses her as “Ms. Riley,” she corrects him — “That’s Detective Riley” — and he fires back, “Maybe in New York City, but not here.” Jennifer is hated in Thornwood Heights because 20 years earlier she was supposed to meet her best friend, Connor Blake’s daughter Abby, for a platonic date — only she didn’t show up because she was too busy having a decidedly non-platonic encounter with Abby’s brother Hayden (Steve Byers). For some reason the police in general (other than her dad) and Lewton in particular decided that Jennifer must have killed Abby, and while they had neither Abby’s body nor any other actual evidence against her, she didn’t have a provable alibi either. Hayden refused to say they’d been together that night because his dad had previously lied and said the two had spent the evening together — a double lie because dad had actually been cheating on Hayden’s mom with another woman, and if Hayden had told the truth about his own whereabouts he would have exposed his father’s lie. So he didn’t and let Jennifer take the blame for Abby’s disappearance, and though Jennifer was never prosecuted she was forced to leave town — whereupon she went to New York City, became a cop and hooked up with the racially ambiguous Santos.

Meanwhile, back home Hayden attempted to work in his dad’s coal business, decided he didn’t like it — though it’s not all that clear how he did make his living — and he also got married, but by the time Jennifer returns Hayden and his wife have separated. Jennifer is convinced that Abby’s disappearance and Victor’s death are linked, and she investigates both crimes despite the open hostility of Connor Blake, who warns her not to see any member of his family; Lucky Martin (Conrad Coates), a nice-looking middle-aged African-American whose daughter was a co-worker of Lauren’s at Victor’s blog (which had aroused the ire of Connor Blake by printing material from an environmentalist organization challenging Connor’s attempts to expand his coal mine); Jennifer’s sister Nova (Claire Rankin), who works as a file clerk in the Thornwood Heights police department and is worried Jennifer’s investigation is going to get her fired; and even Jennifer’s dad (Fulvio Cecere), who tears into her one afternoon when he catches her with Hayden Blake at their home and demands she never see him again. Needless to say, she ignores the demand — Hayden and Jennifer become lovers (again) during the course of her investigation — and Jennifer is torn at the end between New York and Thornwood Heights and between the two men in her life, dull, boring Santos and darkly fascinating Hayden. While all this is going on Jennifer also realizes that someone in Connor Blake’s operation had been leaking compromising financial information to Victor’s blog, and she reaches the conclusion that the leaker was also the murderer. Roma Roth and Al Krastina throw us a few red herrings along the way — including Hayden’s cuter but far less butch brother Daniel (Jon Cor) — but the real killer turns out to be someone we haven’t met before, Daniel’s assistant at Blake Enterprises, Jamie Chen (an actor with yet another unfortunate last name, Shannon Kook), who was having a Gay affair with Victor Townsend, got pissed at him when Victor refused to leave his wife for him, killed him and drugged Lauren’s drinks at the bar so her tox screen would be through the roof and the cops would believe Lauren killed Victor in a drink- and drug-fueled jealous rage.

At the end it looks like Jennifer has wrapped up the cases — she’s even found a skeleton in the Blakes’ boat house she’s convinced is Abby (ya remember Abby?) — and is ready to go back to New York and her boring boyfriend Santos, only she gets a phone call from a mysterious stranger she becomes convinced is Abby, who we’re led to believe didn’t disappear at all and who is still alive. The ending, which struck me as reminiscent of the “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” schtick on the original Twin Peaks and “Who Shot J. R.?” on Dallas, was written that way to set up a series, Thornwood Heights, and the credits even invite you to keep abreast of Abby’s mystery at the series’ Web site,, indicating that this is a co-production of Lifetime’s premium channel LMN (for “Lifetime Movie Network”) and Harlequin, the romance-novel company, and it’s going to be the start of a series. I could have done without the “teaser” aspect of the ending, but for the most part this is actually quite a good program, rich and redolent with atmosphere and genuine suspense (despite the killer being surprise-revealed as someone we’ve never seen or even heard of before, which breaks the first rule they teach you in Whodunits 101) and also ably capturing the mephitic atmosphere of small-town life, the metaphorically incestuous relationships that build up between all these people who have literally known each other all their lives, and above all in the classism of the piece. At one point Connor Blake makes his objections to Jennifer’s activities so clear he grabs her arm and says, in a low, threatening voice, “I’m used to people doing what I tell them” — and though this movie was probably made before the last Presidential election there’s certainly a lot of Trump in his attitude, this whole sense of noblesse oblige that because I have more money than you I am a naturally superior person and therefore I can demand your obedience and punish you however I see fit if I don’t get it.