Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Wrong House (Hybrid LLC/Lifetime, 2016)

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

After Nanny Nightmare (was Nightmare Nanny taken already?) Lifetime showed another movie about a psycho who insinuates her (this time) crazy self into the lives of a suburban couple, with disastrous results all around. It was called The Wrong House and its central characters are Brian and Rebecca Lassiter (Tilky Jones and Clare Kramer). He’s a successful architect in New York City who decides he can make even more money if he relocates to L.A. and works for the West Coast office of his firm. Professionally the move is an almost immediate success — his design for a major new skyscraper lands him the contract to build it (it looks from the model like a cross between a giant drill bit and one of Howard Roark’s modern erections in The Fountainhead) — but personally it’s a problem. The Lassiters got a great deal on a fancy house in the Coral Gables section because it had been foreclosed on and the bank had been trying to unload it for years — though, unlike real-life banks in that situation, they’d spent money on upkeep to keep the house in good condition so it would fetch a good price when it was sold. The realtor (or is that “RealtorTM”?) who sold it to them, red-haired Angela Chasen (Carolyn Hennesy), told them there had been another offer for the place, but she was concerned that the other buyer didn’t have enough liquidity so she sold the house to the Lassiters instead. Even though the Lassiters’ move disrupted the schooling and friends network of their daughter Maddy (Ashlyn Jade Lopez), they seem happy enough in their new house and with their African-American neighbors, Jeff and Lana Cranfield (Joshua Elijah Reese and Heidi Clark), who invite them to host a potluck for the neighbors. Lana also recommends her physical therapist, Kathleen Strickland (Allison McAtee), to Rebecca, and the two start working out together.

Then various nasty things start happening: the Lassiters are about to go out to dinner when a delivery boy (Erik Estrada Loaiza) shows up with over $50 worth of pizzas with extra anchovies and says that Rebecca ordered them, which she did not. We’ve already seen Kathleen Strickland steal Rebecca’s number and put it on her phone, so we know it was Kathleen who pulled this prank and later sent another delivery person with a bag full of Chinese food (which at least sounds tastier than those pizzas with double anchovies!), but the Lassiters have no idea what’s going on and at one point Lauren asks Lana if she was having all this food delivered to them for the potluck the next day. Things get nastier one night when someone throws a rock through the window of Maddy’s bedroom — and Lauren’s maternal instincts kick into high gear: being socked for $100 for delivered food they hadn’t ordered was one thing, but something that endangered her daughter … The next day, during the potluck, two exterminators (José Rosete and Mickael de Sinno) come over to spray the place for rats, and when David insists that there are no rats, one duly shows up and nearly bites one of the guests. The “pranks” escalate as posters suddenly show up around the neighborhood that claim David Lassiter is a child molester (the word used is “pedophile” and there’s a grimly amusing moment when Maddy asks her mom what the word means and just what the poster is accusing her dad of), which gets David’s boss to pull him off the big project and send him back to the salt mines of being a junior draftsman and leads both his boss and Lauren to be suspicious and wonder if the reason he left New York so quickly and moved his family to L.A. was that he was running from charges of child sexual abuse. Then Kathleen, who’s shown with a full set of lock picks, enters the house and fakes evidence of David having an affair: she takes off her panties and hides them under the Lassiters’ marital bed, she showers in the Lassiters’ bathroom and carefully pulls off a lock of her hair to leave in the drain, and as if that weren’t bad enough she leaves a note in the pocket of David’s shirt, ostensibly from a woman named Caitlin claiming that David had promised to leave his wife for her and Caitlin was pissed at him for reneging.

David gets his friend on the L.A. police force, Detective Carter (Thomas Calabro), to run his files so it’s established he’s never been charged with child molestation, but Lauren is so convinced that he’s cheating on her with the mysterious (and in fact nonexistent) “Caitlin” that she throws him out of the house and he ends up in the Palm Court Motel, a real-life L.A. location that turns up in a lot of TV-movies as a sort of epitome of sleaziness. Maddy tries to keep in telephonic contact with her dad but every time Lauren catches her daughter and her husband talking on the phone, she grabs the phone away from Maddy and hangs up on him. Meanwhile, Lauren is confiding her problems with all this to, you guessed it, Kathleen Strickland, who hates the Lassiters because they’re the ones who outbid her for the house. It seems that Kathleen grew up in that house and remembered all the good times with her mom until mom started drinking excessively. When she sank into full-fledged alcoholism Kathleen’s dad broke up with her and took Kathleen, and mom eventually lost the house to foreclosure. When the house came back on the market Kathleen decided to buy it back, but the Lassiters got it instead, so she decided to launch a campaign of intimidation to make them realize they didn’t belong in the house and they should let her have it. This snowballs to the point where Kathleen starts murdering people right and left, including a middle-aged woman in the neighborhood who remembered Kathleen as a kid and threatened to report her; Lana Cranfield, who makes the mistake of telling Kathleen during one of their workout sessions that she saw Kathleen’s car outside the Lassiters’ house one day and gets clubbed with a dumbbell for her pains (Lana realizes Kathleen has attacked her and, in one of director Sam Irvin’s best scenes, she tries to reach for her cell phone on the table near their swimming pool, only Kathleen gets there first, throws the phone into the pool and finishes Lana off); and Kathleen’s own therapist, who has the name “Dr. Elizabeth Ross” even though she’s obviously Asian (as is the actress playing her, Keiko Agena), whom she strangles in the middle of a therapy session just as Dr. Ross is beginning to wonder whether the vehemence of Kathleen’s threats against the Lassiters has reached the threshold where, under California law, Dr. Ross has a duty to break doctor-patient confidentiality and warn the authorities.

Just how she thinks she can get away with killing all these people, driving the Lassiters out of town and ensconcing herself back in her ancestral home after the trail of corpses she’s left behind is a mystery, but the story builds to a typical Lifetime climax in which Kathleen holds Lauren hostage, knifes Detective Carter in the back when he shows up at the house in response to David’s call (I always wince when Lifetime writers make it seem so easy to sneak up behind a cop and knife him to death — one would think a person professionally trained to be in life-or-death situations would be more aware of what was going on and wouldn’t let himself be taken by surprise like that), only Lauren loosens her bonds and escapes. Kathleen reminds her that she grew up in that house and therefore knows every inch of it, including all its potential hiding places, and she finds Lauren hiding under the master bed and starts pulling her out until … David has finally found Kathleen and stabbed her in the back in time to save his wife from meeting her doom at Kathleen’s hands. The Wrong House had just one director but a plethora of writers — Jeffrey Schenck and Peter Sullivan, who are also among the movie’s Gang of Six Producers, are credited with the original story but it took Sullivan and four other writers, Jeffrey Barmash, George Erschbamer, Barbara Fixx and director Irvin, to work up this ragbag of Lifetime clichés into a filmable screenplay. They seem to have gone out of their way to prove my General Field Theory of Cinema that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers (one writer, or two working in direct collaboration, seems to be the ideal)! About the only truly fun part of this film is, as usual, the performance of the actor playing the crazy villain: director Irvin and his writing committee were going after florid-psycho instead of self-contained psycho in their characterization of Kathleen Strickland, and Allison McAtee seized the opportunity for one of the most joyously florid and overacted performances I’ve seen in a recent film. Self-contained one minute, doing rage the next and then suddenly breaking out in tears, McAtee is fun to watch for the sheer over-the-topness she brings to a character who’s pretty relentlessly over-the-top even for a Lifetime villainess, and the writers give her plenty of opportunities by supplying a script of such demented sloppiness things just happen without much of a sense of direction — thereby throwing McAtee a bunch of barely motivated curveballs which she keeps hitting out of the park!