Monday, July 10, 2017

Tiny House of Terror (Sepia Films/Lifetime, 2017)

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

My “feature” last night was a Lifetime movie with the almost risible title Tiny House of Terror, and after the relative quality of The Wrong Crush and Deadly Secrets by the Lake this was a return to typical Lifetime slovenliness and silliness. The “original” story for this one came from Jill Sanford, usually an associate producer, and she worked it into a script in collaboration with our old friend from the Whittendale universe, Barbara Kymlicka, whom I’ve wondered before why she didn’t change her name when, given that virtually all her scripts revolve around sexual obsession in general and nubile young women working their way through Whittendale University by becoming prostitutes or mistresses of rich men in particular, it would seem that she’d see the downside of being known as “Cum-Licker.” For most of its running time this didn’t seem like the sort of story that would attract the attentions of Ms. Kymlicka, until a surprise twist at the end … well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The central character is Samantha Hastings (Francia Raisa), wife of Kyle Hastings (Jesse Hutch), who in partnership with his friend Mark Chadwick (Matte Bellefleur) became an Internet gazillionaire developing a successful Web site called Host, which enables all the aspects of your home — lights, heat, air, appliances, entertainment, you name it — to be controlled by a single app.

I’ve heard of such applications being tested in real life and being vulnerable to the same thing that happens in the movie: either an accidental glitch or a deliberate hack can mean your house basically takes you over and starts turning lights on and off, playing your TV at whatever channel it wants, locking your doors so you’re essentially trapped inside, and any number of otherwise undesirable outcomes. Such duly happens to Our Heroine, whose story begins on one of those bucolic evenings beloved of Lifetime writers doing their exposition, in which Samantha, Kyle, Mark and Mark’s wife Lindsay (Tammy Gillis) are in Kyle’s house (which features a set of concrete stairs leading from the first to the second floor that reminded me of a human vertebra) playing charades and arguing intensely, but comically, over every play. Later Kyle and Samantha get into a much more serious argument when Samantha, pregnant with Kyle’s child, suddenly goes into spasms in their living room and has a miscarriage — her second one. After this experience she obtains birth-control pills and starts using them because she doesn’t want to go through either the physical or mental agonies of any more useless pregnancies, and when Kyle stumbles on the truth he’s furious that she’s gone on birth control without telling him and therefore deprived him of the opportunity to have a child. (If these were real-life people of my own acquaintance, this is about the time I would be thinking of a way to tell them that maybe if they want a child so badly they should give up on the natural route and consider adopting.) 

Then Kyle goes off on one of his regular rock-climbing vacations, only he doesn’t come back and he’s reported as missing. Then Samantha has a traumatic experience in which her TV suddenly comes on and starts replaying all the recorded news reports of Kyle’s disappearance, freaking her out both with the content of the reports and her inability to get Host to turn the TV off: she keeps telling it to do so and it responds merely by changing the channel. (Why it doesn’t occur to her to unplug the TV was a mystery to me — unless Host has the TV cord booby-trapped so you can’t unplug it without shocking yourself to death.) Though the house Kyle and Samantha were living in at the start of the story already seemed pretty small to me, especially for people who were supposed to be super-rich, it turns out that Kyle had planned a present for Samantha: the titular tiny house, only 300 square feet, located in a section of pristine country which Kyle and Mark wanted to develop, but to do so with ultra-small houses to make as little of a “footprint” on the site’s natural beauty as possible. Just why Samantha would have needed a house of her own when she and Kyle were getting along decently, except for Kyle’s desire for a child and Samantha’s inability to bring a pregnancy to term, is a mystery locked in Ms’s. Sanford’s and Kymlicka’s heads, but after Kyle’s disappearance she decides to move into the titular tiny house of terror. 

It soon turns out that the “terror” she’s involved in isn’t either electromechanical or supernatural, but entirely explicable: someone is regularly breaking into the house and doing things like setting the garbage disposal to turn itself on when Samantha has opened it up and is trying to retrieve her wedding ring from it, and stealing all the photos of herself with Kyle and erasing the final text she got from him so she’ll have no physical evidence of their relationship. About the only people Samantha has to turn to in her hours of need are Mark, Lindsay and Samantha’s older sister Jackie (Nazneen Contractor — that’s what says her name is!), a nurse who’s put her on anti-anxiety pills she’s stolen from the hospital where she works (and got into trouble for doing so), along with Ben Oxley (William Vaughan), a local environmental activist who offers himself as her handyman. It turns out that after Kyle disappeared, Mark needed a new partner for his land investment and found him in local developer Darren Zucker (David Stewart), only Zucker isn’t interested in building a bunch of tiny houses and otherwise retaining the land’s pristine natural beauty. His plan is to level the whole thing and put in condos and a strip mall, and Mark reluctantly goes along with him on the ground that with Kyle gone, that will be the only way he can salvage his investment in the property. This sets up all manner of red herrings for Ms.’s Sanford and Kymlicka to play around with — was Kyle killed by the developer who wanted a bigger project than the one Kyle was willing to build, or by the environmentalist who didn’t want any development on that land at all? — and Darren the Bad Developer even gets clubbed inside the Tiny House of Terror, though when Samantha finds his body it’s inside his car and the scene has been staged to make it look like he died in an accident. 

Eventually it turns out that the real culprit is [surprise!] Samantha’s sister Jackie — though that’s not as much of a surprise as the writers intended because virtually all the women in the cast physically resemble each other and when Jackie turns up and identifies herself as Samantha’s tormentor one’s first reaction (my first reaction, anyway) is to replay the movie in memory and try to figure out, “O.K., which one is she?” What’s more, Kyle, Samantha’s husband, is alive after all. He didn’t go on his planned rock-climbing trip because before he could do that, Jackie kidnapped him with the intent of offing Samantha and marrying Kyle herself. It seems that Kyle briefly dated Jackie when they were both in high school, only he broke up with her after a few weeks when he decided that Samantha was the woman he was actually in love with him — and Jackie not only is still carrying a torch for him, she’s convinced she’d be a better match for him than Samantha because Samantha has tried and failed twice to give him a child and that part of Jackie’s anatomy presumably still works. Of course Jackie is also jealous that she’s had to spend her life working long and tough hours as a nurse while her sister married a man who became rich and doesn’t have to do anything — though she’s pursuing a sort of hobby career as a landscape architect and has submitted a design for the tiny-house development. 

The climax is so preposterously melodramatic that compared to Ms.’s Sanford and Kymlicka, Christine Conradt seems like a mistress of understatement: determined to get rid of her sister once and for all (the drugs she was giving Samantha were supposed to do her in slowly, but Samantha took herself off them before they could have that effect), Jackie steals a bulldozer, sets the internal security system of the tiny house to lock Samantha in, then crashes the bulldozer into the house and starts demolishing it with Samantha and Kyle both still inside it — and this keeps up until the police arrive just in time and stop Jackie from doing her sister and brother-in-law any further damage. Tiny House of Terror has some nicely Gothic suspense direction by Paul Shapiro, but the writing is ridiculous (though things lighten up a bit when we discover not only that Jackie is the killer but that sex was her motive: at last we’re into the kind of storytelling that turns Ms. Cum-Licker on) and the cast is just dull — Nazneen Contractor doesn’t even seize the opportunities for full-throated villainy her character offered (and some other actresses in Lifetime movies have made the most of), and the sympathetic characters are just sleep-inducing. Given the success of Lifetime’s series Little Women I had half-expected and half-dreaded that Tiny House of Terror would be a story about little people being terrorized by full-sized humans in houses built tiny because they don’t have to be any bigger to accommodate them; that would have been totally tasteless but might also have offered a sleazier Terror of Tiny Town-type fun Tiny House of Terror doesn’t even begin to offer as it stands!