Monday, August 7, 2017

Trapped Sisters, a.k.a. 12 Feet Under (Citizen Skull, MarVista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2016)

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

Last night’s Lifetime movie was billed as a “premiere,” though according to the film was actually made in 2016, and there’s some confusion about the title: Lifetime’s Web site and the Los Angeles Times TV listings called it Trapped Sisters, called it 12 Feet Under, and the actual credits listed both names: Trapped Sisters 12 Feet Under. The film apparently reflected director and co-writer (with Michael Hultquist) Matt Eskandari’s lifelong fear of large bodies of water, swimming pools in particular. “Pools and oceans all trigger a bona fide sense of dread for me. Just the whole idea of being trapped in a pool makes me sweat,” Eskandari told an interviewer. “I decided to tap into that fear and the concept blossomed from there.” He got his inspiration from a news story from December 2015 about how a young woman had drowned in an indoor swimming pool when its management, not knowing she was in there, closed the fiberglass lid to the pool and left her trapped inside. What Eskandari and Hultquist came up with was a grim story in which two young women, sisters Bree (Nora Jane Noone) and Jonna (Alexandra Park) — the name is pronounced “Jonah” and Eskandari and Hultquist acknowledged she was named after the Biblical Jonah — are being pestered by McGradey (Tobin Bell) to get out of the public pool already so he can close its fiberglass cover, lock up the building and go home for the three-day holiday weekend, during which the pool will be closed. (Why? One would think the pool should be kept open during the holiday weekend because that’s when there would be peak demand for it!)

The other swimmers (all nubile young women, it seems) get out on time but one of them realizes she’s lost her engagement ring, which has wedged itself in the drainage grate at the pool’s bottom. She dives for it, the other sister dives in as well to help her, and just then McGradey punches the buttons that seal the pool shut for the weekend and goes home. The women realize they’re trapped in the pool, and to screw up the melodramatics even further Bree realizes that she’s left her insulin pen in her purse. She’s diabetic — though Jonna hasn’t known that about her sister until now — and without the shot she’s liable to go into a coma, which under their current circumstances means she’ll drown. As if that weren’t enough of a plot for you, Eskandari and Hultquist introduce a villainess, Rita (Diane Farr) — the page on the film lists her name as “Carla” but “Rita” is the name I heard on the soundtrack — who’s the woman hired to clean the outside of the pool and who took the job because it was the only one she could get after being released from prison nine months earlier. Rita hears Bree and Jonna cry for help, but instead of unsealing the pool she decides to torment the two rich bitches who until now have seemingly had everything their own way. (They haven’t: in the sort of settling-accounts conversations people, at least in movies, have when they’re facing imminent doom, they’ve talked about how their father molested both of them and died in a house fire, though by the end Bree has confessed that she killed him, knocking him out with the usual blunt instrument and leaving his body to be burned up instead of attempting to rescue him.) Rita, who comes off like a graduate of the Aileen Wournos School of Charm, torments the two women, demanding the password to Bree’s cell phone (her fiancé David has been calling her regularly and is starting to get concerned about her) and the PIN code for her bank account. She extracts both those pieces of information but gets even more upset when the account turns out to have only $80 in it. Then she demands the engagement ring, and a desperate Bree gives it to her. “A pawn shop will give me something for this,” Rita says heartlessly. (It occurred to me that if the stone in the ring was a diamond, the two women could have used it to cut through the fiberglass cover and escape.)

Rita tortures the women by shutting off the lights and heat in the pool, thereby ensuring that the water will get colder and give them hypothermia in addition to all their other problems, and at one point, when one of the women stabs Rita through the hole in the covering they’ve been able to cut with a shard of fiberglass they found under the water, Rita responds by turning on the valves to add more water to the pool and threatening to dispatch them that much sooner. Then she relents, but she’s made the point that the two women are totally at her mercy down there. Once she decides she’s tormented them enough, she tries to open the pool — only the code won’t work: McGradey must have changed it without telling her what the new code was. Ultimately the women get out when one of them pulls up the grate at the pool’s bottom and they use the heavy metal grate to poke a large enough hole in the cover that they can get out — and Rita develops enough of a conscience that, after threatening to shoot the two women then and there (with a hot-looking gold-colored gun — where did she get it?), she relents and even gives them back the engagement ring (ya remember the engagement ring?). Trapped Sisters a.k.a. 12 Feet Under seems like a movie perfectly suited to the Trump-era Zeitgeist: the heroines are rich and the villains are proletarians (though Rita drops hints that she, too, once had money and a privileged lifestyle until she fell — one presumes from alcohol, drugs or maybe a more exotic form of addiction), and it’s actually well made, several cuts above Lifetime’s usual fare (it was produced by one of Lifetime’s usual partners, MarVista Entertainment — an ironic name given the subject matter and the director’s phobia — in association with a company called “Citizen Skull,” whose logo is a skeleton reading a newspaper) and suffering more than usual from the inevitable commercial interruptions. But it’s also beset by typical Lifetime melodramatics and sillinesses, though at least Nora Jane Noone and Alexandra Paul are capable as the damsels in distress (and they look enough alike to be credible as sisters on screen), while — in a genre in which the villains are almost always more interesting than the heroes — Diane Farr as the hard-bitten Rita easily takes the acting honors.