Sunday, January 14, 2018

Deadly Delusion (Formula Films, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a worse-than-usual Lifetime movie called Deadly Delusion, though it was filmed under the working title The Lease. The gimmick this time around is that the heroine, Julia McNeil (Haylie Duff, who had a nice turn as the villainess in Napoleon Dynamite but since then seems to have been relegated mostly to TV work), has an unspecified mental illness that supposedly causes her to hallucinate and see people who aren’t there. She and her husband Shane (Mike Faiola), who’s so attractive I immediately assumed he was part of a plot to drive her crazy à la Gaslight since the usual iconography of Lifetime movies, with only very rare exceptions, is that any genuinely hunky guy in the cast is going to turn out to be the villain, have just moved out to Los Angeles where she has connections as a photographer and he has some unspecified job as an executive with a film company. (We see him at a film shoot hanging on as a director shoots a scene with two actors, a man and a woman, in a classic Ford Thunderbird — the car isn’t going anywhere but it’s posed in front of a green screen, so when the film is completed some stock footage of road travel can be put behind them and make it look as if the car is moving.) Among the perks they’ve got from this employment is a lease on a killer house, free shipping to bring Shane’s motorcycle out to L.A. and a blue Ferrari that’s Julia’s to use whenever she likes. Julia also has a long-distance relationship with her therapist, Dr. Leary (Teri Polo), who keeps switching her medications and telling her she’s going to get better but who, until the very end of the film, never appears as a live character — all we see of her is an image on Skype, through which she conducts her “sessions” with Julia. 

The moment we met her and she was a totally different physical “type” from Julia — a short-haired blonde instead of a stringy long-haired brunette, dressed in tailored pantsuits instead of the casual shirts and jeans that seem to be Julia’s entire wardrobe — I immediately concluded that she and Shane were having an affair and were in a plot to drive Julia to commit suicide so they could be together, but the truth turns out to be more complicated and far-fetched than that. Instead of the Gaslight ripoff I was expecting, it turns out to be a ripoff of Paul Bartel’s little-known but marvelous 1966 short The Secret Cinema, in which the conceit is that a woman is being put through various trials and tribulations by people she thinks are just friends, bosses, lovers and whatnot, but who are really actors hired to make her life miserable so that a film director and camera crew can secretly film her and edit the results into a 24-part series that has become a sensation — unbeknownst to Our Heroine, who until she stumbles into a theatre that is showing the latest episode is totally unaware that she’s the star of a secret movie that’s supposed to end with her death. (At the end the director tells his latest assistant, a woman, that he has big plans for her, and when she says, “Do I get to direct?,” he says he has something else in mind — to make her the star of his next “Secret Cinema” production.) Bartel’s short seems to have been one of those movies that’s been highly influential even though few people have actually seen it; the makers of The Truman Show and other movies about people who aren’t aware that their lives are being secretly filmed were clearly influenced by it, and the rise of the Internet has made the concept more believable because, while it would be hard to conceal a theatrically released movie from its “secret” star, it’s easy to imagine that there would be people all over the world (in this one we meet customers from Montenegro, Dubai and Miami Beach) willing to pay large sums of money to a proprietor of a “dark Web” site who promised them they’d get to see a woman die. As the film progresses Julia realizes that the realty office from which she and Shane leased the house is just a front for something more sinister, and that their security installation has her whole house wired for cameras so she can be telecast wherever she is and whatever she’s doing in the house, including making love with Shane (a nice bit of the soft-core porn that used to be far more abundant in Lifetime movies than it is now, alas). 

She suspects Robert Turner (Louis Mandylor), the smarmy realtor who got them the lease in the first place, of arranging the surveillance, and her friend Annie (Melissa Mars) of being Shane’s paramour, but the plot finally turns out to be far more extensive than even she has dreamed: the realtor is in on it and so is a character identified on only as “The Director” (Stephen Brown), whom we first met on the set of the movie Shane visited with the two actors in the T-Bird in front of a green screen but who’s also the director of the secret Dark Web streaming series that’s supposed to end with Julia being killed by a professional hit man who’s supposed to break into her home and assassinate her live — and whom she’d previously seen years before, just before her parents died of carbon monoxide poisoning in their home (she barely escaped and the deaths were ruled accidental, but writer Jake Cashill is definitely hinting that the Big Bad Conspiracy offed them, too). Using a gun Annie gave her, Julia shoots her would-be assassin, only Shane takes the gun away from her and it turns out he’s part of the plot, too (I knew it!); he boasts that he’s been in several of the group’s previous productions under different names and identities — and at the end Julia gets the gun back (or finds another one, it’s not all that clear) and shoots and kills Shane. She’s then put in a psychiatric hospital for a month and, as she’s being released, she’s met not only by her therapist Dr. Leary but also by a nice-looking young man who offers to drive her back to her original home town — and the final close-up is of a sinister smile on Dr. Leary’s face, indicating that she too is in on the plot and the nice young man is her Plan B and is there to disarm, seduce and romance Julia into another life-threatening relationship so the Conspiracy can deliver Julia’s death, as promised to their customers. I don’t like thrillers with such nihilistic endings and the whole idea that Our Heroine could be victimized by such an extensive criminal enterprise encompassing virtually everyone she knows is more than a bit hard to swallow, but what really does in Deadly Delusion is the sense that we’ve seen it all before — even the nihilism and the refusal of the filmmakers, writer Cashill and director Nadeem Soumah (who, like a lot of his predecessors on Lifetime movies, has a real flair for Gothic atmosphere and suspense but is at the mercy of a silly script), to give us anyone in the dramatis personae we can actually like is all too common in modern-day filmmaking.