Monday, April 30, 2018

Nanny Killer (Blue Sky Films, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

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

I was particularly interested in last night’s Lifetime “premiere” movie, Nanny Killer, even though the promos didn’t make it clear whether it was about a nanny who kills or a person who kills nannies. It turned out to be the latter, and amazingly, despite the silly title, it turned out to be one of the best things I’ve seen on Lifetime recently, a gripping neo-Gothic thriller with a powerful script by Christoff Bergeson, expertly directed by Jeff Hare. (Bergeson’s is a new name to me but I’ve seen Hare’s work on Lifetime before, and since Ken Sanders is listed as one of the producers one could readily imagine this story taking place in the “Whittendale Universe.”) It’s true that Nanny Killer is derivative as all get-out — it’s basically Rebecca meets The Bad Seed, with admixtures of The Magnificent Ambersons and The Spiral Staircase — but it’s easy to accept derivativeness when the modern-day filmmakers are as attentive to the virtues of their sources and creative enough with how they rework and reshape the material as they are here. Heroine Kate Jordan (Morgan Obenreder) is about to go on summer break from college (presumably Whittendale, and we know from previous movies in its universe how steep its tuition is!) and is worried about how she’ll support himself when she can no longer work the school job (she says she has two, but one is volunteer) that’s been keeping her alive and away from the usual fate of Whittendale’s female students (selling themselves to rich men as either prostitutes or mistresses to pay the school’s bills).

A friend of hers says that there’s a rich guy in the wine country nearby who needs a live-in nanny for his two kids for the summer, and when Kate meets said rich guy, winery owner Edward Martell (David Rees Snell), she’s immediately hired for a fee of $20,000 even though Edward warns her that she’ll be pretty much on her own because he’ll be so busy during the summer that she shouldn’t call him except in extraordinary circumstances. When Kate comes up to the Martell home I immediately thought that if it had been me, I’d have looked at the outside of the place and thought, “Cool! I’m going to be working in the Amberson mansion!” Instead it’s more like Manderley since the first person Kate actually meets is the housekeeper, Miss Grey (Danielle Bisutti), who’s wearing a severe old-style woolen dress — she’s listed as “Ms. Grey” on the dramatis personae but I’m certain I heard “Miss” on the soundtrack — and looks like she learned how to do the job from Judith Anderson. She speaks all her dialogue in a sotto voce tone that just makes it that much more intimidating, as she explains to Kate that among other things she’ll have the use of a Martell-owned car (a Mercedes, as it turns out) for the summer. Then Kate meets the children she’s supposed to be looking after and takes an immediate liking to the younger one, daughter Rose (Violet Hicks), and an immediate distaste for the son, Jack (Tucker Meek). Jack comes off as a male version of Rhoda from The Bad Seed and Meek plays him very much like Patty McCormick did in the Bad Seed film, with an enigmatic expression and flashes of rage whenever he’s even momentarily denied his way. Rose gives Kate her favorite doll, a raggedy thing she calls “Josephine,” and Jack grabs the doll and shoots it full of arrows as part of his archery practice — and narrowly misses both Kate and Rose on the range. Jack shows himself a full-scale brat, and Miss Grey clearly favors him over Rose, so much so that in the altercation between them over Jack’s arrows it’s Rose whom Miss Grey punishes.

Kate tries to discipline Jack by grounding him (though what kind of a punishment that is given that they’re already out in the middle of nowhere is something of a mystery) and confiscating his laptop, cell phone and video-game player. Jack sneaks into Kate’s room to grab these items back and says he did so because the video game on the player was the last gift he ever received from his mother, who died a year earlier. The incidents start piling up, with Kate feeling more and more terrorized by Jack and intimidated by Miss Grey’s protectiveness towards him, especially after someone spikes her drink with some of the anti-anxiety medication she previously took but stopped, with the result that on one of Edward’s rare homecomings she looks drunk and falls down the stairs — though she insists Jack pushed her and Edward, at least, saw Jack do so and therefore knew the truth. Then, behind a drawer in her room, Kate finds a manila envelope which contains some papers about Jack’s true background and a flash drive containing a video the mom, Elizabeth (Elizabeth Leiner), recorded shortly before she died saying she was in fear of her life and “there’s something wrong about Jack.” Kate asks Dr. Bartlett (Bruce Katzman), the now-retired physician who delivered Jack, but Bartlett puts her off and says the papers she discovered are just routine blood tests. Eventually Dr. Bartlett has a change of heart and is willing to meet with Kate and discuss the situation, but before he can do so Miss Grey, who’s heard Kate setting up the meeting on the house’s landline phone (which is so retro it still has a dial!), goes over to Bartlett’s house and tases him, thereby short-circuiting his pacemaker and not only murdering him but doing so in such a way that anyone examining the body will just conclude he died of a heart attack. Kate eventually discovers the body but that’s indeed what the authorities conclude, though she’s able to show the paperwork to another doctor, a woman named Goldman (Monica Young).

In a major plot hole in Bergeson’s otherwise well-constructed script, Dr. Goldman is willing to violate all manner of doctor-patient confidentiality rules to tell Kate the truth: Elizabeth Martell became suspicious as to whether Jack was really her son because both she and Edward had AB-negative blood and Jack’s blood type is O — and that’s impossible because AB is a recessive trait and therefore a child born to two AB parents couldn’t possibly be O. Elizabeth had a DNA test done on Jack and the result was that he was not the Martells’ son, though someone (either Dr. Bartlett or Miss Grey) forged a fake result that said he was. Kate tries to escape the Martell house with Rose but her car conks out on her (was it deliberately sabotaged?) and she’s accosted by a handyman named Joseph Donovan (Chris Devlin). They’d met before and he’d seemed supportive, so Kate asks him for a ride — and instead he clubs her over the head, knocking her out, and when she comes to she’s in the Martell house, she’s tied to a chair and Miss Grey is explaining that she’s captured both Kate and Rose and will make it look like Kate killed Rose and then took her own life out of guilt. Miss Grey also tells us that Jack is her son (and, though Bergeson doesn’t specify it, we do get the impression that the handyman Joseph Donovan is Jack’s biological father). She formerly led a licentious life and got pregnant, and realizing that she’d never be able to raise a child, gave birth and left the baby in a basket in front of the hospital — and just then Elizabeth Bartlett started to give birth, but Dr. Bartlett, who’d been working a 36-hour shift and was just tired, made a mistake that resulted in the Bartlett baby’s death. Finding the baby on the hospital doorstep, Bartlett decided to substitute it for the dead one, and Miss Grey cleaned and sobered up and got the housekeeping job at the Martells’ so she could keep an eye on Jack, cover for him when he got out of hand, and ensure that when Edward Martell died Jack would inherit the Martell business and fortune.

Only Rose is able to fake an escape, and ultimately there’s a confrontation in the Martells’ wine cellar in which Edward, whose doubts about Jack had become strong enough that he cut his business trip short and came home, learns the true story and clubs Miss Grey, rescuing Kate and Rose. It ends with the summer over, Kate paid off, Edward deciding to work from home from now on so he can mind his kids himself, and Rose is living with him while Edward has sent Jack to the military school he went to himself — only there’s a final chilling scene, a Skype call in which Jack shows a painting he’s done at school of a happy family (Jack and Rose are both aspiring painters and Jack is also described as a piano prodigy, though the only pieces we hear him play are a Mozart duet with his sister and a solo version of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” that sounds O.K. for a 10-year-old but hardly at prodigy level), only when Edward says he’ll have to stay at the military school instead of coming home, Jack goes into one of his nasty fits and tears the painting up. Director Hare and writer Bergeson deserve credit for not doing some of the obnoxious things they could have done with this story, like pairing Edward and Kate up as lovers the way the makers of the old TV show The Nanny did (though the late wife we see on her video looks enough like Kate we could readily imagine Edward being attracted to Kate), though the denouement might have been more chilling if Miss Grey had plotted from the get-go to substitute her son for the Martells’ one rather than that being one of those off-kilter coincidences that power a lot of Lifetime movies. But overall Nanny Killer is quite a bit better than the common run of Lifetime films, genuinely Gothic and suspenseful, drawing on classic models but doing so in a fresh, creative way that really leaves you in doubt as to how it’s all going to turn out.