Sunday, April 22, 2018

Psycho In-Law (Reel One Entertainment/Lifetime, 2017)

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

Our “feature” last night was a 2017 Lifetime movie called Psycho In-Law that, despite the tacky title, was better than usual but not as good as it could have been. The title is something of a misnomer because the psycho in-law isn’t a blood relative of either member of the couple she torments, Tina Williams (Katie Leclerc) and Brock Nichols (Mike Faiola). Instead she’s the mother of Brock’s previous spouse Lorna, who’d died in an auto accident two years earlier, leaving Brock as a single dad raising a 10-year-old daughter, Harper (a nice and refreshingly un-sentimental performance by Brooke Fontana). The ex-mother-in-law is named Joyce and is played in a chillingly matter-of-fact way by Catherine Dyer. She had a series of boyfriends but Lorna remained the one constant in her life even after she married Brock, and after Lorna had Harper Joyce had clear demands on how the girl should be parented — only now Brock has met and fallen in love with Tina, and the two are already planning to get married. Tina, a well-to-do interior designer (this is one of those movies in which all the characters are well-to-do — Brock is a doctor, Lorna was a lawyer and Joyce’s current partner, Duane Chester [Paul Messinger], is also a lawyer — though it’s less bothersome than usual if only because screenwriter Becca Topol is careful to specify how these people earned their money), lavishes gifts on Harper (including a gold chain necklace with a heart-shaped charm) to get the girl to accept her as her stepmother-to-be. Joyce is instantly suspicious of Tina and takes the necklace (and in a chilling scene she gets rid of it by putting it down the garbage disposal); she also contacts Duane’s private investigator, a marvelously eccentric character who lives in a trailer park and has all his computer equipment out in the open (and he’s also the best-looking male in the movie, regrettably unidentified on, though Tom Lind as Tina’s ex-boyfriend Chad comes close), looking for dirt on Tina. All Vince can come up with is a few nude pics of Tina sunbathing and the identity of Chad, but that’s enough for Joyce: she sends an e-mail in Tina’s name to Chad hinting that she’d like to get back together with him. Though Tom Lind is taller, skinnier and considerably more butch than Mike Faiola and therefore, at least on looks, we get the impression that Tina is trading down, he’s also drawn as a manipulative creep who’s itching to get back into Tina’s pants. Since Tina’s real past isn’t enough to break her and Brock up, Joyce decides to invent some dirt on her, using her computer hacking skills to steal money from the bank account of Tina’s former business partner and make Tina look like she did it. 

The cops, in the person of Detective Vince Jeffers (Charles Christopher) — an interesting presence, wiry and muscular, with a shock of platinum-grey hair that makes him look like he just wandered in from a Gay S/M porn movie — investigate and ultimately clear Tina (though not before their intrusion into her interior design office costs her a major client), but Joyce has set it up to look like the next suspect would be someone who was actually in women’s prison at the time, and what’s more was in for crimes like larceny and assault and therefore (at least to Becca Topol’s mind) didn’t have the smarts to commit relatively sophisticated crimes like identity theft and computer fraud. Tina and her level-headed sister Ellen (Pamela Mitchell) ultimately link the crime to Joyce because her partner Duane handled the defense of the criminal on whom she tried to pin the fraud, and Duane threatens to report Joyce to the police. Then he starts to have a heart attack, and instead of giving him the needed medication that would save his life, she empties the pill bottle and pours all the pills down the bathroom sink while running the water. When, early on in Topol’s script, she established that Duane had a history of heart disease and periodically needed to be revived with this medication, I instantly joked, “Anton Chekhov meets Lillian Hellman” — referencing both Chekhov’s famous dictum that if you introduce a pistol in act one you must have someone fire it in act three and the famous scene in Hellman’s The Little Foxes in which the villainess murders her inconvenient husband by refusing to give him the heart medication he needs to keep him alive — only director Jeff Haze stages the scene surprisingly flatly, totally missing the effect William Wyler achieved in the film of The Little Foxes by keeping the camera on Bette Davis, front and center, with a stony, implacable facial expression, while her hapless husband (Herbert Marshall) expired in the background for lack of his meds. Meanwhile, Brock and Tina are rushing their wedding because the venue they want is available six weeks hence but the next available date for it is a full year after that — and Harper is being bounced like a yo-yo between the two powerful women in her life (the girl seemed to be getting along fine with Tina until Joyce tricked Tina into throwing away a particular hairbrush Harper liked, which had been the property of her late mom — shades of Rebecca!) and in some ways is the most emotionally complex character in the film. 

Tina’s sister Ellen, suspicious of Joyce, invites her to her own home prior to the wedding and tries to record her with her smartphone making a confession to all her misdeeds — only Joyce gets angry and literally pushes Ellen out the window, presumably to her death. Tina catches on that something is wrong when Ellen is late for the wedding and doesn’t pick up her calls, but eventually Joyce shows up and tries to kill Tina but is overpowered by Tina’s own mother — and in the final scene Tina and Brock get married after all, only at a county building instead of an elaborate resort venue, while Ellen survives her injuries and Joyce ends up in a mental institution, babbling about the daughter who became the youngest member of her law firm ever to make partner. There are some nice touches in Topol’s script, notably the flashback scene explaining just how Lorna died — she and Joyce were in a car together, Joyce was driving, and they were in the middle of an argument over how to raise Harper when Joyce got distracted and a truck plowed into their car, killing Lorna while Joyce survived relatively unscathed (at least physically) — but overall Psycho In-Law could have been better. In the first place, it should have been given a more ambiguous title that didn’t give the game away at once; and without a “spoiler” title writer Topol could (and should) have kept us in suspense for longer as to which woman, Joyce or Tina, was the domineering, controlling one we were supposed to dislike. Still, this was a relatively workmanlike Lifetime movie, better than many despite the overall weakness of the acting — Mike Faiola and Katie Leclerc look bland and naïve even by Lifetime leads’ standards, and only Catherine Dyer as the villainess and, briefly, Paul Messinger as her avuncular voice-of-reason boyfriend who becomes her victim, really create well-honed, edgy, multidimensional characterizations.