Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Deadly Matrimony, a.k.a. Vows of Deceit (The Ninth House, Twin Frames Films, MarVista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

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

Last Sunday night Lifetime ran an intriguing and surprisingly good “premiere” movie called Deadly Matrimony, though shot under a far more haunting working title, Vows of Deceit. Deadly Matrimony is about as much an auteur work as Lifetime ever gets; the auteur is Jake Helgren, who not only directed but co-wrote the script and was one of the plethora of “producers” that gets credited on today’s movies. Helgren even wrote the official synopsis on “When blushing bride Sara Ross (Katherine Bailess) ties the knot with her seemingly perfect, handsome newlywed husband Leo Friedman (Damon Davoub), she soon starts to suspect that not only is Leo a thief and a con man but also quite possibly a killer, and that she just might be the next bride up on his chopping block.” Sara Ross is an attorney who works in civil litigation, though she’s proud that even though she isn’t a prosecutor she can still use her legal skills to hold corrupt individuals and corporations to account. She was introduced to Leo by her girlfriend Parker Wyndham (Ali Cobrin) and married him quickly without doing the due diligence she’d expect to follow on one of her cases. Then she’s confronted by another woman who claims to be Leo’s wife — although she calls him something else — Melinda Wells (Tiffany Hines), who said she was married to Leo (or whoever) for three months, which was just long enough for him to hack into all her bank accounts and other assets and steal every dime she had.

Melinda manages to convince Sara that her husband — their husband — is a no-good rotter, and his frequent absences out of town give them plenty of opportunities to research his background and see if they can find some clue as to what he did with Melinda’s money. Meanwhile Sara is spending a lot of late nights with two male associates at her law firm, Kyle Gardner (Wil Traval) and Grayson (Nick Waters); Grayson isn’t interested in Sara (indeed, Helgren rather subtly hints that he’s Gay) but Kyle has long been in unrequited love with her. Sara and Melinda meet a third woman Leo has married (or at least proposed to) and swindled, international model Cindy Steele (Keeley Hazell), only just as she’s about to blow the whistle on him, he sneaks into the house she was renting him and then changed the locks and security system, and kills her. The cops suspect Sara of the murder, with jealousy as her motive, but meanwhile Sara traces Leo online and links him to a killing in Las Vegas of a newlywed who was shot in her wedding-night bed with the wedding dress still on her. While all this is going on Parker tells Sara she doesn’t have much time for her right now because she’s got a new boyfriend — only she later announces she’s broken up with him and it turns out, of course, that the “new boyfriend” is Sara’s putative husband Leo. (For much of the movie I had thought Helgren and his co-writer, Emily Nye, would have Parker turn out not only to be Leo’s lover but his co-conspirator, helping him entrap well-to-do women he could swindle and then dump, but they didn’t go there and it’s probably just as well.) Sara thinks she can get away from both Leo and the cops by going up to her deserted mountain cabin — why do Lifetime heroines always think they can hide out in deserted mountain cabins? Especially ones in areas with spotty or nonexistent cell-phone and wi-fi service? — only Leo traces her there and menaces her.

The final scene, though, takes place at the wedding of Leo and Parker — apparently he’s going to acquire a new wife without either divorcing or killing the old one first (which suggests that his marriage to Sara was never legal anyway because there’s no indication he and Melinda divorced first) — only Parker finally realizes Leo’s true nature when Sara points out that the fancy necklace Leo gave her was actually stolen from Cindy and thereby proved Leo murdered her — and Leo pushes Parker out of a third-floor window of the massive house where the wedding was supposed to take place. He also whips out a gun and wounds the minister that was supposed to perform the ceremony, and he and the two women have a fight he appears to be winning until the police finally arrive — courtesy of a 911 call placed by the minister, who seems to have been the only one there with the presence of mind to inform the authorities that the man he was about to perform a marriage ceremony for was a homicidal maniac. Leo gets a final Christine Conradt-ish speech at the end that’s supposed to explain what made him “run” — apparently his first victim was the woman in Las Vegas, whom he had an affair with when he took pity on her because she was dying of cancer, so out of guilt and a desire to make her last days as happy as possible he agreed to marry her. Then she went into remission and her life was spared, but he learned that she had a long history of sex with a lot of different men, and this revelation so appalled Leo he decided to marry her and kill her on the wedding night as a punishment for her immorality and her determination to trap him. (It sounds like Jake Helgren and Emily Nye had seen Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1944 Bluebeard, also about a serial killer who’s psychologically compelled to murder women because a woman he believed was a moral exemplar turned out to be a prostitute.)

Deadly Matrimony may not seem like much in synopsis, and certainly these plot tropes have been done a lot of times before (including Love From a Stranger, a remarkable 1937 British film based on a story by Agatha Christie called “Philomel Cottage,” with Basil Rathbone as the psycho who, like Leo here, targets women who’ve recently come into money and relieves them of it before killing them; it was a surprise because for once Christie wrote a psychological thriller and gave her characters some depth instead of just maneuvering stock figures through a whodunit), but this is well ahead of the Lifetime norm. The characters are believable and Helgren manages to keep Leo’s villainy within credible bounds instead of turning him from milquetoast in the early reels to Moriarty at the end. The performances are also solid — though Tiffany Hines stands out, largely because she’s playing the most interesting character — and for once in a Lifetime movies the actors playing the good guys are as nice-looking as the ones playing the bad guys: indeed, the soft-core porn scene between Katherine Bailess and Wil Traval in that mountain cabin as they finally consummate their relationship after circling around each other like dogs in heat is one of the most entertaining parts of the film!