Two nights ago I watched a Lifetime movie that’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen on that network: Girl in the Bunker, written and directed by Stephen Kemp and telling the true story of Elizabeth Shoaf, who at age 14 in the rural community of Lugoff, South Carolina (never heard of it? Neither had I) was kidnapped and held for 10 days in an underground bunker on private property. Her abductor, Vinson Filyaw, called himself “Benson” after the family that owned the property he was squatting on, lived in a trailer under which was a secret door connecting him to the bunker he’d dug, and lured Lizzie (her nickname, though only her parents and her brother called her that — a clue that became important in the story) into his clutches by posing as a police officer who had arrested her younger brother on marijuana charges. The promos for this movie made it seem like a titillating exploitation piece on the order of previous Lifetime excursions into stories (sometimes derived from real ones) of women being kidnapped and held as sex slaves for months or even years — Cleveland Abduction, Girl in the Box, etc. — but as it turned out this was considerably better than their norm. Part of the superiority is that Elizabeth Shoaf (played in the film by Julia Lalonde) was only held for 10 days — though the word “only” seems like being thankful for infinitesimally small mercies — and that, though just 14, she had the presence of mind to fight back against her attacker through strategy and guile instead of openly resisting him.
When Vinson first kidnaps Elizabeth he tells her he’s doing this because his wife left him and falsely accused him of raping her (Vinson did have a police record and at the time he kidnapped Elizabeth was a fugitive from justice, wanted for sexual assault against a woman), but later he explains, “It’s complicated” — a phrase from Facebook that’s become part of the language used by people who don’t want to describe their relationship status in a way that might discourage their current lust object from having sex with them. It turns out the woman he supposedly raped, Katherine Heath (a nice beaten-down performance by Jessica Greco), is not only still in contact with Vinson but is helping him by sneaking food over to him, leaving it in the trunk of his old car (we’re not told specifically whether the car still runs but it’s rusty and grungy-looking enough we presume it doesn’t) and also running other supplies to him as needed, even though as he eventually tells Elizabeth, the girl he was really in love with was not Katherine but her 12-year-old daughter. It seems like he was pursuing the Humbert Humbert strategy of courting the mom in order to get close to the nymphet he really lusted after, and he tells Lizzie that the reason he took her was he needed someone now that his access to the girl had been cut off. He also tells her that he’s got the entire place booby-trapped, surrounded with D.I.Y. land mines, and the black necklace he puts around her neck and locks contains a bomb. Indeed, he says his whole place is wired with explosives, and as soon as he’s satisfied he’s achieved his goal (though neither he nor we are all too sure what that is) he’s going to pull a switch and annihilate his property in a murder-suicide. Elizabeth, though previously protective of her virginity (there’s a flashback scene in which she turns down her boyfriend Case Palmerston, played by Tristan Culbert, when he wants to have sex with her in one of the gladed meadows that abound around Lugoff, and she says she’s still waiting for “the right moment”), realizes that if she comes on to Vinson and makes it look like he’s interested in her sexually, maybe he’ll at least give up the plan of blowing them both up.
Kemp maintains the suspense by cutting back and forth between Elizabeth’s ordeal and the increasing anxiety of her parents, Don (Stephen Park) and Madeline (Moira Kelly), and her brother Bobby (Dimitri Komocsi), and their frantic efforts to search for her and to keep the doofuses on the local police force interested in continuing the search. One of the towering ironies of this story is that in this relatively tight-knit rural community the hiding place where Vinson is keeping Elizabeth is just a short distance from her home, and through much of the search Vinson can hear the police patrolling the property — including flying helicopters over it — and can lord it over Elizabeth how the authorities keep missing them. He also has a giant piece of aluminum foil he puts over them at key moments because he believes this will shield him from detection by the infrared lights aboard the cops’ helicopters. Though I still think Emma Donoghue’s novel Room and the film made from it (with Donoghue writing the script and Lenny Abrahamson directing) are the best works made about this situation — at least partly because Donoghue was writing fiction and thereby wasn’t trapped by the events of the actual story — Girl in the Bunker is quite a good movie, very far above the Lifetime norm and with a writer/director skilled enough at both jobs he keeps Elizabeth’s peril front and center in the story without exploiting it for the obvious titillation. (I did regret it when Kemp cut short the soft-core porn scene between Julia Lalonde and Henry Thomas, even though I know why he did it: he didn’t want to run afoul of the Thought Police that come down hard on depictions of sex involving an underage character even if the actors actually playing the scene are of age, and he also wanted to keep the focus on Elizabeth’s ordeal instead of appealing to the kinkier fantasies of some of the audience members.)
Girl in the Bunker has some faults, and one of the most annoying ones is how similar the leading male characters look: Henry Thomas, Stephen Park (playing Elizabeth’s dad) and Jeff Clarke (as one of the police officers involved in the search) are all the same “type” — thin, sandy-haired, attractive without being drop-dead gorgeous or genuinely sexy — that when Clarke appeared as one of the cops at first I thought he was Vinson and Elizabeth had been kidnapped by a genuine police officer who was also playing these sadistic sex games on the side, and involving himself in the investigation to steer his colleagues away from where she really was. Also, Lifetime’s decision to show the film in a so-called “special edition” in which, during the commercial breaks, we got brief interview segments from the real Elizabeth, Don and Madeline Shoaf which affirmed the basic accuracy of the story but also let us know that, as usual, the filmmakers had cast the role with considerably more attractive people than their real-life prototypes. Nonetheless, Girl in the Bunker is a well-done thriller and makes me hopeful Stephen Kemp can break free of the TV-movie ghetto and make some theatrical features — he’s no Alfred Hitchcock but he’s a damned sight better than a lot of the wanna-be Hitchcocks out there, some of whom have got to make theatrical features with “A”-list stars (can you say “Tony Gilroy”?)