Monday, July 23, 2018

A Father's Nightmare (Sepia Films/Lifetime, 2018)

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

I watched one of the better Lifetime movies I’ve seen lately, A Father’s Nightmare — billed on its page as a direct sequel to A Mother’s Nightmare (though I don’t have a report on that one and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it; the sequence also includes A Sister’s Nightmare and the one of the bunch I have seen, A Daughter’s Nightmare, in which the titular protagonist realizes that her stepbrother is crazy and is slowly poisoning her mom) — which turned out to be a pretty typical young-college-student-gets-lured-down-the-primrose-path-by-her-crazy-roommate Lifetime story but done with unusual style by director Vic Sarin (though given his last name I couldn’t help but joke, “Ah, it was directed by a poisonous gas!”) and writer Shelley Gillen, who’s been involved in some of the previous Nightmares. The father is Matt Carmichael (the reasonably hunky Joel Gretsch) and the nightmare he’s dealing with is that after he’s spent months trying to raise his teenage daughter Lisa (Kaitlyn Bernard) as a single father following the death of Lisa’s mom after a long battle with cancer, Lisa is moping around the house and is reluctant to accept the gymnastics scholarship offer from Southwestern Washington University (yes, this is a Lifetime movie that’s set in Washington state so it can easily be “played” by British Columbia, Canada) even though it’s quite generous: a free ride as long as she keeps up both her gymnastics performance and her academic grades. The casting directors for this film deserve credit for picking a girl to play Lisa who looks credible as a gymnast — small, doll-like figure and small breasts — though I suspect Kaitlyn Bernard had a double when the script called for actual gymnastics performances since all the exercises she performs perfectly are shown in long-shot. Alas, Lisa falls into the clutches of Vanessa (Jessica Lowndes), who in an opening prologue is shown being released from a mental institution for the criminally insane, where she was incarcerated for killing two people and nearly murdering a third, though her doctors have pronounced her “cured” and therefore send her into the world, albeit with understandable misgivings. Vanessa bribes Jim (Tom Stevens, a baby-faced hunk with a bod to die for and the only other significant male character besides Lisa’s father), the student whose work-study job includes making roommate assignments, to put Lisa with her instead of her high-school friend and fellow gymnast Katie (Ellery Sprayberry), and once she gets Lisa in her clutches she does a number on her resembling the way Boris Karloff treated Susanna Foster in the 1944 Universal film The Climax, an intriguing reversal of Svengali in which Karloff played a sinister hypnotist out not to raise a talentless girl to opera stardom but to sabotage the career of a genuinely great singer. 

Vanessa gives Lisa “dish” on how the other girls on the fiercely competitive gymnastics team really feel about her and gets Lisa to break off her former friendship with Katie. When the anxieties from Vanessa’s gossip start getting to Lisa and affecting her performance on the mat, Vanessa starts giving her drugs which she’s obtaining illegally from Jim — and within a couple of acts Lisa is on the roller-coaster, needing drugs to stay awake and other drugs to fall asleep (and missing English classes — Vanessa offers to cover for her but the teacher catches on, realizes they’ve submitted identical papers and flunks both of them for cheating). Meanwhile we’ve seen dad get increasingly worried about his daughter’s downward spiral and his own helplessness in pulling her from Vanessa’s orbit, and he’s getting advice from Lisa’s high-school gymnastics coach Laney (Lucia Walters, the obligatory African-American voice of reason in the dramatis personae, even though the body language she throws off in Matt’s presence makes it seem like she would want to be the next Mrs. Carmichael). Matt is also seeing an older woman whose significance in the story doesn’t become clear until the very end, when Lisa has been turned in by Katie — who saw her using drugs in the locker room — and ordered to report for a drug test the next morning. Vanessa gives her vodka — unbeknownst to Lisa but beknownst to us, she’s spiked it with pills — and talks the drunken, stoned Lisa into writing a letter to her father that will sound like a suicide note. The next morning Vanessa takes Lisa out to a wooded area near the campus and puts her on a tightrope, tying a noose around her neck and tying the other end to one of the trees from which the tightrope is suspended, so if Lisa falls off the tightrope she will hang. Fortunately, Matt, Laney and the police arrive just in time to rescue Lisa and arrest Vanessa, and Vanessa finally blurts out the truth about her motive: she’s actually Lisa’s half-sister. Vanessa — or “Amanda,” as her actual mom named her — was the product of an affair Matt Carmichael had before his marriage with a ballerina who went crazy and committed suicide when Matt dumped her. 

That, at least, is what the woman’s mother, who took in Amanda afterwards and changed her name to Vanessa, told her; in fact Amanda/Vanessa’s real mother survived her suicide attempt and Matt has been visiting her regularly in a mental institution — she’s the mystery woman we’ve seen him with in several previous scenes. Matt tells Amanda/Vanessa that, contrary to what her grandmother told her, he’d never given up hope of finding his other daughter someday, but Vanessa’s trauma over her alleged abandonment by both parents led her to single out students (including her previous victim, a male named Chris) with athletic ability, seduce them (figuratively or, in Chris’s case, literally), get them on drugs and ultimately persuade them to kill themselves. A Father’s Nightmare is the stuff from which most Lifetime movies are made but it’s done with an unusual sense of style; Vanessa’s villainy is kept within real-world believability and Jessica Lowndes plays her in a matter-of-fact way that makes her more sinister than a more openly florid “psycho” performance would have. The burning looks Lowndes gives as Vanessa hypnotizes Lisa into doing poorly on the gymnastics floor are marvelously subtle pieces of acting, and director Sarin (who’s also his own cinematographer) puts just enough of a shadow on her face to give us the point that she a) has a hypnotic power over Lisa and b) is up to no good without wrenching us away from realism. At the end Lisa is rescued, she’s allowed to continue at school with no ongoing black marks against her, pill-dealer Jim is arrested and Vanessa is shown cowering in a corner of a mental hospital, eagerly accepting a letter we presume is from Matt. A Father’s Nightmare is better-than-average Lifetime fare, told with a quiet understatement by director Sarin and writer Gillen that completely avoids the over-the-top plotting and acting that have wrecked too many otherwise potentially interesting Lifetime movies, and we even get a nice soft-core porn scene between Tom Stevens and Jessica Lowndes in which we’re given a good view of one of his nipples.