Sunday, July 8, 2018

Room for Murder (Film Biscuit, MarVista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

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

Last night’s Lifetime “premiere” movie was a pretty typical tale called Room for Murder in which college student Kristen Atherton (Lorynn York, dark-haired) returns to the small town in which she grew up with her tail between her legs after she failed to get an on-campus job that was crucial to her being able to stay in her college town for the summer and afford to attend the next year. She shows up at the home of her mother Moira (Tanya Clarke, blonde) expecting to be able to spend the summer staying in her old room, only she finds out that mom has rented out the room to a mysterious stranger named Jake (James Maslow, top-billed). What’s more, she finds out that Jake is considerably more than just Moira’s roommate: first she catches them locking lips on the back stairs, and then she gets kept awake all night by the sound of them fucking. Kristen is naturally shocked at the thought of her mom having an affair with a man just two years older than Kristen herself — indeed, her adjustment to her mom’s new studly lover while Kristen herself has rotten luck with men, though a guy she used to date when she lived in town and was still in high school, Ryan Jessop (Adam Huber), is still interested in her even though she broke up with him when she caught him having sex with someone else, might in itself have made for an interesting movie. Alas, this is Lifetime and some of their veteran producers, directors and writers — the director is Rob Schmidt and the writer Jed Seidel — who know the formula well enough that instead of the ambiguous title they shot the film under, The Boarder, they had to call it Room for Murder and duly supply a few murders. When she isn’t too busy tearing up the sheets with her hot new lover, Moira owns a beauty salon in town and should be making a lot of money, only she’s losing it all and doesn’t know why. Kristen offers to help her sort her books and decides that the reason Moira’s salon isn’t profitable is she’s got too many employees working too long shifts and collecting mandatory overtime, so Kristen lowers the boom on her mom and tells her she’s got to start either cutting people’s hours back or laying them off altogether. The first person who gets the ax under Kristen’s regime is Moira’s friend and confidante Mi (Jenna Kanell) — once we see her on screen and register that she’s African-American we don’t hold out much hope for her life expectancy; somehow or other, we realize, she’s going to stumble onto the truth about Jake and he’s going to find out and kill her.

This duly happens when she’s walking by a laundromat and sees Jake removing clothes from a washer someone else is using; the someone else, another Black woman more heavy-set and darker-skinned than Mi, takes strong exception to this and Jake literally screams at her, losing his cool completely before he recovers his composure and offers to pay for her dryer load (which she, virtuously, refuses); Mi confronts him about this (instead of just observing it and then confiding to Moira, or calling the police — all too often Lifetime characters, both good and evil, do dumb things like that when the smart alternative is readily obvious to more than the most pea-brained audience members) and for her pains she’s strangled in a convenient alleyway and no one seems to find her body. Moira briefly wonders why Mi isn’t showing up for work but otherwise she just totally forgets about her, and so do the filmmakers! Kristen becomes convinced that Jake is a serial killer who targets joggers and strangles them in the middle of the night — and director Schmidt and writer Seidel go the Hitchcock route (not that I’m comparing them in terms of level of talent!) of letting us know from the outset that Jake is a killer and creating suspense not out of revealing who the murderer is at the end but making us wonder how the characters will find out what we already know and how many of the dramatis personae will end up as collateral damage before he’s finally brought to book. I’ll say one thing for Schmidt and Seidel: they give us lots of soft-core porn, not only between James Maslow and Tanya Clarke but between Adam Huber and Lorynn York as well — for, not knowing whom to turn to, Kristen goes to see her ex-boyfriend Ryan, who was a scapegrace ne’er-do-well when she left town but now has got hired onto the local police force. Accordingly Kristen steals a sneaker from Jake’s room that has red spots on it and gives it to Ryan to have it sent to a police lab and tested to see if it’s blood and, if so, if its DNA matches one of the mystery jogger-killer’s victims. Ryan says, “What will you give me for this?,” and his price is a dinner date, that soon enough blossoms into several dinner dates and then a lubricious sequence in which Adam Huber turns out actually to be nicer-looking than James Maslow (we get lots of shirtless shots of both of them, and Huber is more muscular and has bigger pecs: yum!). This is one Lifetime movie in which the hottest guy in the dramatis personae is not the villain, though frankly, until we actually saw Jake strangle Ni he and Ryan looked enough alike — both tall, slender, with dark hair and trimmed beards — I was waiting for a twist ending in which it would be Ryan who’d be the killer and Jake would save Kristen’s life by taking him on at the end.

The film begins with one of Lifetime’s sometimes engaging, sometimes annoying flash-forward prologues in which we see the front of the Atherton home with a young man in a cop’s uniform lying face-down in front of it, obviously wounded, and other cops driving to the door, finding him and calling in, “Officer down!” Then we get a typical Lifetime title reading Four Days Earlier, and it’s a wonder in some ways that Schmidt and Seidel crowd so many incidents and such a total breakdown of the Atherton family’s relations in just four days of filmic time — but though Room for Murder is O.K. entertainment (and the lubricious scenes of hot young men having their way with willing women definitely give it a boost — Lifetime has been cutting back on their soft-core porn lately and it’s nice to find it return!) it’s little more than that. Jake tells the Athertons that he’s a retired Wall Streeter who found working 70 hours a day just to make himself even more insanely rich than he already was too stifling and wanted to get out of that life — we never learn whether that’s true but he’s obviously not hurting for money, and we also learn that in his native Georgia he was tried for murder of a high-school classmate but was acquitted (though this is the clue that enables Kristen to trace him online and find out who he is), but aside from that he’s pretty much a blank. Interestingly, the Lifetime “premiere” movie scheduled for the very next day — Sunday, July 9 — is called Murdered at 17 and the character in that one who may or may not be the perpetrator of the titular murder is also named Jake!