Monday, March 30, 2020

Remember Me, Mommy? (MV Pictures, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched yet another Lifetime movie in their “Mommy Madness” series, Remember Me, Mommy? It turned out to be surprisingly good even though the title and the previews were “spoilers” in that they gave away the key plot point writers Adam Rockoff and Zachary Valenti were careful not to reveal until the very end of the movie. The story takes place at the exclusive Clark Academy all-girl prep school, where Rebecca Barton (Natalie Brown) attended years before as a scholarship student (the discrimination faced by scholarship students from the ones whose parents paid their way to Clark is very much a part of the story and recalled to me George Orwell’s essay, “Such, Such Were the Joys … ”, about his own days as a scholarship student in one of Britain’s elite “public schools”) and where she now teaches. She isn’t married (the school dean carefully refers to her as “Miss Barton”) but she, a creative writing teacher, is dating and having a hot affair with Jason, an English teacher at the same school (Kristopher Turner). A new scholarship student, Elana Johns (Sydney Meyer), arrives for her senior year at Clark having previously gone to public schools (in the U.S. meaning of the term) and won her way into Clark through writing a killer essay that impresses everyone with the depth of its insights, that seem more like those of an adult than a teenager (hmmm, there’s a clue there … ) and thus impressing the scholarship board. Once Elana gets to Clark she’s assigned to room with a Black student, Grace Walker (Taveeta Szymanowicz), who’s also there on a scholarship. Elana gets bullied by a trio of girls The Outsiders writer Sue Hinton would have called “soc’s”, headed by Jamie (Jenna Warren) — though the page calls her character “Lily” — whose blonde tresses compared to the dark hair of Rebecca and Elana seem in themselves to mark her as a villainess. Among the nasty tricks Jamie pulls on Elana are presenting her with a candy box full of worms and squirting a flammable chemical on her work station in chem lab.

When Rebecca disciplines Jamie, the next morning she finds her car vandalized with the words “BITCH” and “LIAR” in huge letters with white spray paint, and Jamie’s school I.D. under her front tire. Of course Rebecca assumes Jamie is the culprit, while the little blonde bitch insists that someone stole her I.D. to frame her. Then writers Rockoff and Valenti take the story in a dramatically different direction as they start dropping hints that Elana isn’t all “there” mentally. We learn that the address she gave the school was just the latest of a long series of foster homes she lived in ever since her real mom gave her up just after she was born, and in at least one of those homes she used the name “Claire Bigelow.” Grace, Elana’s roommate, finds an I.D. for her with the “Claire Bigelow” name and finds that the foster parents of a girl with that name were killed in a car accident, and she’s convinced that Elana is mentally unstable. She even sees Jamie bullying Elana and tells her that Elana is too dangerous to be playing those sorts of games with, and she also asks the school to move her to a different room. Unfortunately, just before she moves out she decides to take a shower in the bathroom she and Elana were sharing, and anyone who saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (which Grace apparently hasn’t) could guess what happens next: Elana comes into the shower and, instead of stabbing Grace, strangles her with a bath towel because she wants the killing to look like — and be written off as — an accident. It turns out that years of being mistreated in one foster home after another turned Elana bitter and drove her crazy, and she plagiarized an essay from an adult author and used it as a way to get into Clark Academy because she’d traced her parentage through the Internet and discovered that Rebecca Barton was the biological mother who abandoned her to the untender mercies of the foster-care system just after she was born. There’s a typical Lifetime climax in which Elana, with an expression of grim determination on her face, corners Rebecca and is about to kill her with a kitchen knife (one gets the impression she picked that rather than a more imposing weapon because she wants to torture Rebecca and kill her slowly and painfully as part of her revenge) when an unexpected dea ex machina arrives in the form of Jamie, who clobbers Elana with a backpack and knocks her out long enough for the cops to arrive.

Remember Me, Mommy? — the very title is a “spoiler” and the alternate title, Daughter Dearest, wouldn’t have been much better (as well as riffing off Christina Crawford’s long-forgotten memoir of her adoptive mom Joan Crawford, Mommie Dearest — Joan Crawford’s fame endures but Christina’s 15 minutes expired long ago) — is actually better than the common run of Lifetime movies; Rockoff and Valenti manage to give the characters some of the complexity and multidimensionality Christine Conradt brings to her Lifetime scripts, director Michelle Ouillet stages it effectively; but what really “makes” this movie is the extraordinary performance of Sydney Meyer as Elana. While Natalie Brown is little more than a barely credible typical Lifetime “pussy in peril,” Meyer as the pussy imperiling her is absolutely brilliant, nailing all the changes in her character as she comes on like a nice little girl we’re rooting for against the bullies and make it fully believable when she is revealed as a serial murderer (she’s knocked off a number of her foster parents and has always been savvy enough to make the killings look like “accidents”) and especially at the end, when Elana confronts the wounded Natalie (she’s collapsed while fleeing down the stairs of her two-story apartment and tripping) with the grim, expressionless impassivity with which Bette Davis consigned her inconvenient husband, Herbert Marshall, to oblivion by withholding his heart medicine from him in The Little Foxes. There’s no comparison between the grim intensity of Sydney Meyer here with Audrey Whitby’s utterly unconvincing turn as the same sort of character in last night’s The Perfect Mother — evidence enough that even in a genre as ruthlessly formulaic as the Lifetime movie (the very name “Lifetime movie” has entered the language, and Lifetime even did a short-lived series called My Life Is a Lifetime Movie about real-life stories similar to Lifetime’s classic plots) having talented people to execute it still matters: Remember Me, Mommy? was gripping and genuinely scary while The Perfect Mother seemed to be just a time-filling blip.

The Lady Confesses (Alexander-Stern Productions, Producers’ Releasing Corporation, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Remember Me, Mommy? both my husband Charles and I were getting tired of Lifetime movies, so we looked for something older and shorter — and found it, ironically, in a 1945 “B” from PRC called The Lady Confesses that anticipated enough of the Lifetime clichés one could readily imagine Lifetime remaking it today. Written by Irwin Frankyn (“original” story) and Helen Martin (screenplay), and directed by the incredibly prolific Sam Newfield (whose brother, Sigmund Neufeld, was a PRC producer — Sam “Anglicized” the name and Sigmund didn’t), The Lady Confesses begins with Vicki McGuire (Mary Beth Hughes, the superb femme fatale of Anthony Mann’s superb 1945 film noir The Great Flamarion but somewhat wasted here as a “good girl”), on the eve of her marriage to playboy Larry Craig (Hugh Beaumont — and naturally Charles couldn’t help but make jokes about the contrast between his role here and his most famous part as the father in the 1950’s TV sitcom Leave It to Beaver), being confronted by a woman who announces that she’s Larry Craig’s wife Norma (Barbara Slater) and that, though she doesn’t want him back, she won’t let him marry Vicki — “or anyone else!,” she adds menacingly. It seems that Larry and Norma had separated years before, and then she disappeared and had been gone for six years and 10 months.

Larry was planning to go ahead with the marriage to Vicki because in just two months Norma would have been gone for seven years and under New York law (the story is set in New York City) he could have her declared dead and thus be free to remarry. Only Norma turns up two months before the literal “deadline,” and the next thing we learn she’s been killed for real, strangled with a thin wire in her apartment. The cop assigned to the case is Detective Harmon (Edward Howard), an avuncular figure with a penchant for letting himself in to the homes and offices of the various suspects, including Vicki, without any of that bothersome nonsense about a search warrant. The investigation centers around the 7-11 Club, a night spot owned by sinister gambler Lucky Brandon (Edmund MacDonald), where Larry Craig showed up the night of Norma’s murder already inebriated (he’s drinking so heavily when we first see him we figure Vicki would be better off not marrying him just because he’s an alcoholic!), falls asleep in the dressing room of club singer Lucille Compton (Claudia Drake), and as far as anyone knows stays asleep in that dressing room from 10:45 p.m. until 1 a.m., when the cops turn up at the 7-11 club looking for him to question him about Norma’s murder. The film is surprisingly good for a PRC production, with glimpses of film noir visual style (enough that if Edgar G. Ulmer had directed instead of Sam Newfield, all the noir tricks he learned from working as a production designer for Murnau and Lang in 1920’s Germany and the bizarre intensity he brought to his PRC films Bluebeard, Out of the Night and especially Detour could have made this a masterpiece!) and a mystery plot that for once is genuinely mysterious.

After pointing the finger of suspicion at Brandon (who saw Larry Craig in the club the night of Norma’s murder but told the police he didn’t) and Compton (until she becomes the second victim, also strangled with a thin wire), the writers pull a genuine surprise when [spoiler alert!] Larry Craig turns out to be the killer after all. He carries around something that looks like a tape-measure case that contains the thin wire that’s his murder weapon of choice, and he shocks both Vicki and the audience by pulling it out and threatening her with it until Detective Harmon comes along and saves her from him. He originally killed Norma to get her out of the way so he could marry Vicki, then killed the singer because she realized he hadn’t actually been sleeping a drunk off in her dressing room all night, and finally felt he had to kill Vicki as well because she’d figured him out. Like Lucille Ball — who played some fascinatingly “dark” dramatic roles in her 1940’s feature films (Dance, Girl, Dance, The Big Street, DuBarry Was a Lady, Lured and Easy Living) before she got “typed” by the huge success of I Love Lucy as a ditzy comedienne on TV — Hugh Beaumont is surprisingly credible in the part, especially once the mask comes off and he’s revealed as a killer, and this will be a jolt to anyone who knows him just from his TV work. The film’s title is a misnomer — no one actually “confesses” to anything in the film and the killer is a man, not a “lady” — but The Lady Confesses is actually a quite good bit of dark melodrama that’s missing only the last soupcon of genius PRC’s best directors (Ulmer, Steve Sekely, Frank Wisbar — all foreign-born) might have given it, but it’s still watchable and the characterizations are strongly etched by both writers and actors even though I’d rather watch Mary Beth Hughes as a bad girl than a good one!

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Perfect Mother (Beta Films, The Ninth House, Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I spent six hours “binge-watching” three Lifetime movies from the channel’s current “Mommy Madness” marathon — only one of the three films shown actually featured a potentially crazy mother, and even that one had a surprise twist ending (a double surprise, actually — more on that later). I started at 6 p.m. with The Perfect Mother, which from the title I would have expected to be one of Christine Conradt’s “Perfect … ” scripts in which the nanny/teacher/boyfriend/girlfriend/visiting nurse/physical therapist/life coach/whatever seemingly from heaven turns out to be from hell. In this one, though, it’s not the mother who’s crazy: the film opens with a blonde-haired young chicklet named … well, we don’t learn her name this early, but we see her with an older black-haired woman whom she force-feeds a cake with poison in it. After the dark-haired woman is dead Our Anti-Heroine doesn’t attempt to dispose of the body; she just leaves it tied up to a chair with glastly streaks of blood dripping from its mouth, and one wonders why no one in the neighborhood doesn’t notice the stench as the body inevitably starts to decompose. In the next scene we finally find out who the killer is — Peyton Kelly (Audrey Whitby), who even though she lives just a few doors down from her latest prey, has until recently attended a different high school. We also learn that the woman she was living with, whom she so spectacularly killed in the opening sequence, was her stepmother, whom she got stuck with following the deaths first of her real mother and then of her father, and whom she never could stand.

Right now she’s telling people that her stepmom has a really bad staph infection and she’s worried about catching it if she stays under the same roof with her (a plot line all too timely today!), so she’s staying with a fashion designer named Harper Pryce (Susie Abromeit) for whom her real mom used to work as a model. But she’s got her sights set on two women who do a mother-and-daughter blog (a vlog, actually, since they do it with their computer’s camera) and tell the world how wonderful their lives together are. The mother is Stella Marshall (Sunny Mabrey) and her daughter is Shay (Lily Sepe), though things aren’t as perfectly happy as they portray them online. I can’t remember whether Stella is raising her daughter as a single mom because Shay’s father left her for a younger woman or just died (details like that tend to blur when you watch three Lifetime movies in a row!), but for the first time since dad either departed the family or departed the planet mom has a boyfriend. Unfortunately for her relationship with Shay, her new boyfriend is Shay’s English teacher, Isaac Feldman (Rusty Joiner), and if your idea of a high-school English teacher with a Jewish name is a glasses-wearing nerd, think again: Rusty Joiner is a hot, hunky piece of man-meat, especially in the scene in which Shay catches him in the house wearing nothing but tight blue undies, showing a glorious bod featuring pecs to die for and obviously getting ready to haul Shay’s mom’s ashes. Actually Shay has a boyfriend of her own, Jake (Zach Peladeau), and though he’s hardly a patch on her mom’s man in the looks department he’s certainly cute and hunky enough to be fun to watch. Peyton moves in on this family like a shark cruising a school of fish, ingratiating herself with Stella and at one point faking an attack from Harper, the nice woman she’s staying with, by stabbing herself with a corkscrew (ouch!) and telling the police Harper attacked her.

Written and directed by Jake Helgren — whose work here in both departments is so sloppy it makes the last film of his I saw on Lifetime, Killer Dream Home, look like a suspense masterpiece by comparison — The Perfect Mother follows Lifetime’s formula of perky teen psycho all too rigidly, with Peyton using a variety of methods to murder or threaten anyone who stands in the way of her … well, it’s not all that clear what she wants to do, but it seems her ultimate goal is to eliminate Shay and replace her as Stella’s “perfect” daughter. It’s got an O.K. performance by Audrey Whitby as the perky psycho, but other actresses have done this schtick better in previous Lifetime movies and this one is decidedly unmemorable, though it does have a nice ending with Peyton a-goner (I think; maybe she got captured alive and institutionalized, but I don’t think so) and Shay surprising Stella with a vacation to Cabo San Lucas (maybe the bit about Peyton passing off her stepmother’s incapacitation as a staph infection is au courant, but the whole idea of actually going somewhere for a vacation, and especially leaving the country to do so, seems almost unbearably dated: taking physical vacations seems as obsolete a concept right now as eating indoors in a restaurant or drinking in a bar!) she’s paid for with the earnings from her job as a barista in a coffeehouse (remember coffeehouses? I suspect if the SARS-CoV-2 crisis goes on much longer restaurants, bars, coffeehouses, movie theatres, live theatres and perhaps even live church services will become things of ancient history and all of those activities will have moved in people’s homes or online).

A Mother Knows Worst (Blue Sky Films, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Next up on the Lifetime “Mommy Madness” marathon was the week’s Saturday “premiere,” A Mother Knows Worst, a bizarre piece of melodrama from three old Lifetime hands, writers Rebeca Hughes (that’s how spells her first name) and Stephen Lyons, and director Robert Malefactor — oops, I mean Malenfant. (I’ve made that joke on his name before.) This was the closest any of these three movies came to depicting a genuinely “mad” mother, though even in this case Hughes and Lyons pulled a couple of surprise twists at the end that [spoiler alert!] the mother who supposedly knew worst was really innocent after all. Mom is Olivia Davis (Katie Leclerc), who just happens to be giving birth to her first child while in an adjoining room in the maternity ward another woman in the final stages of pregnancy is also about to give birth. Her name is Brooke (Victoria Barabas) and she’s the wife of a rich man named Glen (Todd Cahoon) who has some sort of business that has afforded him and his wife a lavish lifestyle (complete with a house with big bay windows — lately just about all rich Lifetime characters have lived in houses with bay windows) but also has left him with cash-flow problems. Brooke has had a series of miscarriages — it’s obvious the writers are going for the irony that all their money hasn’t been able to buy them the one thing they really want (though I would have found myself asking — not for the last time in this movie — “Why don’t they adopt?”) — while Olivia has never been pregnant before.

Both women give birth, attended by a nurse named Nancy (Heather Ankeny) who has a mom named Holly (Corinne Laurance) who’s very ill with cancer and needs quite a lot of expensive care. Glen and Brooke go home with a healthy baby but Olivia is told by the nurse that her own baby died minutes after being born. Glen offers Olivia’s husband Harry (Jeff Schine, even more of a milquetoast than usual for a Lifetime husband) a job with his company, whatever it is (or does), as a sort of consolation prize because they had their baby and Harry and Olivia did not. Olivia sinks into the Mother of All Post-Partum Depressions, insisting that she’s going to keep the baby room they were preparing for their newborn daughter and going over to Glen’s and Brooke’s every chance she gets to help out with the baby, to which she feels a mystical connection. Olivia catches Brooke bottle-feeding the baby, a girl whose name is Sienna (Ocean Tauber), and launches into a lecture about how breast-feeding is healthier for both parties — only Brooke complains that baby Sienna never “latched” on to her (I guess that’s the actual term) and therefore she had to bottle-feed. Olivia offers to baby-sit for Glen and Brooke any time they need her, but they say they’ve already hired a nanny to take care of Sienna full-time while Glen and Brooke go out into the work world and do whatever they need to do. Meanwhile, Harry (ya remember Harry? Olivia’s husband?) goes through the books of Glen’s business and finds they’re $50,000 short, and he’s trying to figure out who embezzled the money, how they did it and where it went. While all this is going on someone else sneaks into Glen’s and Brooke’s house at night and kills the nanny by giving her wine and then holding her head down in the couple’s swimming pool. (Did I tell you they have a swimming pool? They’re affluent characters in a Lifetime movie, aren’t they?)

Glen tells Harry he’s going to leave Harry and another executive in charge of running his office while he goes on a business trip to London — meaning a big promotion for Harry and a lot more money — only someone files an anonymous sexual-harassment complaint against Glen, he has to call off the trip to stay home and fight it, ad there goes Harry’s promotion and extra money. Brooke finally gets so tired of Olivia coming around and wanting to help parent Baby Sienna that she takes out a restraining order against her, only the truth finally comes out when Harry at last figures out where the $50,000 went (ya remember the $50,000?): it went to Nancy, the nurse at the hospital who’s been consoling Olivia and acting like her best friend. It seems [surprise!] that Brooke’s pregnancy ended in yet another miscarriage, and [double surprise!] Glen, figuring that Brooke would be totally devastated and might break down completely if she found out she’d lost yet another baby, bribed Nancy to tell Olivia and Harry that it was their baby who died while his and Brooke’s lived. The show ends up in a typical Lifetime sequence in which Glen locks Harry and Olivia in his basement, intending to kill them now that they’ve learned his secret, and to do that he pulls a gun on them — only Brooke gets the gun away from him and threatens to shoot him over the way he deceived her. Eventually They Both Reach for the Gun (Maurine Watkins, your plagiarism attorney now has a huge Manhattan office and 35 assistants) and Glen gets himself shot as he and Brooke are wrestling over it, while Harry and Olivia not only survive but get back Sienna, who after all is biologically theirs. It’s decently directed by Malenfant (as much as I like to ridicule his name, he does have a real flair for suspense and action — far more than Jake Helgren), though I should have been able to guess how the story would come out given that Todd Cahoon as Glen is so much hotter than Jeff Schine as Harry: in Lifetime movies the hottest guy in the cast almost always turns out to be the villain!

My Mom’s Darkest Secrets (Thrilling Films/Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyight © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The third Lifetime “Mommy Madness” movie I caught last night turned out to be the best of the three by a pretty wide margin — as I guessed it would from the moment I looked it up on and found that Christine Conradt had written it. (The director was one of her usual collaborators, Curtis Crawford.) It was called My Mom’s Darkest Secrets — though apparently the working title for Conradt’s script was The Mother She Met Online — and the central character is Ashley Beck Ford (Nia Roam). She was adopted in Pennsylvania by a Lesbian couple, Kelly (Dawn Lambing) and Maricella (Amanda Martinez), who are about to celebrate their 25th anniversary and are expressing their joy that the state of Pennsylvania has at last allowed them to marry each other. The state of Pennsylvania has done one other thing that helps drive the plot of this movie: they’ve recently passed a law unsealing formerly closed adoption records, and Ashley uses this law to unseal the records of her own adoption and find out who her birth mother is. She does this absurdly easily in the space of one commercial break — real-life adoptees I’ve talked to, including Patrick McMahon (whom I interviewed for Zenger’s Newsmagazine in 2011), have told me this is generally a much harder and time-consuming (and money-consuming) process than this — and she finds out that her biological mother is Sara Hillman (Laurie Fortier), who’s currently married to a wealthy and successful man named Trevor Hillman (Scott Gibson). When Ashley gets Sara to come visit her and meet her adoptive mothers I joked — referencing the infamous children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies — that Conradt could have called this script Ashley Has Three Mommies. The only problem is that, while Trevor and Sara never had children together, Trevor had a daughter from a previous marriage, Amy Hillman (Hannah Gordon), who has never got along with Sara (“All she does is spend my dad’s money,” Amy tells Ashley) and takes an instant dislike to Ashley as well. Meanwhile, Trevor has a scapegrace alcoholic brother named Michael (Ash Catherwood), whom Trevor has been bailing out of various crises with money, shelter or what have you. Michael is married to a woman named Kelsie (Sophie Gendron) who seems way too good for him. Then Trevor is suddenly found murdered in his home and Sara, who has a whole medicine chest full of psychotropic drugs, claims she heard nothing because she had taken three very powerful red-and-black sleeping capsules and slept through her husband’s murder.

Though Ashley and Amy have every reason to hate each other — especially once Sara announces that she’s going to rewrite her will, disinherit Amy and leave all Trevor’s fortune to Ashley — they’re both too decent to want to see Sara, whom they’re both convinced was innocent, get convicted and executed or imprisoned for life for Trevor’s murder. Eventually they realize that Trevor was having an affair with his sister-in-law Kelsie, and that Michael had found out about it and responded by hiring a hit man named James Wilson (Michael Coady, who in accordance with Lifetime’s casting practices is the hottest-looking guy in the movie: he’s middle-aged and balding but he’s still in excellent physical shape and what hair he does have is blond, which at least to me makes him sexier) to kill Trevor and set Sara up for the crime. Ashley gets one of her adoptive parents, Maricella —who’s a branch manager for a bank — to run a check on Michael’s financial records, and they learn about his payments to Wilson (and Trevor’s payments to him, so in a typical bit of Conradtian irony Trevor was actually financing his own murder) and the deserted mountain cabin he owns, where he’s gone to hide out while he figures out how to deal with the pesky teenagers who are after him. Only when they get there, with no weapons and no clear idea of what they intended to do, Michael easily overpowers them, holds them hostage and is prepared to kill them when James Wilson shows up, picks off Michael through the cabin window with a sniper rifle (hey, if he was so good why did he have to kill Trevor at his home with a knife?) and hopes to escape detection by shutting up the one witness against him — but Ashley and Amy have their cell phones out to record Michael’s dying declaration, confessing all and naming Wilson as the actual killer, and though Wilson escapes the cabin the girls learn that the police caught him less than an hour later. The finale consists of Ashley, her two adoptive mothers, her biological mom, her new friend Amy and Ashley’s boyfriend Ben Green (Kitaro Akiyama) as the only male in the gathering, all uniting and going forward as a family.

My Mom’s Darkest Secrets — the title refers to the dissolute life Sara led before she married Trevor: she was a heavy alcoholic and drug user and worked as an “escort,” which is how she met Trevor in the first place (so at some time in her life Christine Conradt had seen Pretty Woman!) — is an engaging film, suffering a bit from Conradt’s tendency towards melodramatics but benefiting from her ability to create truly multidimensional characters and keep us in at least some degree of suspense as to how we’re supposed to feel about them. More than any other Lifetime writer, Christine Conradt is able to create ambiguous characters; her heroes have flaws, her villains at least act for understandable motives instead of just to be evil or kick off a murder plot; and she’s able to make us feel for the people she creates instead of just seeing them as puppets to enact a thriller plot. And most of the actors in My Mom’s Darkest Secrets are good enough to take full advantage of Conradt’s script complexities to create multidimensional characters (though I was a bit disappointed she didn’t do more with the Lesbian couple who raised Ashley — Amanda Martínez has one brief character conflict, whether to uphold the law that bank accounts are confidential or give her daughter the information they need to track down Michael — but Dawn Lambing as Kelly is pretty much just there — and though the two women don’t show much physical affection beyond one kiss, I didn’t mind that so much because they’ve supposedly been together for 25 years, as have my husband Charles and I, and we don’t slobber over each other as much as we used to, either!). I was especially haunted by Hannah Gordon as Amy; she’s had a short but impressive career and is currently set to play a prosecutor on a TV series called A Higher Loyalty and is in post-production on a film called The Craft — a remake of a 1996 film I saw at a San Diego screening some time ago — in which she plays Ashley, the leader of a coven of teenage witches. I’d definitely like to see more of her, and I suspect I’ll like her more as an A.D.A. than a witch!

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Campanile Productions, George Roy Hill-Paul Monash Production, Newman-Foreman Company, 20th Century-Fox, 1969)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a DVD of the 1969 Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which I originally saw when it was (relatively) new on a double bill with Planet of the Apes. I wasn’t all that interested in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and actually thought I’d fall asleep through most of it — only about five minutes into it I said to myself, “Hey! This is good!” Seen today in a good DVD transfer that does justice to Conrad Hall’s Academy Award-winning color cinematography (even though the technicians at 20th Century-Fox’s in-house color process, DeLuxe, pissed Hall off by tweaking scenes he’d deliberately overexposed to make the color less bright and vivid, and returning them to full-color glory), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid emerges as a quite good movie but also a really quirky one. It co-starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the first film they made together — there would be only one other, The Sting, also directed by George Roy Hill (a pity because in both movies they worked together so well) — with Newman as Butch Cassidy and Redford as the Sundance Kid. 

The film was a personal project of its writer, William Goldman (who complained to friends that he’d be remembered for this and so little else he wrote his obituaries would begin with a reference to it — and when Goldman died his obituary in the New York Times did indeed lead off with his scripts for this film and another Redford vehicle, All the President’s Men). Among the trivia comments were claims that Newman had to fight with 20th Century-Fox to get Redford cast as his co-star — among the studio’s choices were Marlon Brando (who probably would have insisted on playing Butch Cassidy and relegated Newman to the Sundance Kid), Steve McQueen (who insisted on top billing —when he and Newman finally did make a film together, The Towering Inferno, McQueen not only insisted on top billing but that he be given the first crack as to which of the two male leads he’d play, so he picked the butch, heroic firefighter and stuck Newman with playing the architect who designed the building) and Warren Beatty (who apparently felt it was too close to his own half-comic, half-serious crime film, Bonnie and Clyde). Redford was a popular leading man in 1969 but wasn’t considered a superstar — ironically, it would be the role of the Sundance Kid in this movie that would launch him into superstar status. 

Also, in 2014 PBS ran an American Experience segment on the original Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid which indicated (at least to me) that, while this film is quite good, an even better one could have been made had Goldman and Hill stuck closer to the facts. As I wrote in my blog post about the PBS documentary, “Am I really going to surprise anyone by saying the real Butch and Sundance, judging from the still photos reproduced here, didn’t look much like Paul Newman and Robert Redford?” The film tells at least the broad outlines of the real story — Butch and Sundance, as part of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang (the real gang was called “The Wild Bunch,” but Sam Peckinpah had famously used that as the title of a major Western the year before so Goldman’s script had to change it), stage robberies of banks and trains in the Southwest in the late 19th and early 20th century. When the companies they’re targeting — particularly the Union Pacific Railroad, whose robber-baron CEO, E. H. Harriman, becomes a running joke in the film — clubbed together to hire the notorious Pinkerton Detective Agency to assemble what amounted to a death squad to hunt them down and kill them (the Pinkertons were notorious for being able to do just about anything, including outright murder, to protect the capitalists from outlaws, union organizers or anyone else who got in the way of Big Money — thanks to supine state and local governments who were in the pay of the giant corporations, particularly the railroads and the banks, and essentially gave the Pinkertons immunity), the real Butch and Sundance, like their movie equivalents, fled to South America. 

In the film they go directly from the U.S. to the desolate and dirt-poor country of Bolivia, and one wonders, “Why the hell did they go to Bolivia? Why didn’t they go to a South American country that had money, like Argentina or Brazil?” The real Butch and Sundance actually did go to Argentina and worked legitimate jobs for the mining industries there and in Chile — including, like their movie counterparts, standing guard for mine payrolls against the people trying to rob them — only the Pinkertons’ death squad followed them there and forced them to flee in Bolivia, where the Pinkertons worked with the Bolivian military and police to hunt them down and kill them at last. The movie depicts the goon squad that went after Butch and Sundance but doesn’t refer to them as Pinkerton operatives, and throughout the film there’s a kind of nervous alternation between drama, violence, comedy and romance. The leading lady for both Butch and Sundance is Etta Place (Katharine Ross), a prostitute in real life but a schoolteacher in Goldman’s script, and in the film’s most charming (and best-remembered) sequence Butch takes her for a ride on the handlebars of a bicycle while B. J. Thomas’s performance of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David song “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” plays on the soundtrack. According to, Thomas was hired after the filmmakers’ original choice, Bob Dylan, turned it down (Bob Dylan? If he’d sung the song the sequence would have turned into pure camp!), and he thought it would kill his career — instead it became the biggest hit Thomas ever had and it started him recording a whole lot of songs about rain (including the singularly beautiful “Everybody Loves a Rain Song”), just as after “Over the Rainbow” was a hit Judy Garland got inundated with more songs about rainbows. 

Charles noted that the film changed tone an awful lot — in some ways this was the 1960’s version of the portmanteau movies of the 1930’s which combined romance, action, music and comedy in an attempt to give every audience member something they’d like. When Hill created a montage sequence showing Butch and Sundance robbing every two-bit bank they could find in Bolivia and living it up on the proceeds at what passed for a high life there — all set to faux-ragtime music by Bacharach, who composed the film’s entire soundtrack instead of just the famous song (and who left a lot of the dramatic scenes powerfully unscored) — Charles said it looked like they mashed up Woody Allen’s films Take the Money and Run (Allen as an outlaw in 1960’s America) and Bananas (Allen as an American milquetoast who gets involved in a South American revolution), and later when the goon squad that dared not speak its name teamed up with the Bolivian army to shoot down Butch and Sundance (and gave Newman and Redford the chance to play a quite beautiful ’tis-a-far-far-better-thing-I-do joint death scene) Charles said it looked like Peckinpah (though at least Hill avoided the cliché of Peckinpah and Bonnie and Clyde director Arthur Penn to have the outlaws die in slow motion). The film mostly got mediocre reviews from the early critics — they pointed out the anachronisms, including the modern haircuts Newman and Redford were sporting (created by Jay Sebring just became one of the victims of Charles Manson’s murderous “Family”) and the jaunty, “cool,” “with-it” character of Goldman’s dialogue (including the screamingly funny scenes in Bolivia in which Katharine Ross is trying to teach Our Antiheroes enough Spanish to be able to rob banks there — one wonders if the little phrase book she’s carrying is called Spanish for Crooks) — but audiences came out of the theatres loving it and telling their friends to see it back when opening weekends weren’t the be-all and end-all of a film’s theatrical career and a movie could be built into a hit if it could be kept in theatres long enough for people to see it and tell their friends, “No, really, you’ll like it!”

Monday, March 23, 2020

Killer Dream Home (Beta Films, The Ninth House, Lifetime, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched last night’s Lifetime “premiere,” Killer Dream Home, which they’d been heavily hyping in their promos, and after the relative quality of A Deadly Price for a Pretty Face (a quite good thriller despite its awful title) the night before, this one was a dreary rehash of the usual Lifetime formulae distinguished only by two very hot male actors we blessedly got to see with their shirts off. One was John DeLuca as Josh Grant, the male lead, whom we got to see a lot of wearing nothing but gym shorts; the other was Kayvon Esmaili as Ivan, ex-boyfriend of the villainess, whom she virtually rapes in one scene and sets up her smartphone camera to take pictures of them “doing it” which she then prints up and threatens to post online as a form of blackmail. The plot deals with a spectacular white dream home on Maple Drive in the suburb of an unspecified major city which Josh Grant and his wife (of five years) Jules (Maiara Walsh) decide to buy and “flip” even though the previous owner actually died in the house. The previous owner, it turns out, was a man named Dan Maples who was running a home-based business from the house and had hired a woman named Morgan Dyer (Eve Mauro) to work there as his executive assistant — only when he died (supposedly in an accident, though there’s a prologue scene in which a woman strangles a man, and while we don’t see enough of them to figure out who they are, from what we learn in the later stages we conclude that he was Dan and she was Morgan, who believed he was going to leave her the house so she could stay there when he croaked. Instead he left it to his wife Beverly (also someone we never see) and she decided to sell it.

The Grants picked it up intending to “flip” it — to resell it to a higher bidder after fixing it up — but to do that they decide it needs an interior redesign to make it more salable. Morgan has a fake business card printed up claiming she’s an interior designer and puts together a fake portfolio of rooms she’s supposedly designed but actually clipped out of home-design magazines. She leaves it at the door of Maple Street and the Grants pick it up, call her, are impressed by the portfolio and hire her to redo the home. Only Morgan keeps dropping hints that she’s emotionally involved in the house — she wants the big room with a bay window (virtually all fancy houses in Lifetime movies these days have big, prominent bay windows) to be a reading room and resents it when Jules (why do both members of the straight couple at the center of the action have male names?) wants to turn it into an office for her home-based business instead. Unable to afford to buy the home herself, Morgan determines to drive the Grants out of it; by claiming to need a hideout away from an abusive boyfriend she talks them into letting her move in to the guest house. She also knocks off the gardener, Edgar (Mike Capozzi), when he recognizes her from her previous relationship (professional and personal) with Dan Maples and wonders what she’s doing back at the old home. The Grants have several helpers in redoing the home, including a blonde woman named — I’m not making this up, you know! — Bliss Leary (Brooke Butler), whom we get the impression dated Josh before he married Jules instead but has remained a friend of him and befriended the woman he ended up with instead. There’s also a Gay neighbor named Perry (Jon Klatt), whom I would have expected to be spending the whole movie drooling with unrequited lust over Josh but instead is the usual prissy queen; as with most movie Gays we’re told he’s Gay, and he’s stereotypically queeny enough we believe it, but we never see him actually romantically or sexually involved with a man.

The film, written and directed by old Lifetime hand Jake Helgren (which invites my usual line when I don’t like a film written and directed by the same person: “The director, who is also the writer and therefore has no one to blame but himself … ”), progresses (like a disease) to a typically over-the-top Lifetime climax in which Morgan goes totally crazy, clubbing Josh and Perry with the butt end of an ax and strangling Bliss with a red measuring tape in the home’s elevator (the fact that it had an elevator was a major selling point), after she’s already knocked off Edgar and Renée Rivera (Mayra Leal), the realtor (or is that “Realtor®”?) who sold them the house in the first place because Renée had figured out Morgan wasn’t a real interior designer and was scamming the Grants. (Renée has an African-American office assistant whom Morgan also stalks, but she blessedly survives and escapes the usual — or once-usual; they’ve pretty much backed away from this cliché in recent months — fate of the Black Best Friend Who Finds Out the Villain’s Plans But Gets Killed Before She Can Tell Anybody.) Only Jules Grant is able to rescue her husband and the Gay best friend, and in the end she shoots Morgan dead with a nail gun (a twist my husband Charles red-flagged when he saw it in the preview: he said a nail gun does not shoot the nails out like a real gun shoots bullets, and the only way you could kill someone with one is to have it point-blank against a vital organ) and the Grants decide to remain in the Maple Street home and raise their family there — since in the tag scene Jules informs Josh that she’s pregnant. (Just when they found the time to have sex is a bit of a mystery.) Killer Dream Home is O.K. Lifetime entertainment, full of the sorts of people who are so good-looking they don’t have to be able to act (I suspect any straight guys watching this were drooling over Maiara Walsh as much as I was over John DeLuca!) and with costume designer Daniella Cartun coming up with a series of gloriously over-the-top dresses for Eve Mauro that did at least as much as Mauro’s acting to tell us she was the bad girl), but Helgren’s a sloppy director and an even worse writer who has the characters do so many stupid things (like not locking their doors, turning their backs to people they know are out to hurt them, and above all refusing to call the police until they can’t because the villainess has taken their phones) it’s hard to maintain much sympathy for them.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

A Predator’s Obsession, a.k.a. Stalker’s Prey 2 (Johnson Production Group, Synthetic Cinema International, Lifetime, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I got to watch last night’s two Lifetime movies, A Predator’s Obsession and A Deadly Price for a Pretty Face, but if you try to look them up on you won’t find them under those titles since both were changed: A Predator’s Obsession was originally called Stalker’s Prey 2 and A Deadly Price for a Pretty Face was originally Model Citizen. As the “2” in the original title suggests, A Predator’s Obsession was originally a sequel to the first Stalker’s Prey from 2017, in which Bruce Kane (Mason Dye, the male ingénue in Lifetime’s adaptation of V. C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic) rescued a teenage woman named Laura Wilcox (Saxon Sharbano) and her younger pre-pubescent sister Chloe (Alexis Larivere) from a shark attack at Hunter’s Cove, a small town presumably in New England if only because that was the locale of Jaws, from which this film steals shamelessly. (The poster art for A Predator’s Obsession a.k.a. Stalker’s Prey 2 is such an obvious ripoff of the famous Jaws poster it’s a wonder Universal and Steven Spielberg don’t sue.) Then, of course, Bruce gets romantically obsessed with Laura, at least in part because she reminds him of a previous girlfriend named Alison, whom Bruce killed by deliberately speeding when he was driving and she was in the car, and when the inevitable crash occurred he escaped but she was killed. 

Of course Laura already had a boyfriend of her own, Nicholas Jordan (Luke Slattery, who for my money was even hotter than Mason Dye!), but for some reason Laura’s mom didn’t like Nicholas but did like Bruce. The climax of the original Stalker’s Prey featured Bruce, having finally realized that Laura didn’t share his romantic or sexual interest in her, deciding to get his revenge by feeding her to the local shark — only she was able to wound him with a harpoon gun and he fell into the water and presumably got eaten by the shark instead. Stalker’s Prey 2, a.k.a. A Predator’s Obsession (by the “predator” did they mean Bruce or the shark?) carried over the same writer (John Doolan) and director (Colin Theys) as the original, and recycled so many of the same plot points it wasn’t clear whether Messrs. Theys and Doolan thought they were doing a sequel, a reboot or a remake. They did get a different actor to play Bruce this time — Houston Stevenson, a nice-looking blond man but one with a hard enough face we’re suspicious of him from the get-go (Mason Dye got aced out of the sequel to Flowers in the Attic, too!) — but they seemed to be check-marking off the plot incidents and complications from their original. This time around Bruce is using the alias “Daniel” and his one-sided inamorata is really named Alison (Julia Blanchard), who’s being raised by her mom and a stepfather who’s never really established himself with the kids because he’s out of town on business a lot and he’s hardly ever home. 

This time around Alison’s sibling is a younger brother, Kevin (Brayson Goss), instead of a sister, and Daniel captains a boat that tows kids one at a time on a rubber ring raft — the other kids are supposed to stand on Daniel’s boat and call out “Man down!” when the kid falls of the raft, only Kevin gets into trouble because one of the kids, who’s been bullying him, unties the tow line just as sharks start approaching. (It’s unclear from Theys’ direction whether there’s just one shark or two — we see two fins coming out of the water but we only see one shark, and it’s one of the most blatantly fake digital video effects I’ve ever encountered.) Alison goes into the water after her brother and nearly becomes shark food herself, but Daniel rescues the two of them and then disappears when the media show up because he doesn’t want his picture taken. This time around Alison’s boyfriend is Carson (Jackson Dockery), and the casting department did not make the same mistake they did in the first film of having Laura’s boyfriend be hotter than her stalker: Houston Stevenson is so much sexier than Jackson Dockery that if he weren’t such a creep you’d think Alison was trading up. Instead Daniel kills Alison’s stepfather (through the same speeding-car means he dispatched the original Alison in the flashback in Stalker’s Prey) and then kills Carson by suspending him over the water and then letting him go so he falls into the water just as the local shark is ready to feed. (There probably aren’t that many movies in which the villain uses sharks as a murder weapon.) Doolan and Theys use the same ironic plot gimmick they did in the original Stalker’s Prey of having the heroine’s mother like psycho “Daniel” better as a boyfriend for her daughter than nice, presumably normal Carson — though we also got to see Carson shirtless and when the two men confronted each other, my dirty Queer mind would have liked to see “Daniel” seduce Carson so “Daniel” could later tell Alison, “You can’t marry Carson! He’s Gay! I know — I’ve had him!” 

In the end they have “Daniel” kidnap Kevin — we’ve already seen through “Daniel” along with Alison and her best friend Rhiannon (Sarah Wisser), who played the role Gillian Rose played in the original Stalker’s Prey of the best friend who stumbles on the truth about the villain but gets herself killed for her pains (though this time around the best friend is white instead of Black), but cute little pre-pubescent Kevin still loves and trusts “Daniel” — and there’s a big confrontation scene on “Daniel’s” boat in which he threatens to kill both Alison and her mom (he’s kidnapped both mom and Kevin, though Kevin went willingly with him since he still trusted “Daniel”) by lowering them into the water and feeding them to the shark, only Kevin stabs “Daniel” with a knife “Daniel” gave him, and while this incapacitates him he keeps going and pulls a gun on the other principals until Alison fires a flare gun at him, the flare sets him on fire and he ultimately takes a header off the boat and into the water, presumably to be eaten by the shark — or is he? Are Theys and Doolan still trying to keep it ambiguous so they can do a Stalker’s Prey 3? A Predator’s Obsession a.k.a. Stalker’s Prey 2 is quite an O.K. Lifetime movie, and looking at Houston Stevenson (and, less so, Jackson Dockery) topless is a big part of its appeal, but it seems quite appropriate that the “collapsible” production company for this film (in partnership with the ongoing Johnson Production Group) is called “Synthetic Cinema International,” almost as appropriate a name for a Lifetime producing company as “Formula Features,” makers of Last July’s Lifetime premiere I Almost Married a Serial Killer!

A Deadly Price for a Pretty Face, a.k.a. Model Citizen (Indy Entertainment, Quint Pictures, Rocco the Unicorn, Beta Films, LIfetime, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

My husband Charles was home for most of the next Lifetime movie on their schedule, and it was a considerably better and more compelling one even though it got saddled by Lifetime’s titling department with one of the worst “handles” ever put on a movie of any sort: A Deadly Price for a Pretty Face. The original title from writer Mitch Chamberlain and director Mark Gantt was Model Citizen, which would have been a far finer and more ironic name — but about the last thing Lifetime wants on their movie titles is irony. The plot deals with Amanda Archer (Cassie Browarth), who’s working as a model to support herself and her pre-pubescent daughter Zooey (pronounced “Zoë”) (Marie Wagenman) while she attends nursing school in hopes of building a better life for the two of them. Only Amanda’s ex-husband Nick (Hans Christopher), who seems to combine the love, warmth and understanding of Michael Douglas in The Wars of the Roses and Patrick Bergin in Sleeping with the Enemy, is bound and determined to take Zooey away from Angela and win full custody. He thinks he can do it because he’s a big-shot lawyer, well paid by a local hospital for his skill in finding loopholes that can get rid of sick, indigent patients who can’t pay their bills and have run out their insurance, and therefore he can persuade the family-court judge hearing his custody case that he and his new trophy wife Clara (Diana Villegas) would be better parents for Zooey than her mom. Both Amanda and Clara note the irony that Nick never wanted kids with either of his wives, but since Zooey exists he’s determined to have her if only to traumatize Angela and make her life more miserable. 

Nick hits on the idea of having two crooks, recent parolee and alcoholic Tyler Walton (Shawn Pyfrom) and his younger brother Shawn (Kevin Fonteyne), kidnap Angela and demand $150,000 ransom — which he will agree to pay, but only if Angela agrees to give up Zooey and allow him full custody. What makes this considerably more interesting than most Lifetime movies is the depth of characterization writer Chamberlain puts into the characters, particularly the two crooks, who though we’re told they’re brothers have an interesting emotional relationship similar to the one between Lawrence Tierney and Elisha Cook, Jr. in the 1947 RKO “B” Born to Kill. Angela got kidnapped in the first place when Shawn posed as a photographer representing a big model agency in New York and lured her to an office building for a “photo shoot” — she got suspicious and tried to run, but he caught her and he and Tyler grabbed her, but Zooey saw the whole thing, including the Chucky-style clown masks the two kidnappers were wearing (though Shawn didn’t put his mask on in time and Zooey got to see his face) because she was in her baby sitter’s car at the time. The kidnappers hold Angela at an out-of-the-way location and we learn that in addition to being a parolee, Tyler is also a heavy drinker and Shawn is worried that his alcohol consumption is going to get them both caught. In one scene a small-town sheriff pulls up next to the Walton brothers at a stop sign, stares at Tyler as if he’s seen that face somewhere, then thinks better of it and drives off — while Tyler nervously fingers a gun, ready to shoot the sheriff if the sheriff makes any law-enforcement moves on him. At one point we see Shawn nervously get out a hypodermic syringe and a professionally packaged ampule of something, and at first we assume he’s a prescription drug addict — but later we learn that he’s suffering from Stage IV cancer and the drug is something he has to shoot up to control the side effects of his chemotherapy. 

In fact, the entire kidnap plot was staged by the Walton brothers to get the money for Shawn’s treatments after the hospital he was using — the one Nick Archer represents in court — said they wouldn’t provide him any more treatments now that he’d exhausted his insurance. At times this seems like a morality play, with the moral being, “If we had Medicare for All, it would reduce crime” — indeed, when Tyler actually says on the soundtrack that they wouldn’t have had to kidnap Amanda if America’s health-care system wasn’t so screwed up, I couldn’t help but joke, “They could have called this When Bernie-Bros Go Really, Really Bad.” While all this is happening — including Tyler having to keep himself and Shawn in a dinky small town longer than anticipated because it’s going to take a day longer than they thought for the drugstore (a Rexall’s, which startled Charles and I because we both thought Rexall had gone out of business ages ago) to contact Shawn’s doctor and verify the prescription; and Angela trying to get into Shawn’s good graces and get him to let her go by agreeing to give him his shot and use her knowledge as a nursing student to do it properly and painlessly — a pair of police detectives, a tall, heavy-set, middle-aged white man, Carl Coomler (Jason Coviello), and his almost as large Black woman partner, lverez (Amber Lynn Ashley), are doing the best they can to trace the case. Tyler is also getting restive about how long Nick is making him wait before he pays the ransom, and at several points he has what he calls his “Plan B”: to take photos of Amanda in bondage and upload them to a “dark Web” site called Night Terrors so he can sell her to a human trafficker for sexual slavery. When the cops finally identify the Walton brothers as the kidnappers, they give a press conference and publicize it to the media — and when Tyler, having finally got Shawn’s prescription, stops off at a bar for a drink he sees the story come out on the bar TV, immediately pulls out his gun and holds the whole bar hostage. The bartender tries to shoot Tyler with the shotgun he has behind the bar, but Tyler — though wounded — manages not only to escape but grab the shotgun. 

Meanwhile, back at their hideout, Amanda is trying to keep Shawn alive while Tyler is late coming back with Shawn’s treatment, and it’s pretty clear that neither Walton brother is long for this world — they’re both going to die rather than face justice — and Shawn dies after he takes his brother’s shotgun blast, intended for Amanda, while Tyler gets picked off by Amanda with his own pistol, which she’d got away from him. (Charles questioned how someone who isn’t a well-practiced shot could fire a pistol at long range and kill anybody, particularly with the perfect bullet pattern she gets, but maybe in addition to taking self-defense classes, something she mentioned doing earlier in the movie, she took classes at a shooting range as well.) Though the title is not only obnoxious but a “cheat” — Tyler actually spends very little time trying to merchandise Amanda as a sex slave on the “dark Web,” and his efforts in that direction are blown when Shawn, a basically decent guy in thrall to his criminal brother, smashes their computer’s router so Tyler can’t stay in contact with the human-trafficking site — A Deadly Price for a Pretty Face is actually a quite good thriller, with legitimately complex emotional characters, excellent acting (especially by Shawn Pyfrom as Tyler — he’s good enough here, strongly reminiscent in his appearance of Erik Estrada on the 1970’s TV series CHiPs, I’d like to see him in a sympathetic role sometime! — and Hans Christopher as Nick, vividly projecting the character’s Trump-like arrogance and conviction that he can do anything he wants and the law can’t touch him because he is the law, or at least part of it — he reminded me of Donald Trump and also Daniel Broderick, the San Diego attorney who in 1989 was killed, along with his new wife, by the ex-wife he’d used the courts to punish and make her life as miserable as possible) and a well-constructed script that has us rooting for the good guys even as we understand the not-so-good ones. This is the kind of film habitual Lifetime-watchers like me wait and hope for from this network!

Phantom of the Opera (Universal, 1943)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

On Thursday night Charles and I had some time to spare between all the dire news reports on the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and we looked for something to watch in between news shows and Law and Order reruns. We found it in Phantom of the Opera — note the lack of the first definite article you’re used to from most of the famous versions (Gaston Leroux’ original 1911 novel, the classic 1925 film starring Lon Chaney, Sr., and the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical) and an odd item to find in the Blu-Ray boxed set of Universal’s horror classics because it’s the only one that isn’t a series film and it’s also the only one in color. It’s the 1943 Phantom directed by Arthur Lubin and starring — in this order of billing — Nelson Eddy, Susanna Foster and Claude Rains. Though it doesn’t have the legendary status of the 1925 silent with Chaney (still the best-ever adaptation) it’s probably the most important in terms of the later history of the story because screenwriters Hans Jacoby, Eric Taylor and Samuel Hoffenstein made key changes in the Leroux storyline — and those have been followed in most of the subsequent versions: the Hammer remake from 1962 (with Herbert Lom as the Phantom after Cary Grant — Cary Grant? — wisely turned it down); the rock adaptation Phantom of the Paradise from 1974 (starring Paul Williams, who also wrote the score, and a damned good movie worth being better known); and the Lloyd Webber musical. In Leroux’ original and the 1925 Chaney version, the Phantom is a former carnival freak named Erik, deformed from birth, who got a job building the Paris Opera House and while he was doing that he also built for himself a subterranean hangout under the Opera House, accessible only by gondola via the Paris sewers, and lived there until he heard the remarkable soprano voice of Christine Daaé (played by the quite good Mary Philbin in the Chaney film), whereupon he determined to make her the biggest star of the Opera no matter how much mayhem he had to cause and how many people he had to kill — not only rival soprani but also audience members in the famous scene in which, to protest that Christine isn’t singing the lead of Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust that night, he saws through the chain holding up the opera house’s chandelier and it falls into the orchestra seats during the performance. 

For this 1943 version the writers changed the Phantom’s real identity to Erique Claudin (Claude Rains), a violinist in the Paris Opera Orchestra, and in the opening scene the conductor notices that the violins seem to be a bit “off” in the overture to Friedrich von Flotow’s Martha (the only one of the three pieces performed in the movie that’s a real opera — more on that later). He traces the problem to Claudin, realizes that the violinist has arthritis (the disease isn’t named in the script but it’s pretty obvious what it is) and that he can no longer play up to the standard of perfection required by the Opera. Claudin goes home to the hovel in which he lives — which looked to both Charles and I like a set recycled from the magnificent 1932 Universal horror film Murders in the Rue Morgue (a vehicle for Bela Lugosi, one of his three finest films — along with White Zombie, also from 1932, and the 1934 serial The Return of Chandu — and one of the classics, along with the 1934 Black Cat, The Raven, The Invisible Ray and others not included in the Blu-Ray box because it isn’t a monster movie with a continuing lead character) — and is faced with the typical hard-assed landlady who wants to throw him out onto the street because he hasn’t paid her rent in several months. Both she and the conductor taunt him for not having saved any of the money he was making as a violinist for the Opera, but we soon realize why he’s broke: he’s been subsidizing the vocal training of Christine DuBois (Susanna Foster, who was only 19 when the movie was made), a singer in the Opera chorus with the potential to be a huge star. Meanwhile, Christine is juggling the affections of two boyfriends: Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy), a star baritone who wants to partner with her both professionally and personally; and Raoul Daubert (the almost insufferably stuck-up Edgar Barrier), inspector with the Sureté (the French plainclothes police force — their uniformed force is called the gendarmerie), who wants her to quit the opera, marry him and lead a “normal” life as a wife (and, presumably, mother). The conflict in the story between art and love, between a great public career and a “normal” life, that was at the heart of the 1937 Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy masterpiece Maytime (she acclaimed it as the best film she ever made, and it’s arguably Eddy’s best, too) and would later be dramatized equally wrenchingly in the 1948 ballet film The Red Shoes, gets touched on here but little more than that. 

Anyway, broke and about to be rendered homeless, Claudin makes one last desperate stop at the offices of music publisher Pleyel (who really existed; he was a deus ex machina in the 1948 Chopin biopic A Song to Remember and here he’s played by Miles Mander, who’d played the lead in Alfred Hitchcock’s first film as a director — The Pleasure Garden from 1925 — but by this time had descended to the character ranks either as a slimy villain, as here and the 1944 film Sherlock Holmes and the Pearl of Death, or as the hapless milquetoast rich guy who married femme fatale Claire Trevor in Murder, My Sweet, the classic 1944 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely and to my mind the Raymond Chandler film the way the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon is the Dashiell Hammett film) and pleads with him to publish his concerto — which for some reason he’s written for piano as the solo instrument even though what he plays professionally is the violin. Pleyel literally denounces his concerto as trash, and just then Claudin hears someone performing it in Pleyel’s office, immediately decides the publisher has stolen it, and goes into a murderous rage. He strangles Pleyel, and Pleyel’s female assistant throws a tray of acid in Claudin’s face (it was there to be used for engraving plates to publish music). Claudin staggers out, permanently disfigured, and takes up residence in the sewers under the Opera House. Meanwhile, the Opera is presenting a new work, Amour et Gloire (“Love and Glory”), actually cobbled together by the film’s music director, Edward Ward, from piano works by Chopin: the “Military” Polonaise in A major, Op. 40, No. 1; the Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2; and the Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9, No. 2. (In quite a few of Nelson Eddy’s films the sequences featuring opera performances were assembled this way from previously existing classical music; they couldn’t use real operas because in most operas the tenor is the romantic lead and the baritone —Eddy’s vocal Fach — is usually either someone’s father or the villain. So there are not many real operas that feature romantic duets for soprano and baritone.) At least two other divas are penciled in for the leading role — Biancarolli (Jane Farrar, voice-dubbed by Sally Sweetland), whom Claudin as the Phantom drugs in the middle of a performance and forces to withdraw; and Lorenzi (Nicki André), whom the Phantom kills in the famous chandelier-dropping scene. The Phantom kidnaps Christine and, as in the 1925 film, tells her she’s going to live with him in his underground grotto and sing only for him (so he’s yet another would-be boyfriend who wants to run her life for her!), and Anatole and Raoul hatch a plot to get the Phantom to release her. 

They call on Franz Liszt (Fritz Leiber), who was in Pleyel’s office the day Claudin killed him and became the Phantom, who’d been impressed by Claudin’s concerto, and the three hatch a plot: after the performance of the latest opera, The Masked Prince of the Caucasus (which for some reason is sung in Russian even though the real Martha and the fake Amour et Gloire were both performed in French — perhaps because it’s set in Russia and perhaps because it’s another faux opera, this time assembled from the first and fourth movements of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony), Liszt and the Opera’s orchestra will play Claudin’s piano concerto and hope that will lead him out of his grotto and onto the stage, where he can be captured and Christine freed. There’s an engaging sequence in which Edward Ward turns the concerto into a work for two pianists and orchestra — Liszt playing it on stage and Claudin at the piano he’s installed in his underground hideout — only Claudin doesn’t come out and Anatole and Raoul have to descend into the depths below the Opera to find her. They do so, but the foundations are so rotten the pistol shots they aim at the Phantom weaken the beams and bring down the whole thing — though the final scene shows a pile of rubble under which the Phantom’s body is presumably buried, the sort of we’re-not-sure-he’s-really-dead ending that Universal used on a lot of their monster-series films so they could have the next set of screenwriters figure out a way the monster survived the apparent cataclysm. Christine is acclaimed as the new star of the Opera, and instead of picking either Anatole or Raoul she walks out of her dressing room and is greeted by the usual assortment of stage-door Johnnies and would-be sugar daddies — the ending reminded me of Katharine Hepburn in the 1933 film Morning Glory (the weakest of the three films she made that year, and of course the one that won her her first Academy Award), in which the actress who’s just become an overnight star rejects both the producer who gave her the big role and the poor but honest guy who loves her for the embrace of the crowd, even though she knows she’s “just a morning glory” and the acclaim, money and men won’t last. This leaves Anatole and Raoul with each other, and in the last scene they try to exit Christine’s dressing room at the same time and end up walking out arm in arm, a scene that reads quite differently than it no doubt did in 1943! 

That’s not the only part of the 1943 Phantom that reads differently now than it did then: film historian Michael Druxman interviewed director Arthur Lubin for his book about movie remakes, Make It Again, Sam, and revealed that in the original script Claudin was Christine’s father, and his interest in her success was paternal, not romantic. “In the original script, it was made quite clear that Susanna Foster was [Claude] Rains’ illegitimate daughter,” Lubin told Druxman. “Claude insisted on changes and we, therefore, only hinted at the relationship.” That change actually made the story seem kinkier and more perverse than it would have if the father-daughter relationship of the characters had been kept. Also, according to Lubin, “Rains insisted that the Phantom be played as a sympathetic character. He didn’t want to do the entire picture with a scarred face, as he considered himself to be a ‘romantic’ character and that a pure monster role, such as was played by Chaney, would harm his future career. We compromised by having him wear a mask until the final scene — and then he would only allow the make-up people to apply a minimum amount of ‘scarring’ to his face.” Universal often had these problems when they cast an actor who wasn’t a horror specialist like Chaney, his son Lon Chaney, Jr. or Boris Karloff in one of these movies; like Henry Hull, who starred in The Werewolf of London (1935) but insisted that makeup genius Jack Pierce use only a minimal amount of extra hair on his face when he was the werewolf (though to my mind that actually made him more frightening than Lon Chaney, Jr. was in 1941’s The Wolf-Man and the subsequent films in the series), Rains neither had Karloff’s patience for long waits in Pierce’s make-up chair nor his willingness to have his real face smothered by Pierce’s elaborately sculpted collodion creations. 

The 1943 Phantom of the Opera is the sort of film I like to call a “portmanteau movie,” a relic of a previous concept of entertainment in which, instead of aiming towards one and only one potential audience the way most modern films and TV shows do, producers threw in various elements so there would be something in the final film for everyone to like: romance, music, thrills, horror, and even a few bits of comic relief. It’s not a patch on the Chaney film — somehow, both through his remarkable acting and his skill as a makeup artist (Chaney always did his own makeups and for the 1925 version he worked out a special design for the Phantom’s face, including rings inside his nose to push out his nostrils and make him look skeletal, and frameworks in his eyes so he could not blink; asked how he could do such painful things to himself for his movies, he replied, “Unless I suffer, how can I get my audience to believe me?”), Chaney was far better able to make the Phantom a figure of real pathos as well as menace — but in its own right it is a quite estimable piece of entertainment and holds up surprisingly well even though the color restoration isn’t as remarkable as the one given in the Boris Karloff Collection DVD boxed set to The Climax, made at Universal a year later and featuring Karloff as a Svengali-like voice coach and Foster as the young singer he goes crazy for because she reminds him of the wife he murdered years before but kept in a high-tech mausoleum (which he somehow managed to keep frozen so her body would be preserved even though the film takes place in an age before electric light and refrigeration!) — though it’s still good enough you can see why Hal Mohr won his second Academy Award for cinematography for this film!

Monday, March 16, 2020

Into the Arms of Danger (Blue Sky Pictures, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Lifetime movie was a heavily promoted item called Into the Arms of Danger, which one might have thought was the set of Lifetime clichés about a young woman who falls for a scapegrace man and only gradually realizes that he’s, well, dangerous. Instead it followed surprisingly closely the cliché pattern of Escaping My Stalker, which they’d “premiered” last New Year’s Day and re-ran last Saturday, and like Escaping My Stalker it was a product of the Pierre David-Tom Berry pipeline via Blue Sky Pictures and Reel One Entertainment and it followed a similar pattern despite a different writer — at least I think it was a different writer, since the page on it doesn’t list a writer credit — and director, Jeff Hare. The film starts with a series of arguments between Jenny Monroe (AlexAnn Hopkins), a young woman who’s just graduated from high school and is about to start college the next fall, and her ridiculously overprotective mother Laura (Laurie Fortier). Jenny goes out to a party with her age-peers and hooks up — non-sexually — with a hot young man named Drake (Mason Trueblood), who tells her he’s in a band and he wants her to come out to hear them at a college gig he’s playing the next night. The gig is a two-hour drive away and it’s already been established that Jenny’s car has a faulty starter, since she was unable to start it when she was ready to leave the party and Drake helped her. When she called her mom to tell her she was having car trouble and would be late, mom demanded to pick her up and showed up to do so — much to Jenny’s embarrassment. 

The next night Mom is out of town at a conference of medical supply manufacturers (we’re not clear what Laura does for a living but it appears to have something to do with this field) and Laura decides to drive out to the college concert to hear Drake’s band — we’re not sure what sort of music they play but since the night of the party he was wearing a duck’s-ass hairdo and a leather jacket I guessed they were a 1950’s revival band. Only Mom insists on calling her to find out where she is, and just after Jenny tells her Mom goes into a hissy-fit which distracts Jenny and causes her to drive the car off the road. Mom immediately promises to bail on her conference and pick up her daughter, but Jenny insists she’s just fine except for a slight concussion when her head hit the dashboard. She calls 911 and they dispatch an ambulance with an emergency medical technician team — only they’re not real EMT’s. They’re two brothers, the nasty Clyde (Sam Meader) and the more innocent-looking and morally squeamish Guy (Joey Luthman), and while at first I thought they were kidnapping Jenny for a human-trafficking ring, my husband Charles guessed right. They’ve been sent on a mission by their mother — who’s referred to only as “Momma” in the dialogue and, like the principal villainess in Escaping My Stalker, she’s played by a veteran actress who’s been relegated to less-than-stellar parts by her advancing age but who’s still an excellent performer. In Escaping My Stalker it was Mariette Hartley; in Into the Arms of Danger it’s Cathy Moriarty, who is absolutely compelling as the bonkers mother who sends her sons out to kidnap young women who vaguely resemble her deceased daughter Lizzie so she can groom them for a life as Lizzie’s replacement. The film cuts between Laura’s increasingly frantic attempts to find her daughter and Jenny’s life as the replacement Lizzie. 

Jenny is forced to wear an ankle bracelet that comes with a remote control so Clyde can administer a painful electric shock to her whenever she gets out of line — which is quite a lot, given that Jenny wants no part of her “new life” as the substitute Lizzie. She’s also forced to record what amounts to a hostage statement, telling her mom that she’s decided to leave home because she was feeling suffocated and will contact mom if and when she decides she can — only she adds a John McCain-style reveal, “Tell Dad I said hello,” since we already know her father is dead (indeed, Jenny attributed her mom’s new-found overprotectiveness to the death of her dad). Drake (ya remember Drake?) contacts Laura and offers his help in finding Jenny, and he makes a copy of the message Jenny left on Laura’s answering machine (actually it was the tape she recorded at Momma’s house which one of the brothers took out to a pay phone outdoors and played over the phone) and does some computer sound-editing that reveals a train going by in the background. This gives Laura and Drake the clue they need to trace Jenny to an area on the road from Laura’s home to the college where trains pass, and the two stumble on the house despite the total lack of help from the police, who are convinced Jenny is merely a runaway and stress that the neighborhood is a remote one and the residents don’t like big-city folk traipsing around and trespassing. Drake tries to get Jenny out after overpowering Guy (whom Laura previously tried to seduce, hoping his gonads would overcome his loyalty to Momma and he’d agree to let her out if the two ran off together, only Momma predictably caught them and chewed out his son for trying to have sex with “your sister” — also Clyde had at one point threatened to rape Jenny because he, like Guy, knew full well Jenny wasn’t his sister) but Drake gets caught in a bear trap (literally!) and this slows him down enough that Clyde catches up with him and kills him by bashing his head with a rock. (So, just as in Escaping My Stalker, the filmmakers kill of the nice young man we were hoping the heroine would end up with; it seems that in this variation on the Lifetime formula the hot potential boyfriend takes the place of the doomed African-American best friend in Lifetime movies with older “pussy-in-peril” heroines.) 

The cops finally take the situation seriously as Laura drives up to Momma’s manse and rescues her daughter from the dreaded “basement” to which Momma exiled her after her last escape attempt and after it finally penetrated her twisted head that she wasn’t the real Lizzie — and it turns out that Momma actually killed the real Lizzie herself and stored her in a freezer chest in that sinister basement. Jenny is rescued, Momma and the boys are arrested, and in the final scenes Jenny is shown driving off for her first year of college with her African-American best friend Nicole (Noëlle Renée Beacy), who’s going to be her roommate, and Momma is shown in a mental hospital eyeing the attendant who gives her her meds because she vaguely resembles the dead Lizzie. The cleverest part of the script for Into the Arms of Danger is the way Jenny’s life at Momma’s house becomes a weird, overwrought reflection of her life back home with Laura — Momma ramps up Laura’s overprotectiveness to absurd levels and, instead of using the story to tell young women to obey their mothers, it becomes a warning to their mothers not to ramp up the protectiveness to overwrought levels. In the Arms of Danger also has fringe benefits for a Gay male viewer: there are three hot, sexy guys in the cast (Mason Trueblood, Sam Meader and Joey Luthman) and director Hare gives us plenty of crotch shots on all of them (thanks!). It’s a better-than-average Lifetime movie but it probably suffered from comparison with the even better Escaping My Stalker the night before (also a story featuring a madwoman out to destroy Our Heroine and a boyfriend who gets killed for stumbling onto the truth of the plot), which in turn had suffered by comparison with the truly inspired Black Widow Killer which Lifetime showed just before Escaping My Stalker.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Black Widow Killer (Broadwood Pictures, Reel World Management, Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched two Lifetime movies in quick succession, both of them at least a bit better than the usual fare on this channel. The first was called Black Widow Killer and was rather misleadingly title — called it The Black Widow Killer and the whole title tended to be a “spoiler,” while the synopsis gave away the careful construction of Adrian Langley’s script (he also directed) and the suspense he maintained until revealing the identity and motive of the killer until the very end. If you looked up the page and read its synopsis before seeing the film (as I did) it would blow Langley’s surprise ending and make this film seem a lot closer to the usual Lifetime formulae than it is. It begins with a car accident that happened 25 years before the main action (though we only learn the time differential until the very end; we don’t get the usual Lifetime chyron reading, “25 Years Later … ”) in which a young man and a young woman named Shannon are stuck in the middle of the road when the man’s car breaks down. The driver is under the car trying to fix it and calls on Shannon to start it and see if it turns over; it doesn’t — and then another car, a black or dark blue SUV, comes crashing into Shannon’s and her boyfriend’s car and an accident occurs, though we don’t learn for sure who survived it. The film then flashes-forward 25 years to the present, when Judy Dwyer (Erin Karpluk) is the deputy mayor of Mill Creek (we’re not sure where in the U.S. this is but it’s probably New England, since it’s Christmastime and there’s plenty of snow as well as an old deserted mill on a small river just outside the town, hence the name). She’s married to the town sheriff, Steven Dwyer (Ryan Robbins), only he’s in the process of divorcing her and they have a teenage daughter, Abby (Morgan Kohan), who’s about to graduate from high school and is quite serious about a young man named Daniel Wilson (Bradley Hamilton), who’s quite hot (and thank you, director Langley, for giving us old queens in the Lifetime audience some nice mid-shots showing off his basket). Daniel’s mother Kendra (Alison Brooks) is the most popular teacher at Abby’s high school and is also Judy’s best friend and the one she goes out for cheesecake and wine to complain about the way Steven is treating her in the divorce — especially since they have to keep working together because they’re both high officials in Mill Creek’s city government.

Things start coming to a head when a mysterious stranger starts showing up in town stalking the main characters and issuing them enigmatic warnings that they’re all about to be killed unless they move out of town forthwith. Judy eventually identifies the stranger as Jason Hall (Luigi Saracino), who served a long prison sentence for the traffic accident we saw earlier but got out 12 years ago. When Kendra Wilson is found dead in her home — at first the police think it was accidental but, after the medical examiner (called in from out of town because Mill Creek is too small to have one of its own) find poisons in Kendra’s system, the police conclude it was murder and arrest Kendra’s son Daniel for the crime (and keep him in a jail holding cell for the end of the movie). Judy is convinced that Daniel didn’t kill his mother — especially since they got along well and he never reported feeling oppressed or threatened by her — and she’s equally convinced the mysterious Jason Hall is the real killer. Part of what convinces her is a series of neatly handwritten notes the various principals in the case, including Kendra, Steven and Judy herself, reported getting from a mysterious sender, all gnomic messages about guilt and revenge. Judy’s soon-to-be ex-husband Steven gets dispatched from her life sooner than expected when he becomes the killer’s next victim, and later Jason is found hanging from the beam of the town’s one bridge (which, had it been in Madison County, Clint Eastwood would no doubt have photographed) where the original accident occurred 25 years ago. The cops assume Jason killed the other victims and then committed suicide, but Judy deduces that Jason was murdered by the same person who killed the other two — who turns out to be (surprise!) Shannon Collins (Karen Cliché, whose name seems to invite bad jokes but who’s actually quite good in the role). We get another flashback to the accident 25 years previously in which Jason Hall was the driver of Shannon’s car, while the occupants of the car that ran into theirs were soon-to-be sheriff Steven Dwyer and his high-school girlfriend Judy, who eventually married him.

Judy wanted to report the accident to the police of Mill Creek and accept whatever responsibility and punishment the town’s legal system handed down, but Steven talked her out of it and eventually the crime was pinned on Jason and he spent 12 years in prison, while Shannon remained bitter about that and hatched an elaborate revenge plot involving killing all the other people in the accident and framing Jason for the crime. There’s the usual Lifetime confrontation at the end and Shannon is taken into custody for the murders — including the killing of Alice Evans, the substitute teacher brought in to take over from the murdered Kendra, only Shannon killed her before she could start the job and assumed her identity. The synopsis gives it away by making it sound like The Wrong Substitute Teacher: “After the bizarre murder of her favorite teacher and her mother’s friend Kendra Wilson, for which Kendra’s son Daniel (Abby’s boyfriend) is the prime suspect, she is replaced by Alice, a substitute teacher. Her mother Judy starts her own investigation and she soon unveils Abby’s new teacher’s mysterious and dark past, but Alice is one step ahead in her evil plan.” But despite the giveaway in the materials on this movie (and to a certain extent in its very title — Black Widow Killer certainly implies, if nothing else, that the killer in the story is a woman!), this is actually an unusually good thriller for Lifetime, with genuinely Gothic atmospherics (especially in the nighttime exteriors), good suspense direction by Langley and a well-constructed script that for once does not lead us almost automatically to the right suspect. For some reason, gives the copyright date of Black Widow Killer as 2018 and contains two reviews of the movie (both from people who liked it considerably less than I did), but Lifetime lists it as a “premiere” for March 14, 2020; was it shown earlier in Canada, where it was made? Still, it’s a quite good thriller, several ticks above the Lifetime norm and with a quite good performance by Morgan Kohan as Abby; she’s electrifying in the role, with charisma to burn, and she’s got major stardom written all over her if she can just find the right role!