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The Psycho She Met Online (2017)
Disappointment from Christine Conradt
On Sunday, April 23 Lifetime ran two "Premiere" movies unusually given that Saturday is night they usually reserve for these sorts of shows including one called "The Psycho She Met Online" which, despite its formula title, I had hopes for because Christine Conradt was the screenwriter and her frequent collaborator, Curtis James Crawford, was the director. Alas, this time around Conradt put all too little flesh on the bones of her (and Lifetime's) usual formula. This time the heroine is Karen Hexley (Chelsea Hobbs), an emergency medical technician (EMT) in Philadelphia who makes national headlines when the man whose life she saves after he's involved in a car accident is her husband Andrew (Matthew Lawrence, who for some reason wears his hair long in a "do" that makes him look like Caitlyn Jenner immediately before her final transition), even though she hadn't known when she went out on the call that the victim would indeed be he. The titular psycho she's going to meet online is Miranda Breyers (Charity Shea inevitably I find myself wondering if she has sisters named Faith and Hope), who answers Karen's ad to rent out her spare room on "Vacay 'n' Stay," a fictitious Web site obviously patterned on Airbnb yes, it's Lifetime's latest attempt to keep up with the times and plug their familiar formulae into the world of smartphones and apps. Having already given us a rapist who meets his victims by being an Uber driver, now they have a psycho locating her victim via Airbnb (or something very much like it).
Of course, one key element of the formula is that the heroine has to have a best friend who cottons onto the game the psycho is really playing even as she poses as nice 'n' perky to win the heroine's trust though in this story that role is split between two people. One is Aubrey Hunt (Alexis Maitland), Karen's sorority "sister" from college with whom she's sustained a strong relationship since she was (at least as far as she knows) an only child and never had a real biological sister and the other is her other "Vacay 'n' Stay" tenant, a charming old British nature photographer named Evander Swanson (Robert Welch) whom Miranda ambushes and kills because he's getting too nosy about her and her background and she's worried he will find her out. Exactly what there is to find out about her remains a mystery: when we first meet Miranda she's in Portland, Oregon, living with a creepy layabout boyfriend who bears a striking resemblance to the late Kurt Cobain, only without the scraggly beard, and when he tries to keep her from leaving she kicks him in the balls until he falls down, then kicks him again with the stiletto heel of one of her shoes (which, it's later established, she stole from a store and did a three-month jail sentence for shoplifting) and walks out. Her departure for Philadelphia, where the main part of the story takes place, is explained by her seeing a story about Karen Hexley saving her husband's life on the Internet, and at first we (or at least I) think she recognized Andrew as a former boyfriend and wanted revenge on the woman who took him away from her. When Miranda shows up in Philadelphia and "randomly" answers Karen's Vacay 'n' Stay ad, she's as sweet as can be at first but also awesomely possessive about Karen, to the point of bugging her bedroom with a video camera (one wonders if she's interested in eavesdropping while Karen and Andrew are having sex, but as it turns out that's about the last of her concerns) and going into a jealous hissy-fit when she sees how closely bonded Karen and her sorority sister Aubrey are. Miranda who tells Karen she's working as a personal trainer but is actually a stripper also sets out to seduce Andrew's brother Tyler (Yani Gellman), apparently as a means of bonding ever closer to Karen's family, since she's already told Karen that she's her half-sister Karen's mom had an affair with Miranda's dad while still married to Karen's dad.
Christine Conradt's usual trademark as a Lifetime writer is moral ambiguity she likes to make her villains complex characters so we feel for them even as we root for the rather simple-minded heroines (or, more rarely, heroes) they're attempting to entrap but on this script she offered us way too little on What Made Miranda Run and mostly ran the Lifetime cliché machine on autopilot. Either that or she was rewritten: this was actually filmed under the title The Guest She Met Online and changed to the more florid and obvious title The Psycho She Met Online, and while no other writer is credited it's possible someone rewrote Conradt's script, not enough to qualify for credit but enough to make the film itself, as well as its title, more blatantly black-and-white in its morality. The acting is O.K. no one really stands out, and Chelsea Hobbs is such a blah screen presence it's hard to root for her (especially since Conradt makes her a whiz at her job though one would think that in the final scene, once her own life was no longer in danger she'd make a bee-line to her wounded husband and treat him, and she doesn't but a dolt in virtually everything else), while Charity Shea delivers a good but by-the-numbers performance as the titular psycho: she's engagingly evil but we've seen this sort of acting in a million other Lifetime movies. And the men are simply along for the ride, though Yani Gellman has some nice moments when he realizes the woman he's just taken home and screwed is his sister-in-law and he's revolted because it feels incestuous even though they're not biological kin.
Lifetime at its best
On April 23 Lifetime showed a movie they'd been heavily hyping for weeks: "New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell," based on a real-life New York prison escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility in June 2015. The escape, in which two convicts with the unfortunate names David Sweat (Joe Anderson) and Richard Matt (Myk Watford) broke out and had help doing so from two prison employees, Joyce Mitchell (Penelope Ann Miller) and Gene Palmer and were at large for three weeks before Matt was shot down while threatening police with a shotgun and Sweat was taken alive two days later made national news. Indeed, I can remember thinking when the story broke, "Someday this will be made into a Lifetime movie" and now here it is. It's also quite well done, written and directed by Stephen Tolkin who's done reality-based Lifetime movies before, including "The Craigslist Killer" and "Cleveland Abduction," and also has some feature-film credits and vividly acted by the three principals as well as by Daniel Roebuck as Joyce's husband Lyle, a hapless guy with a penchant for boring her with conversational rambles. He's still turned on by her but she couldn't be less interested in him.
Despite its rather clinical title, "New York Prison Break" works on just about every level, from the intrinsic interest of the story to the highly atmospheric direction Tolkin gives it, to the Hitchcockian game he plays throughout where he shows so much detail of how Sweat and Matt are literally digging their way out of the prison we end up rooting for them to succeed even though Tolkin tried to forestall that sort of moral reversal by beginning his film with a graphic depiction of the crime Sweat and Matt committed. Most prison-escape movies hedge their bets by making the prisoners sympathetic and the jailers the bad guys either they're Nazis running a concentration camp or the authorities on Devil's Island or some such place lording it over unjustly convicted victims but in this one the bad guys are bad guys, and yet through Tolkin's writing and direction and the appropriately edgy acting of Anderson and Watford they come off as just the sort of irresistible studs that might turn on a woman like Joyce Mitchell full of unfulfilled longings and desires. Penelope Ann Miller's performance as Joyce is also excellent, particularly when she switches from bored housewife and career woman to acting like a giddy teenager in the first throes of romantic passion when she gets notes from Sweat and contemplates a future with him on the outside a dream of hers he, of course, has no intention of fulfilling!
"New York Prison Break" is obviously an exploitation film aimed at taking advantage of the publicity surrounding the real event, and yet it's also a finely honed piece of drama not a great film by any means, but a solidly appealing one that manages to offer quality entertainment and is particularly good at dramatizing the frustration that leads Joyce Mitchell to her fatal infatuation with Sweat and Matt. Where Tolkin scores best is in the clashes between the three main characters Mitchell the mature woman (it's established that she's already a grandmother) who's acting like a giddy teenager; Matt the confident seducer who's able to get what he wants with his gifts as an artist (he paints quite a few pictures, including ones of Mitchell and other prison staffers which he trades for favors) and a lover; and Sweat the callous but hunky brute who's willing to exploit not only Joyce but Matt as well.In one of the film's most chilling scene, after the two have broken out together, Sweat dumps Matt and tells him that now that his plans have changed and they're fleeing to Canada instead of Mexico, he won't need Matt because the only reason he included Matt was that Matt spoke Spanish and he doesn't have to have a Spanish-speaker on board if he's going to Canada instead. "New York Prison Break" is the sort of quirky delight that keeps us unlikely Lifetime buffs watching this often exploitative (particularly in their "reality" series, less so in their movies) but also often oddly compelling network.
Secrets in Suburbia (2017)
Crowding virtually all Lifetime's clichés into one script
I put on the TV April 15 for the second "Premiere" movie on Lifetime, something originally called "Secrets and Sins" but aired under the much duller title "Secrets of Suburbia." One would think it's really not that novel an observation that people in suburbia often have affairs with people other than the ones they're married to, but Damián Romay, who both wrote and directed this (and therefore, as I like to say about bad movies in which the director and writer were the same person, he has no one to blame but himself), seems to act like he's just discovered it. The IMDb.com page on the film fails to identify one of the four leading actresses (there's only one significant male part) the young, attractive Black woman who plays Monica, the divorce attorney who as the film begins has just successfully represented Scarlet (Tara Conner) in her divorce from a man named Troy. The film begins at a party where Scarlet is celebrating her divorce and thanking the friends who made it possible and supported her through it at their regular Thursday night get-togethers at which they absent themselves from any menfolk in their lives, get drunk on wine, play card games and gossip, gossip, gossip.
It's also established that the action takes place in a college town and all the principal characters Monica, Scarlet, Kim (Linn Bjornland), Gloria (Brianna Brown, top-billed) and her husband Phil (Joe Williamson) attended the college, which is called St. Francis. However, while Scarlet, Gloria and Kim all came from families with money, Monica and Phil were scholarship students and, as George Orwell described his life in a British prep school in his grim essay "Such, Such Were the Days," the students with money looked down heavily on the students without it, bullied them and called them "charity cases." That didn't stop Gloria from agreeing to marry Phil when he proposed after Scarlet dumped him, but she's kept him on a strict allowance and has set up the $10 million she inherited from her father in a tightly controlled trust fund he isn't allowed to touch because it's being saved for their kids (they have a son named Bradley, played by Brody Behr, and a daughter who's sort of in the background, and they pack the kids away to summer camp at the start of the plot so writer Romáy doesn't have to slot them into the later action).
The big thing that happens at Scarlet's divorce party is that her ex, Troy, shows up with a gun, threatens her and her three best friends, then shoots himself in front of her guests but that is pretty much forgotten through the rest of the film. Instead, we get periodic flashbacks to the party as we learn what else is going on between the four women and Phil. We're led to believe that Phil's and Gloria's marriage is rocky but we don't realize how rocky it is until we see Phil use a hypodermic to extract a toxic fluid from a blue plastic bottle (it's antifreeze, we later learn) and inject it through the cork into the wine bottle Gloria is going to take to the next get-together. My husband Charles came home one-third of the way through "Secrets of Suburbia" and told me when it was over that what he'd seen made no sense and I assured him that it didn't make any more sense to me even though I'd seen the film all the way through.
It seemed through much of the running time as if Romáy had been attempting to crowd all the Lifetime clichés he could think of into one script, and about the only even remotely creative thing he did was in his casting of Joe Williamson as Phil. Instead of the drop-dead gorgeous type that usually portrays a Lifetime male villain, he cast a stocky guy of medium height and tousled hair, reasonably nice-looking but hardly irresistibly attractive, the sort of actor that generally gets cast on Lifetime as the understanding husband who helps his wife fend off the maleficent attractions of the hot-looking stalker or psycho who's after her for nefarious reasons. Other than that, and some bizarre touches like the quartet of four cellos that entertains at Scarlet's party and the use of the fast theme of Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" overture as running gags it's established that Gloria herself was an amateur cellist and was good enough to pursue it professionally but gave it up when she married Phil (and there's a nice scene that shows her frantically playing her cello when she returns home after killing Kim and waits for the police to show up and interrogate her), "Secrets of Suburbia" is just a typical Lifetime movie, and not an especially good one at that: other Lifetime writers and directors, notably Christine Conradt, have got considerably more out of these familiar situations than Romay did.
Next Door (2017)
O.K. thriller with an unsurprising "surprise" ending
Lifetime's last "premiere" on April 8 was "A Neighbor's Deception," also known as "Next Door," and this time it was a triumph of direction (Devon Downs and Kenny Gage have a co-director credit but, judging from their IMDb.com pages, it's Downs who was probably the lead director the only other film that credits them both is called "Cynthia" and on that one Downs is listed as director and Gage as producer) over script and overall production. The film begins with a long Gothic-horror scene in which a woman is being stalked in a house by an unseen assailant; she hides under the bed while her would-be killer is circling around the bedroom waiting for her to emerge, and when the assailant leaves the room she makes a break for it only to be caught at the foot of the stairs, and Then the film cuts to the good-guy protagonists, young couple Michael (Adam Mayfield) and Chloe (Ashley Bell, top-billed) Anderson, who are just moving into a new house and encounter their next-door neighbors, Gerald (Tom Amandes) and Cheryl (Isabella Hoffman) Dixon. Michael is an incredibly busy attorney, which means he works a lot of late nights much to his wife's understandable displeasure and for once he's played by an actor who's stocky and dark-haired, and while not drop-dead gorgeous is quite a bit sexier than the tall, lanky, sandy-haired and rather blank-looking guys who are Lifetime's usual "type" as the good-guy husbands.
Apparently the two have been on the rocks as a couple since they were unable, after years of trying, to have children, and the last failure (we assume she had a miscarriage, though writer Adam Rockoff doesn't specify that) propelled her into a nervous breakdown from which she's only starting to recover I guess moving out of the city and into the suburbs was supposed to ease her emotionally and help her recover. Gerald turns out to be a retired psychotherapist who mostly does research now but still likes to see patients privately in his home; he offers to treat Chloe but we suspect, based on the way we see him looking at her when both couples have dinner together, that he's really after her sexually. Of course Chloe gets suspicious of him and starts investigating his past, especially after she gets a series of anonymous phone calls while she's out jogging in the country (she jogs at all hours of the day and night and we start to wonder if she has any social life or ever does anything away from home other than jogging). The stranger who keeps calling her turns out to be James Rooker (Ben Whalen), whose wife Caroline (Marissa Labog) was a patient of Gerald's years before until he seduced her and she, too, mysteriously disappeared; James is convinced Gerald killed his wife and wants Chloe to prove it. Gerald had told Chloe he did both his undergraduate and graduate work at Middlesex University, but she finds out he never finished there: he was a graduate student and a teaching assistant when he seduced one of his pupils, who mysteriously disappeared just before the college hearing at which she was supposed to testify against him. "A Neighbor's Deception" isn't much of a movie, and the big "surprise" reveal at the end isn't that much of a surprise (especially with Michael's Psycho reference to clue us in), though Tom Amandes (about the only actor here I've heard of before) delivers a finely honed performance as Gerald but it's saved by Downs' and Gage's atmospheric neo-Gothic direction and the overall sense of menace they're able to create even with a pretty bland, by-the-numbers thriller script.
The Wrong Mother (2017)
Good-bad chemistry between the two women stars
After "Girl Followed" Lifetime aired a much-hyped "premiere" that was considerably better: "The Wrong Mother," also known as "Deadly Devotion," which once again tapped the "perfect nanny" trope Lifetime has been using at least since Christine Conradt wrote the script for "The Perfect Nanny" in 2000, thereby launching her career at the network. This one, directed by Craig Goldstein from a script by Missy Cox, begins with Kaylene Larson (Vanessa Marcil) being struck by a car coming up from behind her as she rides outdoors on her bicycle. She survives but she ends up with a bad concussion, and even when the hospital releases her they want her to have home care, so she hires one of the nurses who was taking care of her to be her in-home caregiver. Alas, the in-home caregiver, Vanessa Renzi (Brooke Nevin), puts Kaylene on highly powerful opiates (getting three doctors to split the task of writing all those prescriptions) that leave her sleeping half the day and being totally groggy the rest, to the point where she can't even read a bedtime story to her children Zoey (Arden Richardson) and Toby (Cooper Dodson) without stumbling over simple words. In case you're wondering where Kaylene's husband is in all of this, his name is Drew, he's played by Stephen Snedden (your typical tall, lanky, sandy-haired type that's the good guy in a Lifetime movie he's considerably less sexy than Joey Lawrence in "Girl Followed"!) and he works as a commercial airline pilot, so he's almost never home and that leaves Kaylene at the untender mercies of Vanessa.
In what's become a pretty typical part of the Lifetime formula, we learn that Vanessa has already drawn blood before she enters the main action and that she's the biological mother of Kaylene's children: Kaylene had her kids via in vitro fertilization from her husband's sperm and donated eggs, and Vanessa was her egg donor. Vanessa learned this by seducing a young man in charge of the database at the fertility clinic where she made the donation years before, only in the film's kinkiest scene, just when he's expecting her to straddle him and give him the sexual joyride of his young life, she wraps a cloth around his neck and strangles him instead. (Goldstein was obviously following Alfred Hitchcock's suggestion that murders should be staged like love scenes, and love scenes like murders.) The reason she did this was so she could find out where her eggs had gone, and learning that the Larsons were the only family who had children from her donated eggs, she sought them out, ran Kaylene down herself (is that really a surprise?), then impersonated a nurse at the hospital where Kaylene was being treated (it's established that she studied pharmacology in preparation for being a pharmacist but did not have a nursing degree) and used her knowledge of drugs to put Kaylene on so many opiates she'd be helpless to resist as Vanessa put her grand plan into effect. Apparently Vanessa lost it when she found out that her own reproductive organs had gone haywire and therefore she could no longer have any kids of her own, so with the knowledge that the children who had been born from her donated eggs were the only ones she'd ever have, she set out to find them and, once she did, to seduce Drew Larson away from Kaylene and get the kids to accept her as their "real" mom which in fact she is, at least biologically.
The script isn't all that surprising and Goldstein's direction (except for that marvelously kinky murder scene) is straightforward and effective but uncreative, but where this movie scores more than most other Lifetime films along the same line is in the marvelous performances by Vanessa Marcil and Brooke Nevin as the female leads. Not only is Nevin appropriately bland and perky in the usual manner of Lifetime villainesses (their woman villains tend to be more interesting and psychologically complex than their male ones!), complete with her smarmy bedside manner every time Kaylene tries to fight back against Vanessa's control, Vanessa assumes the guise of caring nurse and smarmily says thinks like, "I wouldn't do that," or "I'd advise against that" she also plays the role in a tightly controlled manner that's quite different from the florid insanity Lifetime tends to give us in their male psychos. "The Wrong Mother" (not to be confused with "The Other Mother" or "Killer Mom," upcoming movies Lifetime was showing promos for during this one) is a pretty standard Lifetime-formula story, but both the quality of the writing of the two female leads and the vivid performances of Marcil and Nevin bringing them to life makes this one at least somewhat special the two have real chemistry together and are both totally believable as antagonists.
Girl Followed (2017)
Christine Conradt should have written it solo
The first of the three films Lifetime showed from 6 p.m. to midnight April 8 was "Girl Followed," an obvious pun on "Girl, Interrupted" but really a pretty conventional Lifetime tale of a young woman being the target of obsessive stalking and sabotage from a somewhat older man. This time around the girl was 14-year-old Regan Lindstrom (Emma Fuhrmann), who simply can't catch a break. Her parents Jim (Joey Lawrence) and Abby (Heather McComb) spy on her constantly and treat her with all the sensitivity and love of concentration-camp commandants. This is one of those stories in which the parents are so good at keeping tabs on their kids (not only Regan but her older sister Taylor, played by Gianna LaPera) one wonders why they don't make some real money with these skills by working for the CIA or NSA. They're particularly down on any boy she expresses even the slightest romantic interest in, and so of course Regan rebels at the earliest opportunity. When her crush object Austin (Jake Elliott) breaks up with her and goes with her cuter and richer best friend Sabine (Olivia Nikkanen) instead, Sabine tells Regan her secret was she sent Austin selfies of her in her underwear, and if she wants to get him back Regan should do the same. She does so, and Sabine critiques the photos, saying that she looks good in red (her bra was red) but she needs sexier undies to strike lust in the heart of her chosen male.
Accordingly, on a shopping trip for clothes with her mom, Regan shoplifts a hot, sexy bra and panties we get the impression it's less because the family can't afford them and more because mom would never buy things like that for her in a million years and her new set of sexted selfies gets spread all over the school and instantly earns her a reputation as a slut. Meanwhile, Regan frequently visits mom, who works as a nurse, at her hospital, where one of mom's duties is giving out tests and treatments for STD's (which may be offered by the writers, Christine Conradt, Chris Lancey and Melissa Cacera, as an explanation for why she's so otherwise inexplicably overprotective of Regan: she sees young people coming in with the wages of sexual experimentation every day!) and she's attracted the lascivious attentions of Nate (Travis Caldwell), the STD clinic's 22-year-old receptionist. Nate is a young man who doesn't need to work he lives in a big house and is pretty much alone because his super-rich parents spend most of their time on vacation (indeed, I recognized the house from a previous Lifetime movie, though I can't remember right now which one) and he's also a suspect in the mysterious disappearance of Lana, another teenage girl from the same town.
Of course the moment we see Travis Caldwell, who's tall, dark-haired, baby-faced and drop-dead gorgeous, we know he's going to be the sinister stalker who's going to menace Our Heroine and indeed he does, though he ramps up his campaign of revenge or obsession or whatever to attack her parents as well. Conradt's presence hints at a more interesting movie than the one that got made, and if she had been in charge of the whole project instead of just co-writing an "original" (quotes definitely appropriate!) story that got turned into a script by a third scribe, she probably would have made Nate a more complex character and given at least a hint of what made him "run." Alas, Nate got depicted as your typical generic Lifetime sex-crazed maniac who gets progressively crazier as the film goes on. Also, Conradt, Lancey and Cacera offered no clue about how Abby would have reacted when she realized that the mysterious figure menacing her daughter was someone she worked with and therefore knew well and trusted. But the real person who screwed up this movie wasn't any of the writers, nor was it director Tom Shell (who did a perfectly workmanlike, though far from great, job with it), but the casting director, Mary Jo Slater. First of all, though Heather McComb and Emma Fuhrmann look enough alike to be believable as coming from the same family, McComb is young enough she looks more like Fuhrmann's older sister than her mom and Joey Lawrence looks even younger. Lawrence has got a hot, blond, butch male bod and certainly could give Travis Caldwell competition in the looks department (too bad the writers gave him a character whose virtually only emotion is blustering anger, hardly the stuff to evoke the sexual fantasies I'd probably be having about Lawrence if I got to see him in a different sort of role), but he and McComb simply don't look old enough to have two teenage daughters. And what's more, the actress actually playing Regan's older sister, Gianna LaPera, is blonde, has curly hair and a different body type from Fuhrmann's though maybe we were supposed to think Regan took after her mom and Taylor her dad, looks-wise. Girl Followed is a pretty generic Lifetime thriller, not all that bad but not transcendent either though it might have been considerably better if Conradt had got to write it solo with nice-looking people of both (mainstream) genders enacting a pretty stupid story that offers the usual Lifetime formulae but nothing more than that.
Fatal Defense (2017)
One of Lifetime"s all-time worst
The first of Lifetime's "premiere" movies April 1 was one of the worst things I've ever seen on the network! Judging from the title, "Fatal Defense," I was expecting a story in which a woman defense attorney gets a man acquitted of a terrible crime, then realizes he's actually guilty and tries to nail him for something else, while of course he finds out and tries to kill her. No such luck: instead it was a story of a woman, Arden Walsh (Ashley Scott), terrorized by get this: her martial-arts instructor. Arden is living in a nice suburban home and raising her eight-year-old daughter Emma (Sophie Guest) as a single parent dad bailed on them for reasons that are never quite explained beyond that he liked to argue and she didn't (he was an attorney and after they broke up he married another lawyer, so Arden jokes that now he gets to argue all the time) when a burglar in a ski mask breaks into her home when both she and the daughter are there. The burglar brandishes the sort of knife you'd use to cut fish open and take their guts out prior to cooking them, and threatens Arden with it and Arden hears her sick daughter (she has a cold) asking for a glass of water and tells the burglar she'd better get the girl some water before she gets suspicious. Amazingly, director John Murlowski and writer Steven Palmer Peterson expect us to believe that a) the burglar buys this and lets Arden out of his sight, and b) once out of the burglar's direct control Arden does absolutely nothing (like call the police on her cell phone this is 2017, after all, so she undoubtedly has one) to get help, while c) the daughter notices nothing wrong until the burglar leaves and Emma finds her mom strapped to a chair with duct tape.
Thinking she's actually giving Arden good advice, her sister Gwen (Laurie Fortier) advises her to take a self-defense class, and the instructor turns out to be a muscular hunk named Logan Chase (David Cade). Well, any veteran Lifetime watcher knows what that means: just about every reasonably attractive male in a Lifetime movie turns out to be a black-hearted psycho villain, and Logan is no exception. He runs his class with a visceral intensity and a line of verbal abuse a military drill sergeant might have regarded as too extreme, though instead of picking on Arden he seems to be taking a shine to her and we wonder if he's going to form a demented crush on her. Only the first time they're making eyes at each other and she seems willing to have sex with him, instead of responding as any normal straight male would he grabs her, turns her around and ties her hands behind her back, explaining later that the point of him doing this is to teach her never to let her guard down, no matter how safe she may feel. Later he actually ties her up, kidnaps her and throws her in the trunk of his car, then challenges her to figure out how to escape. Naturally on this one she does complain to the police, but the woman detective investigating the case says that because she signed a release form agreeing to be subjected to his "extreme" training methods, she really doesn't have a case against him at least not one the authorities would be willing to prosecute. It goes on pretty much like that, with writer Peterson deploying one tired old Lifetime plot device after another to stretch out the running time to two hours. "Fatal Defense" was such a perfect assembly of Lifetime's most risible clichés it achieves a sort of demented perfection on its own, though it's so mind-numbingly predictable and so ineptly written and stage the likely reaction it's going to elicit from anyone is, "Why the hell am I watching this?"
Forgotten Evil (2017)
O.K. but all too typical Lifetime fare
One thing Lifetime is doing lately is not only showing two "premiere" movies back to back on Saturday nights but picking films so similar in theme and plot premises they tend to reflect badly on each other. They did that again last night right after "Stalker's Prey" by running something called "Forgotten Evil" which, as you might guess just from the title, is an amnesia movie: a young woman (Masiela Lusha) is found wrapped in some sort of bag and nearly drowned. She's taken to the local hospital and gets to stay there for six months as the people looking after her try to determine who she is and how she got there. When she's finally asked to leave, Mariah (Angie Teodora Dick), one of the nurses taking care of her, offers to take her in as a roommate and helps her get a job as a file clerk and receptionist at a local school. Mariah also suggests that the amnesiac woman, whom at first she calls "Jane" as in "Jane Doe," go see therapist Dr. Evan Michaels (Jeff Marchelletta) in hopes that he can work with her, hypnotize her and help her regain her memories. "Jane" decides to adopt the name "Renée" after she sees it in a booklet of women's names, and she gets to see the hot Dr. Michaels at his home, which is also the site of his office. Renée also finds herself with a hot new boyfriend, Randy Dumas (Kyle McKeever), a nice-looking blond, though given the usual iconography of Lifetime that their best-looking males turn out to be their creepiest, we're wondering whether Randy is all he seems to be and if he might be one of the people Renée is convinced are part of a conspiracy to keep her from regaining her memory even if that means they have to kill her in the process. Meanwhile we occasionally see a hulking black-clad man in the shadows he's heavy-set and is dressed all in black, including a black hoodie and he seems to turn up everywhere Renée does, though for about two-thirds of this movie it's not clear whether he's supposed to be real or a figment of her imagination.
He's real, all right, and no sooner do Renée and Mariah have a falling-out, Renée announces she's moving in with Randy, and Mariah warns Renée that she really knows very little about Randy and shouldn't be so trusting of him, than we get a glimpse of the heavy-set man in the black clothes and hoodie, the hood comes off and we realize it's Randy. As with your typical Lifetime villain, Randy spirals out of control from understandable garden-variety madness to out-and-out craziness. Forgotten Evil, which may have been intended for theatrical release (partly because of the expert Gothic finish director Ferrante gave the material and partly because there are some odd blips on the soundtrack), seems like just another Lifetime movie with amnesia as their "disease of the week" and a cop-out ending that really doesn't make sense. It doesn't help that the acting in this one is pretty nondescript yes, I know the characters themselves are pretty nondescript, and Masiela Lusha has the confounding task of portraying a woman who literally doesn't know anything about who or what she is, but the only player who comes across as genuinely interesting and charismatic is Kyle McKeever as the villain.
Hunter's Cove (2017)
Another Lifetime movie where the villain is just too villainous
The first of last night's two Lifetime "premiere" movies was "Stalker's Prey," listed on IMDb.com as "Hunter's Cove" (presumably a working title, since Hunter's Cove is the name of the beach town where it takes place). Directed by Colin Theys from a script by John Doolan, it's a pretty typical by-the-numbers Lifetime piece in which high-school senior Laura Wilcox (Saxon Sharbino) and her younger sister Chloe (Alexis Larivere) are being raised by their mom Sandy (Cynthia Gibb) as a single parent. Dad is still alive but he hovers over the action as a sort of irritating non-presence and is never seen as a character, though at one point an argument between Sandy and Laura establishes that it was their father who left their mom, not the other way around. In the opening scene, we see Laura and her boyfriend Nicholas Jordan (Luke Slattery) making out and getting ready to have sex in Nicholas's pickup truck a real cool restored oldie with a double cab when mom comes home early from an outing and catches them. She orders Laura into the house and tells her she's not to see Nicholas anymore it becomes clear she just plain doesn't like him and doesn't regard him as a suitable mate for her daughter and when she resists, Sandy tells Laura she's grounded for the weekend even though it's her birthday and she was counting on being able to go out to celebrate. Laura duly sneaks out, and equally unsurprisingly her sister Chloe rats her out to mom; where Laura is going is to the local beach with her friend Bre Hendricks (Gillian Rose) the first name is pronounced "Brie," like the cheese and the two end up on a boat called "Open Wide" (as in what, Laura's legs?), from which they dive to do a swim in the local cove.
Only there's a shark prowling the water (and director Theys can't resist some vaguely "Jaws"-ish musical themes while this is happening) and it attacks our young lovebirds: Nicholas is killed by the shark (a real pity because we don't want to lose the cutest guy in the film at the end of the first act!) but Laura is rescued by Bruce Kane (Mason Dye), of whom we'd also got some choice man-meat views in swim trunks and nothing else. The gimmick is that once Bruce, the son of a local City Councilmember, sees Laura he's instantly smitten and believes she is THE ONE for him from then on and this being a stalker story his affections get creepier and creepier, including taking on a job baby-sitting for Laura's sister Chloe and getting a key to their house, ostensibly so he can show up whenever Sandy needs a baby-sitter but really to show up whenever he wants Laura whom he makes it to bed with once (at a garden party given by his dad to raise money for his re-election campaign Bruce tricks Laura into going by saying he merely wants an escort but he turns it into a real date, necking with her by the backyard swimming pool to the strains of the 1913 song "You Made Me Love You" (I wasn't sure, but I think the singer was Patsy Cline) and ultimately having sex with her. As the film progresses (like a disease), Bruce's actions get weirder and weirder.
The big problem with "Stalker's Prey" is the big problem with a lot of Lifetime's thrillers: not content to keep Bruce's villainy within reasonable and believable bounds, writer Doolan makes him a figure of almost preternatural evil. At times the moral of this story seems to be, "When your mom grounds you because she doesn't like your boyfriend, listen to her: otherwise, if you sneak out, he's going to be killed by a shark and you'll be rescued by a cute guy who'll become an obsessive stalker and threaten to kill you" though one part of Doolan's script I liked was the irony that Laura's mom can't stand the nice boy she's dating at the opening and loves the one who turns out to be the demented stalker who nearly kills her. Other than that, "Stalker's Prey" was pretty typical Lifetime fare, blessed with two cute guys we get to see in hot states of undress but preceding along well-traveled routes to a pretty predictable ending.
Deadly Lessons (2017)
More sophisticated than the Lifetime norm
Lifetime did the director (David DeCoteau) and writers (Eve Holdway and Taj Nagaoka) of "Deadly Lessons" no favors by scheduling the "world premiere" of their movie right after the "world premiere" of "Infidelity in Suburbia" because the juxtaposition of the two heightened their formula similarities, when "Deadly Lessons" was actually a much finer, more moving and more entertaining piece of work. This time the damsel who unbeknownst to her has just sent distress an engraved invitation is a college student named Lisa (Christie Burson), a third-year undergraduate with ambitions to be a doctor, and in the opening scene she's with her friends Tiffany (Sammi Barber) and Patrick (James Drew Dean obviously he uses the middle name because just "James Dean" was rather famously taken over 60 years ago; he's nowhere near as hot and sexy as his namesake but he's easy enough on the eyes) attending a class in ethics being taught by Michael Harris (Ryan Scott Greene). Michael is a younger version of the tall, lanky, sandy-haired types Lifetime generally likes for their middle-aged leading men usually as the husband the heroine is being sorely tempted to stray from and for some reason he has to hold his lecture class outside on the campus lawn. (Is this university an unnamed college in the Pacific Northwest so it can be "played" by locations in British Columbia, Canada that crowded that he's leading what amounts to an overflow class?) Michael is giving Lisa a hard time in class and, when the bell rings, he rather peremptorily announces to her that he expects her to meet him in his office immediately. We're expecting that he's going to hit on her, perhaps blackmailing her into having sex with him in return for a better grade, but surprise! as soon as they get into the office and close the door, they start sucking face. They're already lovers, and what's more, she's as happy about that as he is. Only Tiffany and Patrick are spying on the lovebirds and use their smartphones to catch them being affectionate at Michael's home that night and they report him to the dean (Cedric De Souza).
The dean immediately asks Michael to resign, but promises him a good recommendation so he can still get a job somewhere else in academe, and he says Lisa can continue at the college and it won't go on her record that she slept with a professor. No way, says Lisa: where my man goes, I go even though that means losing the tuition she already paid for that semester, losing her chance to continue in college and losing her relationship with her mother, who announces to her that if she does such a dumb thing as sacrifice her education and her ambitions for some guy, mom wants nothing to do with her anymore. Michael and Lisa get married at city hall and move to Seattle, where he's landed another teaching gig and they rent a house by a lake with a spectacular view. Lisa gets invited to a faculty barbecue and is asked by the host to bring her husband, only he begs off going and when she shows up, someone accosts her as "Wendy," and she has no idea who that is. It turns out Wendy is the name of Michael's former girlfriend, who (supposedly) committed suicide on the eve of their marriage though of course we suspect Michael murdered her and Lisa is already the spitting image of her. The resemblance becomes even closer when Michael buys Lisa a frilly off-white dress and tells her to wear it at all times when they're home alone together and later on Lisa finds a photo of Wendy wearing an identical dress. There's also a sequence in which we see an old wooden trunk in Michael's and Lisa's hallway, and we have no idea what's in there but we know from the sinister music we hear when it's shown on screen that there's something incredibly evil about it . . .
Though obviously drawing on the same cliché bank as "Infidelity in Suburbia," Deadly Lessons is a far more powerful and moving piece of work: Michael is a genuinely conflicted character, far more than the cardboard villain of "Infidelity in Suburbia," and as the film progressed I found myself reminded of similar movies in the 1940's in which naïve young women found themselves married to mysterious men with sinister secrets: Alfred Hitchcock's "Suspicion," George Cukor's "Gaslight," Max Ophuls' "Caught." I'm not for a moment suggesting that David DeCoteau is in Hitchcock's, Cukor's or Ophuls' league as a director, but he's working with a script far more sophisticated than the Lifetime norm, with more complex characterizations in both the lead roles, and he's alive to its complexities and fully realizes them on screen despite some bits in the movie that tend towards the usual Lifetime sillinesses. On its own "Deadly Lessons" is a quite impressive movie within the limits of the Lifetime formula, and though showing it right after "Infidelity in Suburbia" made the films look too similar, it also showed how much better DeCoteau, Holdway and Nagaoka did their jobs than David Winning and Christie Will did!