Two nights ago I watched a Lifetime movie that's one of the best things I've ever seen on that network: "Girl in the Bunker," written and directed by Stephen Kemp and telling the true story of Elizabeth Shoaf (Julia Lalonde), who at age 14 in the rural community of Lugoff, South Carolina (never heard of it? Neither had I) was kidnapped and held for 10 days in an underground bunker on private property. Her abductor, Vinson Filyaw (Henry Thomas), called himself "Benson" after the family that owned the property he was squatting on, lived in a trailer under which was a secret door connecting him to the bunker he'd dug, and lured Lizzie (her nickname, though only her parents and her brother called her that - a clue that became important in the story) into his clutches by posing as a police officer who had arrested her younger brother on marijuana charges. The promos for this movie made it seem like a titillating exploitation piece on the order of previous Lifetime excursions into stories (sometimes derived from real ones) of women being kidnapped and held as sex slaves for months or even years, including "Cleveland Abduction" and Kemp's previous "Girl in the Box", etc. - but as it turned out this was considerably better than their norm. Part of the superiority is that Elizabeth Shoaf (played in the film by Julia Lalonde) was only held for 10 days - though the word "only" seems like being thankful for infinitesimally small mercies - and that, though just 14, she had the presence of mind to fight back against her attacker through strategy and guile instead of openly resisting him.
Kemp maintains the suspense by cutting back and forth between Elizabeth's ordeal and the increasing anxiety of her parents, Don (Stephen Park) and Madeline (Moira Kelly), and her brother Bobby (Dimitri Komocsi), and their frantic efforts to search for her and to keep the doofuses on the local police force interested in continuing the search. One of the towering ironies of this story is that in this relatively tight-knit rural community the hiding place where Vinson is keeping Elizabeth is just a short distance from her home, and through much of the search Vinson can hear the police patrolling the property - including flying helicopters over it - and can lord it over Elizabeth how the authorities keep missing them. Though I still think Emma Donoghue's novel "Room" and the film made from it (with Donoghue writing the script and Lenny Abrahamson directing) are the best works made about this situation - at least partly because Donoghue was writing fiction and thereby wasn't trapped by the events of the actual story - "Girl in the Bunker" is quite a good movie, very far above the Lifetime norm and with a writer/director skilled enough at both jobs he keeps Elizabeth's peril front and center in the story without exploiting it for the obvious titillation.
"Girl in the Bunker" has some faults, and one of the most annoying ones is how similar the leading male characters look: Henry Thomas, Stephen Park (playing Elizabeth's dad) and Jeff Clarke (as one of the police officers involved in the search) are all the same "type" - thin, sandy-haired, attractive without being drop-dead gorgeous or genuinely sexy - that when Clarke appeared as one of the cops at first I thought he was Vinson and Elizabeth had been kidnapped by a genuine police officer who was also playing these sadistic sex games on the side, and involving himself in the investigation to steer his colleagues away from where she really was. Also, Lifetime's decision to show the film in a so-called "special edition" in which, during the commercial breaks, we got brief interview segments from the real Elizabeth, Don and Madeline Shoaf which affirmed the basic accuracy of the story but also let us know that, as usual, the filmmakers had cast the roles with considerably more attractive people than their real-life prototypes. Nonetheless, "Girl in the Bunker" is a well-done thriller and makes me hopeful Stephen Kemp can break free of the TV-movie ghetto and make some theatrical features - he's no Alfred Hitchcock but he's a damned sight better than a lot of the wanna-be Hitchcocks out there, some of whom have got to make theatrical features with "A"-list stars.
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