Saturday, November 28, 2009

Our Mother’s Murder (Morgan Hill/Universal/USA, 1997)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Lifetime movie I watched this morning was actually one that had been on the USA Network back in 1997, originally titled Daughters but now called Our Mother’s Murder — which rather gives away the ending. The story is based on the true-life tale of newspaper heiress Anne Scripps Morrell (Roxanne Hart), who divorced her first husband Tony Morrell (Ryan Michael) for reasons writer Richard DeLong Adams doesn’t bother to explain. By the time the film opens Anne’s daughters Alex (Holly Marie Combs, top-billed) and Annie (Sarah Chalke) are about ready to get out of high school (“prep school,” actually, they being rich kids in upstate New York) and go on to college when mother Anne suddenly starts dating Scott Douglas (James Wilder), a remodeling contractor she met in a sports bar while they were watching the Super Bowl. Things move quickly as Scott marries Anne, impregnates her and thereby creates a new daughter, “Tory” (short for Victoria), then reveals himself to be an alcoholic and wife-batterer — and with Mom intimidated into silence by fear, particularly the fear that Scott will disappear with Tory and so she’ll never see her new daughter again, it’s up to Alex and Annie to try to save their mom from this creep who’s, predictably, stealing her blind as well as making her life hell.

She gets up enough gumption to divorce him, but then her lawyer tells her that since she can’t prove she’s been abused — it’s just your word against his, she’s told — she can’t keep Scott from having a parental role in their daughter’s life, and the courts will look more kindly on her petition for sole custody if she at least tries to reconcile with him. She accordingly does so, letting him move back in with her and putting up with his presence and the fear he instills in her as much as possible. Things keep going like this, with the Morrell daughters putting their own romantic lives on hold until they can be sure their mom will be safe, until the holiday season — where Anne’s attempt to get an order evicting Scott from their house is frustrated by the fact that the courts are closed for the holidays, and on New Year’s Eve Alex goes out with her boyfriend Jimmy (Jonathan Scarfe) — he’s got a cottage for the weekend so they can be by themselves, Annie gets invited to a party and goes, and Scott takes advantage of having Anne home alone by sneaking into her place and bashing her head in with a hammer. She hangs on in the hospital for six days until she croaks, he abandons his car and leaves the murder weapon behind, and eventually he’s found three months later drowned in the Hudson River after it melts during spring thaw.

It’s not much different from your average Lifetime movie (though it seems to have at least a brief theatrical release since its page lists an MPAA rating) but it’s unusually well done, directed quietly but suspensefully by Bill L. Norton, Adams’ script could have tapped some of the darker aspects of his tale — we really don’t get much of an idea of What Makes Scott Run, whether he’s a conscious gold-digger who loses control of himself and the situation or a troubled young man in over his head from the start, who responds to his uneasy situation (including the likely sense of being “unmanned” by living off his wife’s fortune) by getting drunk and lashing out at his wife. It’s also not clear just why he kills her or how he hopes to get away with it — assuming he does hope to get away with it and is thinking that rationally as a criminal, which is debatable — but on the whole Our Mother’s Murder makes sense as drama.

It’s generally well cast (though Sarah Chalke doesn’t look credible either as Roxanne Hart’s daughter or Holly Marie Combs’ sister) and, not surprisingly, the actor who comes off the best is James Wilder, not only because the villains in these sorts of tales are usually more interesting than the heroes but also because he’s drop-dead gorgeous — far better looking than the general run of blankly semi-attractive lanky, sandy-haired men Lifetime usually casts as its male leads — and he doesn’t make Scott more of a schemer than he should be. Wilder also ably depicts the character’s surface charm and knows just when to drop the mask and let us see the monster beneath. I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t more than just one brief soft-core porn scene between Wilder and Hart — not only would more of their sex life have added directly to the entertainment value, it would also have made it more believable that Anne would stay with him despite being abused (I’ve heard from people who’ve actually been victims of domestic violence that one reason they stayed in their relationships as long as they did was “the make-up sex was fabulous!”). Despite the dorky title (though Daughters was so ambiguous it would hardly have been better!), Our Mother’s Murder is actually one of the better things I’ve seen on Lifetime, a nice mixture of emotion and thrills that one only wishes could have had a happier ending.