by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved
The movie was When Secrets Kill, a 1997 film from Michele Brustin Productions, Rysher Entertainment and Scripps Howard Entertainment based on a novel by Patricia MacDonald called Mother's Day that was frustrating in that it had the germ of a good movie -- in fact, as I said of the recent film The Architect, it had the germ of several good movies and that was precisely the problem with it. Adapted from MacDonald's novel by Ara Watson and Sam Blackwell and competently if not particularly imaginatively directed by Colin Bucksey, When Secrets Kill begins with a little girl walking with her cat through a field -- the cat is running ahead of her and she's calling to it when she stumbles on the skeleton of a dead teenage girl.
Not that we're ever going to see the (live) girl again -- she's just a Law and Order-style guest body finder, as are the two scavengers who come on the body of someone else later in the movie -- and as so many Lifetime movies do, once that's established and we see the police start trying to identify the victim and investigate the case, there's a title that reads, "FIVE MONTHS LATER -- MOTHER'S DAY," and we see the family at the heart of the story: Greg Newhall (Gregory Harrison, at least a bit better looking than the norm for a Lifetime leading man even though he's the tall, lanky, sandy-haired "type" they like in their men), his wife Karen (Roxanne Hart) and their adoptive daughter Jenny (Lacey Chabert). Their lives were already wrenched out of the comfort zone a month earlier, after over a decade of trying to get pregnant in the normal way, Karen finally did -- only to lose the baby in a miscarriage -- and things fall off the cliff when a dark-haired woman, Linda Emery (Larissa Laskin), shows up on their doorstep and claims to be Jenny's birth mother. (Larissa Laskin and Lacey Chabert look so astonishingly like each other that the claim is instantly believable to the audience as well as the characters.)
Linda suddenly wants to establish a parental right to see Jenny, and Karen is upset but Greg is downright angry, saying that the legal terms of the adoption completely terminated Linda's parental rights and she can leave now or he'll call the police and have her arrested. Linda then sees her mother -- mom is glad to see her but her brother says that her disappearance caused him to give up college to take care of their disabled (and now dead) father, so she's not welcome there either -- and Linda is forced to stay at a hotel. Linda also comes to Martin's, a restaurant where she used to work in town while she was a student there until she got pregnant and left town, and her friend Mary Martin (Kate Hennig) is glad to see her but Mary's husband Sam (Patric Masurkevitch) makes it clear she's no longer welcome there, either. At this point When Secrets Kill had the potential to be a very interesting drama about a birth mother returning to her home town to reclaim her biological daughter from the couple that adopted her, and in the process dredging up a lot of nasty secrets the townspeople had previously been able to keep a lid on.
Instead, the story takes more melodramatic turns than that as Linda turns out to be the next murder victim -- and Greg becomes the number one suspect of the police investigating the crime, Detective Walter Ferrence (Timothy Busfield) and his younger partner, Lt. Larry (Maurice Godin, easily the most attractive male in the cast), especially when he flees his home as the police close in on him and later asks Karen to get him some money and a photo of herself Linda left with them before she was killed, which shows her at a bar where the staff and patrons might be able to identify her and who she was with and who may have killed her. The cops are after Greg largely because of an interview daughter Jenny gave -- unknowingly -- to reporter Phyllis Hodges (Victoria Snow, an actress with a striking and verisimilitude-undermining resemblance to Sarah Palin) -- and also because Karen has abruptly turned against him when she realizes he had an affair with Linda way back when and therefore there's a good chance that Jenny is biologically his child, though not Karen's.
We also get a glimpse into the home life of Detective Ferrence and his alcoholic wife Emily (Arlene Mazerolle), but the climax is kicked off when Linda's mother Eliza (Patricia Hamilton) offers Jenny her pick of any of Linda's belongings -- and Jenny picks a hideous purple piggy bank which turns out to contain, in addition to a few coins, a letter Linda wrote as a teenager and a newspaper clipping about a prison break. It turns out that Linda's father was one of the convicts who escaped, a mysterious man in town found out about it and blackmailed Linda into having sex with him by threatening to expose her dad and get him sent back to prison if she refused to comply; that this person is Jenny's biological father; and she kept the secret and didn't return to town or try to contact Jenny or her adoptive parents until her dad died and therefore she didn't have to worry about him being sent back to prison.
Meanwhile there's an elaborate red herring that's close enough to Psycho that had they been alive then, Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Bloch could have sued for plagiarism: it seems Linda spent the last houts of her life in a room in a seedy motel managed by a twitchy young man, Eddie Hughes (Jody Racicot), who not only has a mother fixation (though his mother, unlike Norman Bates's, is actually alive in another city instead of a stuffed corpse in a fruit cellar and a scratchy voice her son does in drag) but also has a secret peephole in his office through which he can see female guests taking their clothes off and stepping into the shower. Later Phyllis, who seems to have visions of a book deal and a true-crime TV episode (and the income therefrom) dancing in her head, checks out the motel room Linda stayed in after Eddie has taken himself out of the whodunit running by getting killed himself -- and she becomes the latest victim.
Greg breaks into the home of Det. Ferrence and finds Phyllis's body hanging from a hook on his basement wall, and it turns out Det. Ferrence is the killer and also the mystery man who blackmailed Linda into having sex with him, thereby conceiving Jenny, way back when; he started his murder spree when Linda returned to town and threatened to expose all his deadly secrets. When Secrets Kill is generally well acted -- and Laskin, Busfield and Racicot are particularly fine -- and decently directed, but the piling of one melodramatic plot strand on top of another weakens the movie and creates too many distractions on our way to the denouement. Maybe this was one Lifetime story that worked better on the printed page.