Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Walking the Halls (Johnson Production Group, ITV Global Studios, Shadowland, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I’ve watched yet another recently aired Lifetime TV-movie, Walking the Halls, which they showed right after Sexting in Suburbia (though they re-ran Sexting right after it as well!) and which was a pretty wild tale in which Casey Benson (Caitlin Thompson), a nice young high-school senior who’s planning to major in earth sciences in college and is going to a school in New York — on the other side of the country from California, where she and her parents live — when she gets spotted in the hallways by Amber (Marie Avgeropoulos), head of a trio of “bad girls” who at the start look like all that’s wrong with them is they’re stuck-up snobs but who in reality are prostitutes, being run by a “manager” (i.e., pimp) named Jack (Matthew Alan — and it’s all too typical of Lifetime’s casting directors that the hottest-looking guy in the movie turns out to be the principal villain!), who’s also the head of the school’s on-site police force and figures his “cop smarts” will enable him to avoid prosecution. This one was written by our old friend, Lifetime auteur Christine Conradt, though after she finished with the script director Doug Campbell and his writing partner, Ken Sanders, tweaked it enough to gain co-credit — and it’s typical of a Conradt script in that it takes a provocative premise, occasionally plays it for its potential power, but also treads on the thin edge of camp and finally goes over with a melodramatic finale that puts our principals — Casey, her mom Holly (Jamie Luner, top-billed) and her dad Christopher (Al Sapienza) — literally in mortal danger from Jack and Amber.

The script plunges Casey into a perfect storm of dysfunction from the get-go — her rather nerdy boyfriend starts the story by breaking up with her, and later she overhears her parents arguing and learns that her dad has sucked all the money out of her parents’ joint account — including the family savings Casey was counting on to finance her way through college — and is having an affair. Mom confronts him about this, dad backhands her, and mom has him arrested for domestic violence. Meanwhile, Casey is recruited by Amber and her friends Taylor (Lindsay Taylor) and Kylie (Arden Cho) and is sucked into their ring when Amber sets up a date for her to go the Goldbar club on a Friday night — Casey is underage (at least for drinking; she’s 18 and therefore above the legal age of consent for sex, an important point since part of Jack’s plan is to recruit ’em young but not so young he’d face the far heavier penalties for prostituting the underage) but Amber says that’s no problem: all Casey has to do is e-mail her a photo of herself and Amber will concoct a fake ID.

Once there, Casey is immediately courted by 28-year-old Max (Jason-Shane Scott) and spends the night with him (though it’s later established that she’d done the down-’n’-dirty with that twerpy boyfriend of hers and therefore she wasn’t a virgin), thinking it’s pure love and not realizing that someone was paid for her services until the next day, when Amber flashes $500 in front of her and says that was her cut. She angrily refuses it, but then when her parents’ marriage suddenly implodes and she realizes her family is broke, she decides to continue hooking until several acts later, when just as she’s on the point of moving out of her home because her mom is spying on her and trying to figure out where she’s getting her money (like a lot of other Conradt scripts, this one depicts one or both of the heroine’s parents as such good spies one wonders why they don’t solve the family’s financial problems by going to work for the CIA), she has an attack of revulsion when Jack arranges a three-way between her, Amber and an older man who’s paying handsomely for their services — he looked rather distinguished to me but we’re supposed to believe he’s so unforgivably repulsive that Casey bolts rather than face having sex with him, and Jack fires her on the spot and says that if she ever reports him to the police, he will kill both her and her parents. Mom, who earlier had conducted a three-hour stakeout of the hotel where she turns her tricks and confronted her in the lobby — whereupon the stuck-up queen concierge threatens to have her arrested — worms the truth out of Casey and immediately reports it to the school principal (Patricia Belcher), yet another one of the avuncular African-Americans that always seem to turn up as the authority figures in these movies, and the principal reports it to … guess who. Just take a wild guess.

That’s right: Officer Jack, who immediately determines to make good on his threat to knock off all the Bensons and enlists Amber to help him by holding a gun on Casey and her mom while he goes out and kidnaps dad, brings him back to the house and announces that he plans to kill all three of them and stage it as a murder-suicide: a dumped ex-husband returning home, getting revenge by killing his wife and daughter and then taking his own life. (Then he’ll probably get rid of Amber as well since as a witness she could be dangerous to him.) There’s a confusing series of events that ends with mom persuading Amber to relax their bonds, Jack arriving with dad, and ultimately mom gets Jack’s gun and kills him. There’s a voice-over that announces that Amber got five years’ probation and left town, Christopher and Holly patched things up long enough not to save their marriage but at least to achieve a more amicable divorce, and Casey left for her New York college and “never looked back.” I suppose I should be grateful that they didn’t pull the old scene in which Casey gets sent out on an out-call and the customer turns out to be her own father (maybe Conradt wrote such a scene and Campbell and Sanders pulled rank on her and took it out again), but they hit all the other clichés of the genre, including the old one from the 1930’s exploitation films of making the demi-monde seem so boring that it hardly seems worth bothering with (though I give the filmmakers credit for making the club genuinely believable instead of antiseptically decorous the way the alleged punk party was in Sexting in Suburbia).

An message board poster put up this plot synopsis from Lifetime’s Web site that may indicate what got changed between Conradt’s script and the final film: “When 17-year-old Casey Benson, new to Los Angeles, starts to make friends with some of the beautiful, popular cheerleaders at her school, her mother Holly is pleased. Casey seems happy but when her attitude and behavior begins to change, Holly is alarmed. Becoming increasingly estranged, Holly hired P.I. Sue Ann to sort things out. Casey and her cheerleading friend are spending their evenings dating wealthy older men.” In the finished film, the family have lived in their current home nearly 20 years (dad makes quite a few nasty remarks to mom about how his job — though how he makes his living remains a mystery — has supported them all for 20 years and paid for that house), Amber, Taylor and Kylie are not depicted as cheerleaders (cheerleading practices would probably have taken too much time away from their actual nocturnal pursuits) and there is no private investigator (probably just as well, since when Conradt drags in a P.I. he or she usually gets killed well before the denouement). Walking the Halls is a pretty typical Lifetime movie, good in spots — at least Campbell directs it straightforwardly, without the music-video “flanging” effects other Lifetime directors (especially those who came out of music videos) have indulged in — but almost risibly campy in others, and frankly the unmistakably and unashamedly campy movie Mini’s First Time got more out of the situation of a high-school girl turning to prostitution because of her family’s dysfunction than this ostensibly more “serious” film did!