Last night’s “feature” was a movie Lifetime showed a couple of weeks ago, His Secret Family, written and directed by Michael Feifer for his modestly named Feifer Worldwide production company. It’s the sort of movie where the very title gives the entire plot away, so it’s virtually impossible to write a “spoiler” on this one: it opens in the bucolic country of Big Bear, where heroine Sarah Goodman (Hillary Duff) is living with her husband Jason (David O’Donnell) and their son Brandon (Judah Nelson). There are a few wrinkles in their happiness; for one thing, Jason is almost never home — he’s a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company, working the Southern California territory, and he’s constantly either going to business meetings or on the road. Also, the Goodmans have fallen behind on their bills and Sarah is being inundated with calls from collection agents and is worried that their home is going to be foreclosed on, and as if that weren’t enough to stir the Lifetime stewpot, Brandon has come down with a genetic immune disorder and his only hope for survival is a bone-marrow transplant from his dad. Only his dad picks the morning of Brandon’s scheduled doctor’s appointment to disappear completely, and several days go by with Sarah having no idea where her husband is. She calls the police, and the call is taken by Detective Sharpson (Parker Stevenson, Shaun Cassidy’s old sidekick on The Hardy Boys, who has not weathered the years well) and his partner, Detective Miller (Nicholas Guilak). Unlike his partner, Miller is very hot, with one of those crotches that looks like he sandpapered the inside of his jeans; he’s dark-haired and has a thin, well-trimmed beard, and he was about the only male in the movie who was liable to inspire any fantasies in me! There’s a hint in Feifer’s script that Detective Sharpton briefly dated Sarah before she married Jason, but through most of the movie Sarah is convinced that the police either don’t care about Jason’s disappearance or believe she did her husband in.
She finds a clue in her husband’s old receipts — one from a private mailbox in Santa Monica — and when she calls the drug company Jason supposedly works for, she’s told they’ve never heard of “Jason Goodman” and the man in charge of sales for Southern California is named “David Marcus.” Sarah drives out to Santa Monica, leaving Brandon in the care of her sister Lauren (Mekenna Melvin) — much to the kid’s disgust, who’s already used to being abandoned by his dad and now is worried that his mom is going to start doing the same thing. She stakes out the P. O. box after talking to the clerk and finding that they’ve never heard of Jason Goodman either, but David Marcus is a client there. Eventually David shows up and picks up his mail, and Sarah follows him home and meets his other wife, Emily (Jennifer Aspen), and finds out that David a.k.a. Jason was married to Emily well before he met Sarah — they have three children, two of whom are grown while the third is in high school, while his son with Sarah, Brandon, is still grade-school age. Sarah crashes David’s and Emily’s home by posing as a real-estate broker interested in listing the house if it’s for sale, but David comes home unexpectedly, he and Sarah confront each other and David palms a broach from Emily’s grandmother and accuses Sarah of stealing it. This not only ensures Emily’s continuing loyalty to her bigamous husband but also makes it even harder for Sarah to enlist the aid of the police, though eventually the cops realize that David a.k.a. Jason needs to be arrested because he’s the prime suspect in the murder of yet another woman he was dating, Alison Woodburn (whom we never see but on whose body was found a bracelet David, in his “Jason” identity, had given Sarah).
In the film’s most chilling scene, David confesses to Emily and then to Sarah that he just wanted another family, and now that it’s become too expensive for him to support two wives and two households, he’s simply going to “erase” his now-inconvenient second family. The matter-of-fact affect-less way David O’Donnell delivers those lines is the most chilling part of his performance and is downright scarier than most actors achieve cast as psychopaths, even though by making his bigamist an out-and-out villain Feifer misses out on the odd quasi-sympathy director Ida Lupino and her writers (Collier Young, Larry Marcus and Lou Shorr) created for Edmond O’Brien’s character in the 1953 film The Bigamist, to which His Secret Family owes a lot plot-wise. It ends with the characters in two dilemmas — David is determined to off Sarah but can’t do it until he can get her to tell him where Brandon is so he can kill his son as well, while the police want to capture David alive because if they kill him he can’t donate bone marrow to the transplant that’s the only hope of saving Brandon’s life. Of course it ends with David taken alive after an exciting boat chase across Big Bear Lake — apparently the Goodmans’ budget, even drained by David’s/Jason’s other household, was still big enough they could afford his-and-hers speedboats — and Sarah gets away when David’s boat runs out of gas and ends up stuck going around in circles, and a police boat crew comes upon him and duly takes him into custody. His Secret Family is about mid-range in quality for a Lifetime movie, neither as good nor as bad as some of them, well acted by Hillary Duff and David O’Donnell and acceptably performed by the rest of the cast, and with a script by Feifer that avoids some of the melodramatic excesses of Lifetime at its worst even though it doesn’t really delve into the characters, either — and for me the most sorrowful person in the dramatis personae was the first wife, Emily, who’s going to be left alone with a big house she can’t even begin to afford and a sense that the man she was married to for two decades not only betrayed her but at the end turned out to be a cold-blooded psycho who calmly talked about “erasing” his other family.