Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
If you’re ever tempted to trust a man, Lifetime movies can fix that for you

If you’re ever tempted to trust a man, Lifetime movies can fix that for you

Once In A LifetimeIn Once In A Lifetime, Katie Rife charts the many melodramatic ways things can go awry in a Lifetime Original Movie

Husbands are but one star in the firmament of people who will betray you in a Lifetime movie, but as far as relationships go, marriage is possibly the most fraught. It’s an intimate relationship, making the violation all the more profound when the inevitable deception is revealed. You can sense this vulnerability just in the titles of Lifetime films about spouses hiding horrifying secrets: Stranger In My Bed. In Bed With A Killer. The Familiar Stranger. The Stranger Beside Me. And then there’s the sobering reality that husbands are a leading cause of death for their wives, making an abusive partner a far more visceral threat than, say, a homicidal interior decorator.

Domestic violence as TV-movie kitsch floats in the same problematic pool as all murder-for-entertainment properties—specifically, the deep end also occupied by Dateline and your various Investigations Discovery. Those shows so often turn out the same way that “The Husband Did It” T-shirts are all over Etsy. And there’s a similar inevitability when a younger man with Ken-doll good looks, or an older man who has everything except for love, is introduced in the first act of a Lifetime movie with the words “stranger,” “secrets,” or “betrayal” in the title. (They’re not all as forthright as I Almost Married A Serial Killer, which gives you the plot of the movie up front.) But given the real-life ubiquity of family violence, these films have to go way over the top to vault over squirming discomfort into howling camp.

This is especially true of 1995’s The Stranger Beside Me, not to be confused with Ann Rule’s famous true-crime book about working at a suicide hotline with Ted Bundy. This one’s also based on a true story, about a Texas housewife named Linda Bergstrom whose repeated attempts to report her husband as a serial rapist were ignored by both the U.S. Navy and local police. Opening with the title in yellow cursive script over generic country-western twang, the movie embodies the wholesome mid-’90s aesthetic of delicate floral prints and pearl chokers—and that’s before Alyson Hannigan shows up in a bridesmaid dress that looks like it’s made out of Fruit Roll-Ups.

Tiffani Thiessen stars as Linda’s stand-in Jennifer Gallagher, who at the beginning of the film meets what seems like a nice young man at a church picnic. Over the next hour or so, Jennifer gets married, moves to California with her husband, Chris (Eric Close), squirms uncomfortably at the other Navy wives’ sex talk at a bustling honky tonk, and ignores a series of glaringly obvious red flags that include Chris’ petulant response to Jennifer’s very valid anger at him for missing the birth of their first child. (“I was busy,” he says, unable to make eye contact.) That last offense is dramatized in the form of a montage whose combination of self-seriousness and low-budget ineptitude would normally prompt a derisive snort. Which it does, but not without a heavy undercurrent of guilt, given that the film juxtaposes Jennifer in the delivery room with Chris attacking a woman in her bedroom.

As a viewer, the feeling you get watching all these warning signs pile up is a lot like the frustration of seeing a co-ed go into the woods alone in a slasher movie—which isn’t entirely coincidental. The Stranger Beside Me was director Sandor Stern’s 20th TV movie, but aside from co-writing the 1979 basketball comedy Fast Break, when his work did make it to the big screen, it was in horror: He wrote the screenplay for The Amityville Horror (1979), and his sole feature-film output as a director was 1988’s Pin. Stern shoots Chris like a slasher villain, lurking in shadows with a beam of light shining over his beady eyes and letting his face fall from a fake smile to an evil scowl when Jennifer turns her back. (Think of the lead performance in Silent Night, Deadly Night 2, and you’re in the ballpark.) Not only that, but the last third of the film transforms Jennifer from a helpless victim into a final girl, sticking around just long enough after learning Chris is a predatory sociopath to collect evidence damning enough that even Chris’ buddies on the police force can’t protect him anymore.

Another parallel between Lifetime movie abusers and slasher villains is the overwhelming sameness of these men—in looks, personality, and tactics. They’re all clean-cut, which makes them appealing to all but the most intuitive friends and relatives. They’re all able to put on a superficially charming act, further isolating their victims when those they tell about the abuse respond with, “But he’s such a nice guy!” They’re possessive, defensive, moody, belittling, and skilled at making themselves out to be the victim—all strategies of mental and emotional abuse. Most of all, they’re crushingly mediocre, and deep in their narcissistic hearts, they know it.

Fatal Honeymoon (2012) offers up a relatively specific, but perfectly emblematic version of the phenomenon. Its cold-blooded killer, Gabe (Billy Miller), is a marginally good-looking, muscle-bound Alabama frat boy whose interests include football, deep-sea diving, and badgering his fiancée, Tina (Amber Clayton), about whether she’s signed the life insurance paperwork yet. Gabe is a model of abuser logic throughout the film, gaslighting Tina, isolating her from her friends and family, and pressuring her into doing things she’s not comfortable with. Tina is afraid of the water, and isn’t even that good of a swimmer. But Gabe presses her into going diving on the Great Barrier Reef for their honeymoon anyway—one of many reasons why it’s suspicious as hell when she drowns mid-dive.

That film is also based on a true story, which accounts for the specificity of the characterization. By contrast, however, the paint-by-number nature of director Nadia Tass’ filmmaking gives Fatal Honeymoon a kitsch quality that not even co-star Harvey Keitel, who did this Lifetime original in between shooting Moonrise Kingdom and the Romanian WWII drama A Farewell To Fools, can overcome. Generally, it’s a mother’s intuition that saves the day in a Lifetime movie. But in Fatal Honeymoon it’s Keitel’s grouchy, Sinatra-loving father-in-law who uncovers Gabe’ plot to murder his daughter, following a trail of clues from Alabama to Australia in an attempt to prove that the son-in-law he never liked anyway is actually a murderer. Keitel puts on his best Alabama accent, but the movie around him is so lackluster that he comes across older and more ineffective in Fatal Honeymoon than he does in films shot years later. As for why he did a movie so cheap that most of the exposition takes place in cars and sparsely furnished living rooms, well, free trip to Australia, maybe?

But for all its flaws, Fatal Honeymoon offers such a clear-cut lesson in how abusers behave that it points to the socially redeeming quality—if you’re interested in that sort of thing—of this particular variety of made-for-TV trash. Even otherwise forgettable Lifetime movies, like the recent A Boyfriend’s Deceit (2018), are full of melodramatic dramatizations of things to look out for if your daughter, friend, coworker, cousin, or neighbor is in a new relationship with a guy who your gut says is bad news. Confronted by his girlfriend, Annie (Emily Rose), after she’s detained and questioned by police who find a bloody knife just chilling in the backseat of his car, the boyfriend of the title pouts, “I can only say sorry so many times!” An absurd thing to say in response to a reasonable question about why the hell you have a bloody knife in your car, to be sure. But it’s also a great example of weaponized guilt and denial.

That being said, Lifetime movies are less emotionally intelligent when it comes to dramatizing why victims stay in abusive relationships. Presented with horror-movie flourishes and delivered in an over-the-top acting style, the abuse in these films is obvious—unlike the more insidious machinations of real life. When we fast-forward through the grooming and the gaslighting to get to the dramatic stuff, our sympathy gets tied up in the victim’s eventual wish-fulfillment triumph, not her all-too-realistic suffering. Such is the case with the reverse-Misery tale Her Perfect Spouse (2004), directed by Lifetime staple Douglas Jackson. Co-star Michael Riley bears such a strong resemblance to Twin Peaks villain BOB that you know his character, mystery novelist Ty Kellington, is going to bring radio producer Lisa (Tracy Nelson) nothing but misery. And indeed, Ty does turn out to be another generic Lifetime narcissist, whose only distinguishing quality is that he’s jealous of his wife’s success at work.

Over the past 30 years, careers have become increasingly important for Lifetime heroines, who tend to have the same types of jobs—architect, newspaper columnist, bakery owner—as their rom-com counterparts. That reflects changing social mores, of course, but it also adds a narrative shortcut to a Lifetime screenwriter’s quiver; when a concerned parent or sibling doesn’t make sense for the plot, a loyal employee or trusted coworker will do. And even housewives in these movies may find an ally in their husband’s assistant or at a volunteer gig—take Janice Mitchell (Judith Light), who proves that men are a bad idea even when you’re not married to them in perhaps the most entertaining movie discussed herein, 1995’s Lady Killer, which premiered on CBS before making its way to Lifetime.

Although the movie came out in 1995, the specific variety of aspirational identity Light represents—white, blond, thin, moneyed, into jogging and “sophisticated” cultural markers like classical music—is a hangover from the decade of Dynasty and Polo Ralph Lauren. She should be irritatingly perfect, but Janice is actually a sympathetic and likable character. Light’s hair does a lot of the dramatic heavy lifting in this film, sitting neatly pinned into place or falling out in messy chunks depending on her mental state at the time. But Light, best known either for her runs on One Life To Life and Who’s The Boss?, also has more dramatic chops than some of her Lifetime peers. She brings a certain poignancy to moments like the scene where her husband leaves her alone at her own birthday party, or the dramatic monologue where she lays out the aimlessness she feels now that her daughter, Sharon (Tracey Gold), is away at college.

That rootless feeling is what drives Janice to begin a passionate, soapy (literally—they take a lot of baths together) affair with Guy (Jack Wagner), a much younger plastic surgeon. Guy’s sociopathy and narcissism are, again, utterly banal, save for one distinguishing characteristic that drives the plot. This time around, it’s a mommy complex. Things begin to go bad when Janice cancels a weekend getaway with Guy because her husband, Ross (Ben Masters), returned early from a business trip, prompting him to express his fury by drawing a sad face on a prescription pad. He retaliates with a mid-movie sexual assault that, to both Light’s and director Steven Schachter’s credit but not to the audience’s pleasure, is actually quite disturbing. But after this sobering brush with reality, the plot gets outrageous once again after Janice and Ross retreat to the family lake house so Janice can recuperate.

It’s here, draped in homespun quilts and framed by rustic wood paneling, that Lady Killer accomplishes what many Lifetime movies about bad men cannot—clearing the bar of real-life trauma and ascending into high camp. Not long after Janice and Ross’ arrival, Sharon arrives with her new boyfriend in tow. It’s Guy, showing a dedication to revenge that would make Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction proud. Ross likes him, inexplicably; Janice is within her rights to hate the guy based on the age gap alone (seriously, it’s mortifying), but when he hisses to her, “You’re much better in bed than your daughter,” Janice—and the audience—know it’s time to take care of this psycho for good. It’s a torrid tale with a simple, satisfying ending, and any lingering guilt over the affair is burned away when Janice pushes that asshole off of a lighthouse—something more than a few moms in the audience would probably like to do to their daughter’s boyfriends, even if they hadn’t had sex with them first.

Next time: Unless it’s an “issue film” about coming out, the Lifetime channel tends to be, to paraphrase Edith Massey, sickeningly heterosexual. But that doesn’t mean a woman can’t ruin another woman’s life.

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