Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The USA World Premiere Movie Project: Cabin by the Lake (2000)

This review has been posted in conjunction with the Daily Grindhouse's year long tribute to the USA World Premiere Movie.  

Having just read Switch by William Bayer (the novel was turned into the 1985 CBS miniseries Doubletake), along with a completely unrelated but recent viewing of the USA Original Cabin By the Lake, I’m somewhat fascinated by the horror-filmmaker-turned-serial-killer angle that is so prominent in both works. In some ways it’s a little offensive, insisting that people who make horror films create similar terror in real life. But, let’s face it, it makes for good reading and cinema! While Switch was a bit of a letdown (the main murder mystery is downplayed in favor of the protagonist’s love story and his desire to take down a corrupted boy in blue), Cabin by the Lake revels in Stanley’s (the terrific Judd Nelson) research for an upcoming genre film, and wonders why it has to be so damn gruesome!

Stanley Caldwell is one odd duck. He sends a blank manuscript to his pleasantly maddening agent, Regan (Susan Gibney), and is, in general, a straight-faced sort, who “jokes” about drowning a girl for material, and then really drowns a girl. With a weight on her foot, she plunges to the bottom of the lake, and joins an almost beautiful array of dead bodies, clothed in (literally) flowing frocks with hair swaying along with the current. It evokes the same kind of horrifyingly poignant imagery as Dario Argento’s underwater city/tomb in Inferno, and it sets the tone for this gorgeous and oddball thriller.

This watery graveyard serves as Stanley’s muse for his newest script, Garden of Flesh. (Every writer should research their material, right?) Well, he’s coming to the end of the story and needs to find a victim who is unlike the earlier, easier targets. That’s when he meets Mallory (Hedy Burress). She’s cute but different, and quietly strong. In short, she'd be perfect Final Girl material... if Stanley had wanted any of the victims to live! In the sort of small talk you sometimes make with a stranger, Mallory mentions to Stanley that she doesn’t like the water, making her an interesting subject for studying! Whoops. 

Later in a car “accident,” Stanley abducts Mallory and throws her in the back of a van that has the words, “I’m the Guy Your Mother Warned You About” written on police tape. But Mallory is defiant, all the way up to the trip that was supposed to lead to her underwater death. Luckily, and quite by coincidence, she is saved by cutie pie cop Boone (Michael Weatherly), proving she is more of a foe than Stanley had counted on (well, and luckier, definitely luckier). And now the hunted becomes the hunter as she helps the cops close in on the murderous screenwriter.

Cabin by the Lake is self-aware horror (this film has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek thanks to David Stephens witty and intriguing script) combined with old-school Italian giallo aesthetics. The end result is gorgeous and gripping. Composer Frankie Blue, whose tunes remind me just a bit of Portishead, stands in for Goblin, and adds to the already moody proceedings.

Ever since Judd Nelson went killer in the 1989 film Relentless, I’ve always been a little afraid of him. He does bad just too good. He’s equally menacing here, but more sedate, and perhaps even scarier because Stanley thinks very little of what he actually does, and his only emotions seem to arise from his fascination with Mallory. In the empty room Stanley holds Mallory hostage in, she writes on the wall, “You don't scare me,” and when he’s able to kidnap her again she adds the addendum, “Do I scare you?” Stanley only understands the written word, and it terrifies him that she can plainly state her defiance as well as he can compose a screenplay about murder. She is at his core but he can’t seem to get to hers.

Their relationship provides an interesting match of wills, and helps Cabin by the Lake maintain an edge. This is my first viewing of the telefilm since it originally aired on February 1st, 2000 and I have to say, it has stood the test of time. It’s still morbid but funny, engaging and suspenseful. And to get back to the original conundrum about filmmakers as the epoch of evil, there are other film industry types shown throughout Cabin by the Lake and they run the gamut of greedy, artistic and just plain fun. Stanley somehow missed the part that horror films are about making fiction seem real instead of just making fiction real. Good going, Stanley!

This great little telefilm was followed by a sequel in 2001, which I have not seen but am hoping to review for my next USA World Premiere Movie post!

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