Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The USA World Premiere Movie Project: Lightning Field (aka Lightning Incident, 1991)

While I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the 1991 thriller The Lightning Field for its slow burn pace, gorgeous locales and somewhat intriguing story, it still comes across a tele-flick that was ripped off from several different sources. Certainly, many TVMs riff on popular themes and tropes, but this movie goes deep, taking inspiration from distinct mediums, including land art, and reworking a horrifying true life story that changes the victims to a South American cult who want to steal a baby! Not sure what all that means, but here we go…

Lightning Field, which aired on September 11th, 1991, is about a very pregnant artist named Margaret (Nancy McKeon looking really gorgeous… as usual) who finds most of her creative inspiration in her dreams. These imaginings are of people and places she’s never seen in real life, but her visions become quite a concern after she manifests a snake from her nightmare/hallucination into her own home! A dream therapist named Vivian (the lovely Tantoo Cardinal) guides Margaret through the discovery of long kept secrets about her past as she finds that she’s connected to a community of South Americans who think Margaret’s baby is the chosen child. Chosen for human sacrifice, of course! (I should note though that the ditzy way Margaret acts early on - climbing a dangerous ladder with a nine-month belly going on - made me wonder if “cult” is actually code for child services!)

As you may have guessed, a lot of crap hits the fan, from Margaret losing her husband on the day she gives birth (talk about an emotional day!) to having her baby kidnapped and taken to another country to watching her mom’s face ooze blood from every orifice (yuck), to realizing that she has cool psychic powers that can wield lightning!

That’s a whole lot to take in, but what is even more interesting than the throw-it-all-into-the-pot-storyline is how the film uses two very disparate but fairly well known American subjects as plot devices. The first is Walter De Maria’s stunning earth art work titled, ahem, Lightning Field. While the mimicking of this art piece is only shown briefly, anyone who has studied art history or just enjoys land sculptures will probably be feeling some kind of déjà vu! And it looks like the "inspiration" wasn’t lost on the art world either because the owners of De Maria's work, the DIA Foundation sued the film's production company, Wilshire Court Productions!

Margaret's Lightning Field

Walter De Maria's Lightning Field

Here's a great quote from an article about the suit:

"They argued that the earthwork in Lightning Field was not constructed by Walter De Maria, but Facts of Life alum Nancy McKeon. Also, De Maria's The Lightning Field has inspired generations of artists to examine the complex relationship between man and nature, while McKeon's Lightning Field inspired a cult of obsessed baby snatchers to kidnap her child and use it as a sacrificial offering. To no ones surprise, the owners of the earthwork, The DIA Art Foundation, were not impressed and moved to sue the production company for violation of copyright." (underlined emphasis mine!)

The testimony excerpt used for the above article is hysterical and I highly recommend you spend a few minutes with it. According to these selected court records the producer had already shopped around a script about a land artist named William Van Marta.

Oh my.

This might be why the title was later changed to The Lightning Incident! I have no idea how this case turned out, so if anyone has the deets, please let me know!

The second inspiration is a bit more vague and seems a lot less plagiaristic, but is still noticeable if you have studied African American history. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment is one of more diabolical medical experimentations that I am familiar with, and I couldn’t help but think the South American cult member’s malaria treatment was a reworking of that harrowing true story. Watching Lightning Field with modern eyes is likely to generate some criticism about the blood hungry South Americans, but once their story is revealed, this becomes a tale about heartbreak, revenge, and the importance of legacies, moving the film beyond some of its misguided shortcomings. Not too far beyond, but enough to make it more fun than not.

And at the same time, Lightning Field also has a marginal lightning duel, some super cool 90s hair via Elpidia Carrillo, awesome adobe houses and some low brow Rosemary's Baby action. Despite an all over the map kind of feeling, McKeon and Tantoon are both likable and strong personas that carry this oddball and engaging thriller.

Lightning Field is on VHS (as Lightning Incident)! 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The USA World Premiere Movie Project: Death Benefit (1996)

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

I was five minutes into the USA Original telefilm Death Benefit before I realized that I was eerily familiar with its story. The very same year that this strangely serene and excellent true crime TVM aired on basic cable, NBC released Justice for Annie: A Moment of Truth Movie (Annie aired about three months before, in January). And thanks to a gazillion re-airings on Lifetime, I feel like parts of that movie have been tattooed onto my brain… OK, extreme, I know. But I do recall that Annie told the story from the mother’s point of view, whereas Death Benefit is lifted directly from the source, a lawyer named David Heilbroner who wrote a book about this case (in Annie, I believe the lawyer was morphed in to a detective). Heilbroner was an attorney who was helping a woman who had recently lost her daughter. There was some hiccup that prevented her from recouping the funeral costs through her insurance, and this leads to the grisly realization that her daughter has been murdered in an outrageous scam concocted by a sociopathic woman who may have killed before.

A beardless Peter Horton stars in Death Benefit as Steven Keeney, a corporate lawyer who has lost his way from social justice as he navigates his "perfect" upscale lifestyle in a large city in the South. Whether or not he becomes interested in the investigation simply because of the challenge or because he is truly looking for justice is not quite clear and doesn’t really matter, because this case helps him come to the understanding that sometimes its OK to be a small fish in a big pond.

Keeney’s arch nemesis comes in the form of a woman named Virginia McGinnis, played with the proper amount of terrifying confidence by the great Carrie Snodgress. While this movie is clearly about Keeney, Snondgress is wonderful, memorable and steals each scene she’s in. In an interview to promote the movie, the actress spoke about playing a real life killer: “She had a deep-seated illness which, by and large, she covered up with a rigid self-control. She had so much control, in fact, that she was able to manipulate those around her, either through conviviality, intimidation or outright fear.”

It’s the kind role that I can see drawing in actresses. If memory serves, Susan Ruttan’s take on her in Annie was also well done and appropriately creepy. But, what makes Death Benefit work, and what makes it (in my opinion) a better film than Annie is the approach. With nary a hint of sensationalism, Death Benefit takes an intriguing procedural route, where a good portion of the film features Horton cutting through red tape via the phone or office visits. Yet, despite its lack of action, and even though Keeney has no real connection to his client’s daughter, the victim’s death travels through the film like a ghost, reminding you that even though Keeney’s original call to action might have come from guilt, there is someone there that will make sure this young woman is not forgotten.

What makes this even more fascinating is that we hardly know anything about her character. We don’t know exactly why she ends up with this couple (although it is eluded to that she was dating their son), and we don’t even really see her except through photographs and then through the haunting finale, where her death is recreated via brief flashbacks interspersed with an incredible trial on a sea cliff… OK, so there’s a little sensationalism, but just a touch.

However, as this is told from the point of view of the lawyer who wrote the book, it’s hard to tell if he was made more heroic by his own pen. And the mother definitely takes a back seat, which makes me think that somewhere between Death Benefit and Annie is the true-true story of what happened to that young woman. Still, Death Benefit rises above its network counterpart thanks to its under the radar performances, a beautifully somber score by Brian Adler (his first film credit), and the pacing. Well worth a visit if you like true crime adaptations.

Death Benefit aired on March 13th, 1996 and enjoyed promoted encore airings on March 17th and 24th. And it’s on VHS!