Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees was once pursued by an amorous ghost, but the only incorporeal manifestation she would consider dating is Cary Grant's character from Topper.
Murder and passion—together at last!
This two-pack from Wellspring yokes together a duo of made-for-television suspense films: 1998's Murder at Devil's Glen, featuring Rick Schroder (NYPD Blue) as an ex-con stalking his old fraternity buddies, and 1983's The Haunting Passion, a sexy ghost story starring the young Jane Seymour (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) and Gerald McRaney (Simon & Simon). What do these two very different films, released 15 years apart, have to do with each other? Come, gentle reader, and let us delve further into the mystery and the passion in our quest for the answer.
Facts of the Case
Murder at Devil's Glen opens on a suitably grisly scene: four college boys digging a grave on a rainy night. After depositing a body in it and vowing to provide each other an alibi, they separate. Eight years later, Henry (Schroder) gets out of prison and gathers together the old gang to impart disturbing news: Developers have purchased Devil's Glen, the plot of land where they performed that long-ago burial, and now Henry insists that the foursome move the unfortunate corpse so that it won't be discovered by others. In flashbacks we discover that the burial was the result of an elaborate fraternity hazing gag planned largely by the group's prankster, Oliver (Jack Noseworthy, U-571). With the assistance of Henry, geeky Doc (Jayce Bartok, Oz), and smooth operator Charlie (Michael Easton, Port Charles), he staged what was intended to be a mock killing but accidentally became all too real.
In the eight years that have passed since then, Oliver has become a respected attorney. Doc and Charlie have likewise found professional success, and all three have managed to put the tragedy behind them. However, a chain of events starting that night led to Henry's being sent to prison, and he blames the other three for refusing to provide him an alibi. Now, as he insinuates himself into Oliver's family and forces all three of his former friends to relive their past mistake, he seems bent on avenging himself for the eight years he has lost.
As The Haunting Passion opens, Julie and Dan Evan (Seymour and McRaney) are moving into their dream house on the coast. Dan, a former professional football player, was recently cut from his team, and this career upset has left him feeling insecure about himself—which causes some bedroom troubles for him and Julie. As Dan sorts through his professional and personal crisis, Julie finds herself succumbing to a strangely erotic presence in her new house. At first convinced that she has merely created a fantasy lover to fill her needs, she gradually comes to believe that she is being haunted. With the help of her old friend Lois (Millie Perkins, The Diary of Ann Frank) and the inquisitive codger next door, she begins to explore the possibly supernatural forces that are drawing her further and further away from Danny—and perhaps to her death.
Murder at Devil's Glen, also known by the title What We Did That Night, is for the most part a standard entry in the suspense/horror genre. It tries hard to be shocking but is thwarted by an apparent necessity to keep to family-friendly standards of language and content, so it ends up seeming tame by comparison to broadcast TV series like CSI and even Law and Order. It also suffers from pacing problems: The buildup to the climax takes so long that the journey's tension diminishes into tedium.
As the central character, Rick Schroder does show a strong aptitude for the part of the psychopath: His all-American looks make the too-bright fixity of his gaze and the eerie soullessness of his smile all the more unsettling. However, even though Schroder does his best with a one-dimensional role and turns on the eerie at full blast, it's not enough to compensate for a weak script. The other characters, which are all less colorful than the smiling sadist Henry, tend toward blandness. Noseworthy comes off as a poor man's Val Kilmer, pouty but otherwise largely expressionless. Bartok is unable to rise above a role that requires him to be hesitant and weak. Next to Schroder, Easton is the only one of the men who is at all memorable; he has an unforced charisma that makes Noseworthy and Bartok look all the more uncomfortable by contrast, although his character is the least developed of the four. As the ill-fated girl in the flashbacks, Tara Reid (American Pie) creates an all too convincing portrait of a young woman heedlessly lurching toward trouble, but she doesn't emerge as a real individual—as is reflected in the fact that the script never even assigns her a name.
Perhaps more than the lack of character development, what really hinders Murder is its sameness. We've seen so many variations of this plot—basically a hybrid of I Know What You Did Last Summer and Ghost Story—that Murder feels tiresomely familiar for a good portion of its running time. However, about four-fifths of the way through comes a wickedly ironic twist that changes our perception of much that has gone before. (At least, it does if you haven't predicted the twist, as I did.) This could have redeemed the film and raised it above the standard-issue plot if the remainder of the running time had delved into the ramifications of this new information. Alas, after the characters have carefully explained everything to us, there isn't much time left for further development. The story wraps up quickly, with a rather pat scene that ends the film on a weak note. Murder is not an effort that its cast members need be ashamed of, but it is pretty average TV-movie fare.
Whereas I came new to Murder, The Haunting Passion has been a guilty pleasure of mine for some years now. I may as well admit right now that Jane Seymour is one of my personal idols, and here she proves how much she deserves her status as queen of the TV movies. She gives an excellent performance as a loving wife who is confused, frightened, and yet irresistibly attracted by the mysterious force that invades her home and threatens her marriage. Seymour has rarely been more moving than she is here as she evokes the conflicting feelings within Julie, who not unnaturally begins to fear for her sanity. Moreover, for those who know her primarily as the earnest Dr. Quinn, her uninhibited sexiness when in the throes of ghostly passion will come as quite a surprise. (I was fortunate enough to be present at a personal appearance in which Seymour described the experience of shooting Haunting: Acting in love scenes could be difficult enough with an actor you scarcely knew, she said, but acting out a love scene completely alone was a greater challenge still. That may well be the case, but Seymour definitely gives it her all.)
McRaney is also excellent, showing real dramatic prowess in his portrayal of Dan's struggle to regain his self-confidence and bridge the growing distance between himself and Julie. He brings an honesty and credibility to his role that provide the necessary anchor for the story and make the supernatural elements work. Without these two excellent performances at its core, the film could easily have descended into camp, but the emotional poignancy of Danny and Julie's situation carries the story. Veteran actress Millie Perkins is also a standout, and the only weak link among the supporting characters is the medium, who is written as something of a humorless wacko.
Of course, as one might expect from a film made twenty years ago, the supernatural visual effects can't help but seem pretty cheesy today. Fortunately, director John Korty makes only minimal use of special effects, relying mostly on Seymour's performance and subtle use of props (a self-lighting candle, a flickering electric light) to convey the sense of a spirit presence. Indeed, a far greater liability is the dreadful musical score by Paul Chihara (Crossing Delancey), which injudiciously throws together synthesized "scary" music, would-be sexy saxophone, music box melodies, and compositions that sound like leftovers from Dynasty. If Philip Glass is looking around for a new project to follow his scoring of Beauty and the Beast and Dracula, he should do Wellspring a favor and compose an alternate score for The Haunting Passion.
Both films have been given an attractive transfer: Surprisingly, considering its more advanced age, Haunting looks every bit as clean and new as Murder. Bearing in mind their origins as television films, both are quite respectable in sharpness and color balance. Both are presented in full frame in accordance with their original aspect ratio. The audio mix, likewise, is nicely preserved if a bit flat and unexciting—again, consistent with the made-for-TV provenance. Each disc has its own packaging, so you can split up the set handily if you are obsessive about alphabetizing your collection (as I am). Extras on each disc consist of trailers for other Wellspring releases and brief acting credits for the prominently featured cast members. Missing from the Haunting disc is the case insert with comments about the origin of the film, which is included in the solo release of this title, but this is a slender extra at best and should not be a deciding factor if you are mulling over the relative merits of buying the title separately.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's always seemed to me that The Haunting Passion is like the evil twin of Jane Seymour's classic film Somewhere in Time, released in 1980 and now a veritable cult favorite among romantics. Distilled to their basic essences, both films tell the story of a man who travels through time to woo the lovely heroine. However, the two movies take very different views of this fantastical courtship. In Somewhere in Time, the time-traveling suitor is the handsome, guileless Christopher Reeve, so we cheer him on in his efforts to win the heart of his ladylove; we are every bit as certain as he is that they are truly destined to be together. But what if his attentions had been unwelcome? Then the character would essentially be a stalker—and that, in supernatural trappings, is what we see in Haunting. Since the role of Julie was written specifically for Jane Seymour, I can't help but wonder if the writers were inspired by her performance just a few years earlier in Somewhere in Time as they shaped the story of her involvement with an importunate mystery man(ifestation). If only Wellspring could have collaborated with the rights holders of Somewhere in Time to package these two films together, that would have been a felicitous marriage indeed.
If we return to the question I posed so dramatically in the Opening Statement and ask what common elements make these two films a logical coupling, we aren't, truth be told, left with a very solid answer: Both are made-for-television films, and both are tales of suspense. However, in pretty much every other respect these two works are not very comfortable bedfellows. Murder attempts to be a naturalistic psychological thriller, whereas Haunting is more of a fantasy on the theme of troubled love. All the main characters in Murder are men, whereas Haunting is told to a great extent from the heroine's point of view. All these factors lead me to suspect that male viewers will take to Murder more and that women will tend to prefer Haunting. The 15-year gap between the two also means that fans of the stars of one film will probably be less familiar with the work of those in the other. All in all, it seems like a bit of a stretch to yoke these two films together, but for those viewers who are drawn to both—or for married couples—this two-pack does represent a nice price break over buying the two discs separately.
Wellspring is strongly advised to undergo couples therapy before its next matchmaking attempt, but all charges are dismissed.
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