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Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Hidden Fears (1993)

Director: Jean Bodon
Stars: Meg Foster, Frederick Forrest, Bever-Leigh Banfield, Wally Taylor, Marc Macaulay and Patrick Cherry

For 1993, this film begins with a pretty depressing set of opening credits. It's just plain text and no visuals while we listen to a family talking about eating at Bittie's Place. Even the hardcoded Greek subtitles on the VHS rip I have of this film, which has never been released on DVD, aren't enough to make life interesting. When we get visuals, we just watch a couple of racist rednecks, one of whom is apparently a cripple, act like idiots and fail utterly to instil us with any terror. The screenplay is by Stuart Kaminsky, who wrote the source novel, Exercise in Terror, so there's no excuse for it to lose its substance in translation, but we don't even get much terror when these rednecks return and kill David Dietz in cold blood in the Bittie's Place car park. One tries for his wife Maureen too, inside the car, but she bites a decent chunk out of his arm and they run. Meg Foster may not weigh a heck of a lot but she certainly has inner strength and we see that here.

In the hospital, while she's obviously still in serious shock, Sgt Barelli tells her that 'they won't be coming back' and of course we can be sure that he's wrong, but it doesn't happen how we might expect. In fact nothing at all happens for a while as we fast forward to find Maureen at dinner with her new boyfriend and her son, now all grown up. Eight years have passed, enough for Sgt Barelli to have died, but he apparently cared about this case and did what he could to keep on it, even on his time off. He identified the murderers and his former partner delivers his casefile to Maureen after his death. It's a strange way to build a thriller, to have not a heck of a lot happen for years and then to have the victim trigger the story by facing her fears and seeking closure by catching the men who killed her husband. 'I've been scared for a long time,' she says. 'Now's the time.' Yet that's still not quite what this is all about.

By half an hour in, we don't just know what happened but whodunit too. What's more, the bad guys, Marty and Cal Vanbeeber, see Maureen on TV and promptly ring her up to tell her they're on their way. Nothing if not confident, these rednecks. At least Maureen has Mike and the kids to be around her, as well as Barelli's old partner, Helen, to watch over her, but still, this is hardly run of the mill. It's a slow paced, talky affair, driven by dialogue and full of character depth that not all the actors are able to flesh out. Meg Foster has an understated acting style in most of the films I've seen her in, which made the free spirits she played in Thumb Tripping and Welcome to Arrow Beach all the more surprising, but others here like Bever-Leigh Banfield and Dana Nickola try to emulate her but don't have the skill needed. It's the story that keeps us totally on the hop though, because it keeps growing until we finally figure out what it's trying to do.

I was all set for this to be a routine suspense story with the leading lady the usual victim trapped quivering in her house as the bad guys rage outside and gradually claw their way in. 'A widowed woman is being stalked by her husband's murderers,' says the plot description at IMDb and the tagline reads simply, 'What she saw... could kill her.' That isn't what this film is. I started out with the wrong expectations and felt suitably chastised when I realised how far off I was. At heart, this is a character study of a random event, the killing of David Dietz, which is never really explained or rationalised. We're given no perspective and we aren't even sure he was murdered. Yes, the killers are utterly responsible but maybe they just wanted his wife and he was merely in the way. Who knows? Stuart Kaminsky does but he doesn't want to tell us. All he wants us to know is that two men killed a third and that the action has serious ramifications.

Beyond David, who is dead, we end up meeting a lot of people who were affected by the killing. Most obviously there's Maureen Dietz, the victim's wife, who is a strong woman but still allowing the event to shape her eight years on. There's Barry, their son, who was a child at the time but who hasn't had counselling and obviously needs it. There's the cop given the case who couldn't let it be. There's the former partner of the cop, who ends up involved throughout. There's Bittie, who owned the restaurant where it happened, and the staff and customers who were there at the time and saw it go down. There are the killers themselves, who live with their actions, even when they think they've been forgotten. In one of the best scenes, there's even the cousin of the killers, who feels ashamed to be related to them but can't find a way out of blood. The script leisurely works its way around to all of them and gets tighter and tighter as it does so.

When I watched Meg Foster in Welcome to Arrow Beach, I was struck by how the film started so promisingly but fell apart horribly halfway through. Here I found almost the opposite: a slow and simple story that seemed like nothing special gradually building into a real treat. By the time it got to the end, I found myself turning some of what had initially felt like weak moments into the strongest parts of the film. I'd noted the clumsy choreography of a couple of key scenes but later realised how the clumsiness highlighted how believably real they were. These characters aren't slick Hollywood stereotypes, they're fleshed out, flawed characters that do dumb things, and for a change I found that refreshing to consider while the credits rolled. I don't know how much of that really warrants praise to the cast and crew and how much is a mere reflection of the budget, which was not high, but it built into a notable success far more than I ever expected.

The greatest praise surely has to go to Stuart Kaminsky, who is both a bestselling novelist and a noted film fan, so much so that he set his Toby Peters mystery series in the Hollywood of the noir era and featured real actors like Cary Grant and Joan Crawford. He wrote over sixty novels but a mere pair of them fell outside his regular series. This is the second of that pair, so presumably a concept that he held close to his heart. It's not surprising, because it focuses on character, which a writer thrives on. The film feels like a novel too, which isn't a bad thing. The substance is there to draw us in as we realise that every character we meet has a story of their own and nobody is without a reason to be there. One realisation that especially surprised me is that, wherever the story takes us, the authorities are notably absent. After the hospital scene, it's all about civilians. Even Helen may not even be a cop any more. If she is, she's on vacation out of her jurisdiction.

While I felt dismissive for a while, this grew on me and it feels very much like a film to return to again and again to ponder. I'm really interested in how it would play on a second run through, as the gimmickry isn't important. Yes, there's a twist, though nothing much relies on it. It's all about those character studies, each and every one of them, and the mildly obscure cast do well, their mild obscurity helping a little. Frederic Forrest from The Rose, Apocalypse Now and Falling Down is the only other name I knew beyond Foster, but I've seen others without realising who they are. I liked Wally Taylor a lot as the restaurant owner and Dan Fitzgerald gives an excellent showing as the killers' cousin. Patrick Cherry is most obvious of all as Cal, the crippled killer. Frenchman Jean Bodon hadn't directed a feature before but made a subtle winner here. How much so, I'll tell you in a year or two when I watch it again. Maybe by then it'll be available on DVD. It should be.

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