Friday 22 April 2016

Love's Deadly Triangle: The Texas Cadet Murder (1997)

Director: Richard A Colla
Writer: Steve Johnson, based on an article by Skip Hollandsworth
Stars: Holly Marie Combs, David Lipper, Cassidy Rae, Gary Grubbs, Kurt Fuller, Joanna Garcia, Joanna Canton and Dee Wallace Stone
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
I know we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers, but this TV movie seems determined to set us against it. It has an unwieldy title, dating back to before such things became oddly popular (thank you for that, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life); the producers wisely renamed it to Swearing Allegiance for its DVD release. It also begins with what could well be the most boring title sequence in movie history. Mildly creepy piano music plays as we watch the names of the cast and crew appear slowly in white text on a gradated blue background. That's the movie for almost two minutes! Perhaps the producers wanted to ensure that everyone watching on NBC in December 1997 made it back from the bathroom in time for the film to start, but I’d have thought that unnecessary, as the murder it explores was a hot story at the time and this docudrama version didn’t merely recount it, based on a confession no less, but also turned into a new story in the process because of its choice of timing.

Here’s the chronology. Diane Zamora and David Graham began dating in August 1995, while high school students. She attended Crowley High and he Mansfield High, each named for the neighbouring towns in Texas in which they can be found. It was apparently a lightning romance, as the couple announced their engagement in September, planning to marry after graduating college. However it was also problematic, as Graham confessed to infidelity around 1st December, with Adrianne ‘AJ’ Jones, a fellow runner on the Mansfield High track team. On 4th December, Jones was murdered on a remote road near Grand Prairie, northeast of Mansfield. Zamora and Graham were arrested in September 1996; both were now cadets at US military academies, she at the Naval Academy and he at the Air Force. Zamora was tried in February 1998, Graham separately in July 1998; each was quickly found guilty of capital murder and awarded life sentences. As I write, in February 2016, both are still behind bars.
So, the murder was in 1995, the arrests were in 1996 and the trials in 1998. We might expect that a TV movie aiming to explore this true crime would follow on, perhaps being written in 1998 and shot in 1999 for a 2000 air date. Well, not in this instance; this particular TV movie pre-dates both trials. How can that be, you ask. This parallel chronology begins when Lindy DeKoven, a senior vice-president for movies at NBC, saw the case reported on the Today show soon after the arrests. She called Steve White, who used the internet to assemble information from news reports which he then fed to Steve Johnson, who turned them into a script, his first draught being completed by October 1996, only a month after the arrests. It was rushed through production for an initial screening in February 1997, one of the four sweeps months for American television in which Nielsen TV ratings are compiled. It ran into legal difficulties, one lawyer asking for a temporary restraining order to block its broadcast. It was eventually screened in December.

It’s not hard to understand why and, in fact, protests didn’t just come from the legal defence teams; the parents of the victim also protested. The strongest objections were legal ones though, suggesting that a prominent TV movie speculating on a case that hadn’t even reached trial yet would be likely to prejudice jurors. Sure, Graham quickly confessed his crimes and his confession was printed in The Dallas Morning News, so there wasn’t much doubt in anyone’s minds about what went down, but innocent people have confessed before and airtight cases have been known to fall apart in court. NBC did succeed in quoting precedent and got this film on the air two months before Zamora’s trial and seven before Graham’s, but it would have been awkward for them if something new had come to light to change everything. Clearly they were willing to sensationalise the case because the film’s title is completely irrelevant; while both Zamora and Graham were cadets when they were arrested, neither was when the murder took place.
At least the film has something going for it beyond its reason for existing and the opportunities it gave to Dee Wallace in particular underline why she chose it as her first pick for my Make It a Double project. She has a surprisingly small supporting role here, as indeed she does in her second pick, the otherwise very different >Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard, but it’s a strong one that allows her to exercise her ability to show emotion on screen a lot more than in the standard mom roles in which she was typecast after ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. She’s a mom here too, but of Adrianne Jones, the murder victim, and that allows her to emote a lot more than in something like Critters, for instance. As I mentioned, though, it’s a small part so we don’t even see her for 24 minutes. Before then, we’re introduced to everyone else, none of whom were familiar to me, though Holly Marie Combs and Cassidy Rae are well known for American TV shows. I’ve only seen David Lipper in Bug Buster, hardly the greatest title to have on your resume.

We begin, of course, with the actual murder, which happens at night in the middle of nowhere. We see a couple in a car; she thinks they’re going to neck just like all American teenagers do in TV movies but he has other plans. She gets out, but he stalks her. She makes it over a fence but he goes back to get a gun from the car and he shoots her dead. There’s someone else sitting up in the back seat too, from a hiding place on the boards. We don’t see any of them well and off the car drives, leaving a corpse in a field. It’s certainly a lot more enticing for viewers than the first line we hear. ‘Diane’s beautiful eyes always played the strings of my heart effortlessly,’ narrates David while he types it into a word processor, presumably confessing to the cops in inappropriately florid fashion. We skip over to Diane next, as she flounces into a school corridor talking about him. ‘He’d do anything in the world for me,’ she tells a friend. Twice. Given what we’ve just seen, of course, these two brief scenes are complete giveaways.
They’re a cutesy couple in the annoying way that teens in love tend to be. They even have their very own code so that they can say ‘I love you’ without anyone else knowing: ‘Greenish brown female sheep’. Olive ewe, get it? The catch is that there’s obviously a catch. They’re choosing wedding rings together, but she doesn’t want to give up her virginity (though she does without much argument) and he’s horny enough to do the cute blonde from his track team in a side street, the one Diane was jealous about when she served them at the drivethru. It’s easy to see why, of course. AJ seems like a nice young girl who’s willing to take off her kit without even requiring a date first; she does explain that she won’t be with anyone who’s going steady, but only after the fact which is pretty dumb. Diane, on the other hand, is a creepy little thing who defines her life in terms of her fiancĂ©e. ‘I’m either going to die Mrs David Graham or Miss Diane Zamora,’ she tells her mum and she goes into hysterics when David, who can’t keep a secret, comes clean.

And now we get down to business. After an hour of meltdown, Diane calms down to proclaim that ‘She’ll have to suffer the consequences. She will have to die.’ Oh yeah, she’s really out there, and David is such a 24 carat wuss that he’ll let her do whatever she wants. Because, you know, ‘Once she’s gone we can go on as before.’ Oh joy. At this point I was torn between whether Holly Marie Combs was really good in this role or really bad. On the one hand, she sells the story well, believable as a girl who is quite willing to kill someone just because her guy cheated with her but still go to school in the meantime like everything was right with the world. On the other hand, she looked her 22 years so was a little too old for us to really buy into her being a high school student and she’s so obsessive and possessive with David that, even without a backbone, we wonder why he stuck with her. AJ was clearly his best option and Cassidy Rae plays that up without being pushy. David Lipper is the weak link as I don’t buy into him being such a pushover.
After the first commercial break, we skip forward to the aftermath of that opening scene and we’re off and running. We know whodunit, of course, so we mostly settle back and wonder whether the cops will figure it out before David caves. That’s not much drama to hinge this on, I admit, but that’s all we have. Diane’s like a rock, so confident that we’d believe her passing a polygraph test. David, on the hand, looks like he might confess to murdering Jimmy Hoffa if someone even looked at him cross-eyed. Fortunately, we have some experienced actors in the cast and we’re almost distracted by some serious acting at this point. As Linda Jones, Dee Wallace breaks apart astoundingly well to the news of her daughter’s death with a teary intensity that I can only imagine gave her a serious headache afterwards. Det Carl Baker has the temerity to look awkward here, given how brutally he told her. His colleague, Det Tom Green, does likewise, and I appreciated how Gary Grubbs and Kurt Fuller underplayed their roles here to give Wallace the limelight.

In fact, Wallace is so powerful in this scene that it remains with us through the routine investigation that follows. Sure, Bryan McMillan seems like a perfect suspect, given that he was obsessed with AJ, is unable to recall whether he rang her because of a combination of alcohol and pills and even answers rhetorical questions from the cops like, ‘If you did kill her, where would you have left the body?’ So the real killers move onward and upward, even though they’re dumb enough to go to the funeral and walk out halfway, while arguing about not proving anything. ‘That young man is a recruiting poster,’ Baker tells Green, as they look through the files again. In fact, as solid as both Grubbs and Fuller are in their roles as cops, it’s Dee Wallace who elevates the film with each successive appearance, even if there aren’t many. She gets a good scene where she comes into the station to ask what’s happening in the case and an even better one to wrap up the film, crying but attempting to compose herself by the memorial tree planted for AJ.
So this is a decent but routine TV movie that half sets up a mystery but then promptly spoils it by making it very clear whodunit. It gets by because of an uncluttered script that keeps on moving, a decent pair of performances from the leads and some capable support from some recognisable faces, both Grubbs and Fuller quintessential actors who you’ve seen before but can’t quite remember what from. At the time, the tie to an imminent court case was surely its biggest selling point, but that fades with the years to such a degree that we wonder who would really seek out the film today. Well, the answer to that resides in Dee Wallace’s performance, because I’m utterly unsurprised that it came quickly to her mind when picking a pair of films of hers for me to review. I’ve seen her in a lot of movies but I’ve never seen her so powerful as she is here. She did suggest that it was an important film historically, but I’d recommend it a lot more for the work she does in it than how it supported the freedom of the press.

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