Mediocre: In Defense of a Married Man

In Defense of a Married Man (1990)
Directed by Joel Oliansky
Written by Sasha Ferrer, Norman Morrill
Produced by Linda Otto, Alan Landsburg, Howard Lipstone
Starring Judith Light, Michael Ontkean, Jerry Orbach, Pat Corley, Nicholas Campbell, Johnny Galecki, Cynthia Sikes, Tony Rosato, Gema Zamprogna, Errol Slue, John Colicos, Patricia Hamilton, Bob Zidel, David Hemblen, Colin Fox
Under most conditions, an eminent attorney (Light) would risk recusal by defending her husband (Ontkean) in court against a charge of murder; as the deceased (Sikes) was his colleague and mistress, any objections from the prosecution (Campbell) regarding conflict of interest are at best untenable. Ferrer and Morrill fished for ratings by outrage and likely landed every middle-aged housewife who exclaimed, “Well, they should leave him in jail for a while, anyway,” after stomaching this courtroom drama’s first half-hour over thirty years ago, but its succulent story’s plotted and scripted well enough for any casual viewer’s enjoyment. Low-grade photography and editing are offset by credibly tense performances from a reliable cast (excepting rotund Corley as one of the arresting investigators, who seems to be impersonating William Hootkins’s corrupt detective from Burton’s Batman a year anterior). Light, Ontkean and Orbach were all contemporaneously or contiguously observable during prime time (on Who’s The Boss?, Twin Peaks and Law and Order, respectively). They’re cast in congruence, but anyone alert can deduce the dumped doxy’s mysterious murder…especially those who’ve seen Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Palatable: Rampage

Rampage (1987)
Directed by William Friedkin
Written by William P. Wood, William Friedkin
Produced by David Salven, William Friedkin
Starring Michael Biehn, Alex McArthur, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, Nicholas Campbell, John Harkins, Art LaFleur, Billy Greenbush, Grace Zabriskie, Royce D. Applegate, Roy London, Andy Romano, Donald Hotton
Four adults and a child fall to the mad appetites of a hematophagous murderer (McArthur), whose grisly atrocities prove judicially thorny when his prosecution’s assigned to an assistant district attorney (Biehn) doubly averse to capital punishment since his daughter’s demise. From a confirmation of legal insanity and permutations of temperament and opinion, this sober, unsettling thriller creepily ramifies to provoke moral and juridical questions submitted to both its fictional jury and audience’s informal panel. Largely restrained by Friedkin’s standards, his last quality feature showcases his typical tautly scrupulous style and proper ensemble at their very best: Biehn forcibly emanates as much tense indecision in silent close-ups as upright ire when grilling dubious expert witnesses (Harkins, London) on the stand; in gentle contrast, his grieving wife’s tenderly rendered by Van Valkenburgh; goggling Zabriskie’s surprisingly understated, typecast effectually as the defendant’s oblivious mother; vacillating from insouciant iniquity to vulnerable hypochondriasis to maniacal violence, McArthur’s feels more real than any of the dramatized representations of serial killers that glutted theaters in the ’90s and aughts, be they misadapted from Thomas Harris’s novels or contrived in their slipstream. Fortunately, this histrionic caliber compensates for both an unexplainable overuse of the main theme from Morricone’s memorably moving, minatory score that diverts the viewer from and suffocates the still dramatic tension of several scenes, and some daft dialogue verifying that Friedkin’s unfit as a sole screenwriter, such as an awkward equation between the NSDAP and McArthur’s bloodletter propounded by Biehn’s D.A. in court to comparatively exemplify the alleged sanity of both sanguine parties. Yeesh. Equally baffling is an unresolved, strangely foreshortened subplot involving the separation of Biehn’s and Van Valkenburgh’s couple. His faltering instincts spoiled this less than the veteran filmmaker’s next ten flicks, but it’s still reduced for its defects from a potentially exceptional fictionalization of an actual criminal case (that of outrageous “vampire killer” Richard Chase) to a mere curiosity. The bankruptcy of De Laurentiis’ DEG dashed plans for this picture’s North American distribution, and Friedkin recut its conclusion for a limited engagement courtesy of Miramax in ’92. Mirroring Chase’s fate, its original ending is more challenging for its refusal to interpret its tortured antagonist, and poignant for a suggestion that filial love might heal the most scathing trauma.