Chances are you had a friend just like mine. Once upon a time, he was a bit of a badass. Not the physical variety, but the intellectual kind. Always ready with an argument, opinion, or rant, and these weren’t the ersatz things that drip from my cakehole when I’ve had one too many, oh no, this shit was researched, footnoted, and probably published in Suburban White Rants Monthly. He invariably gravitated to harder entertainment than others too, probably just for the brownie points involved in dismissing one movie for one incomprehensibly insane and foreign. We were both horror fans, and he was always talking up the scariest, most violent, most outright bizarre of the genre.
And then he had a kid.
Now, he sucks. It’s been a variable slide down the hill into middle age. Certain aspects of his taste have been softened — or else merely revealed by a lack of sleep — while others have been dramatically blunted. This one time badass can no longer watch any movie, let alone horror, that involves a child in danger. If he sees a child in danger, he has to stop the movie and turn to the internet to make sure the kid gets out alive. Yeah. Digest that bullshit for a second. Oh, I know. “I’ll understand when I’m a father.” God, I hope not. Exhibit A: This week’s entry into Lifetime Theater, the 2002 horror Playdate. In the cold open, a young boy plummets to his death.
Although… wow. That was a little dark, right? In kind of a hilarious way, since Playdate is clearly their attempt to make a horror movie for stay-at-home moms (which puts a lie either to the “You’ll understand when you’re a father” nonsense or casts doubt on Lifetime’s greenlighting process. Frankly, I’ll believe either). The credits show at least a passing familiarity with slasher movies, both the grindhouse cinema of the mid-‘70s to the dark thrillers of the early ‘90s, as the names appear with a sting of buzzing feedback. It sounds like someone snapping photos of a horrifying crime scene in rural Texas, or assembling a crazy person’s journal to a Nine Inch Nails remix. Over this, there’s a reasonably arty chase through a wooded area, while the aforementioned boy (we find out later his name is Shawn Johnson, and no, not that one) flees from an unseen pursuer. The rest of the movie is about the identity of the shape coming after Shawn (who keeps calling to “Billy”).
Because this is one of Those Movies where the trailer guy should be snarling, “They were a perfect family,” we cut to the perfect family. Emily Valentine (Marguerite Moreau, who you remember as the one person from Wet Hot American Summer you don’t remember from anything else) is taking a leave of absence from her medical practice to spend some time with her family. Her husband Brian seems to be a stay-at-home dad to their daughter Olive, though he’s mostly just obsessed with fixing up a vintage muscle car. And like many single-income families living in one of the many far flung Los Angeles suburbs (it looks like Santa Clarita), they have a very large, characterless house.
Single mom Tamara (Abby Brammell, best known to me as the prostitute from The Shield who helps Aceveda with his… trauma) moves in next door with her two boys Billy and Titus. Yeah, Titus. That’s red flag number one. Both of the boys are serious creeps, and in a welcome bit of verisimilitude, Olive is instantly smitten with Billy. Billy’s favorite hobby is endangering Olive and imperiously informing her he saved her life. Someone’s read his Stephenie Meyer! He’s also covered in bruises, insensate to pain, and knows what nightshade is just by looking at it. He’s so obviously a serial killer I knew instantly he wasn’t one. Emily even finds a truly ridiculous amount of anti-psychotics at Tamara’s place, but assumes the T. Moor on the bottle stands for “Tamara.” Spoiler alert: it’s Titus, who spends much of his time staring ominously down from behind the blinds of his second-floor room.
Weird shit starts to pile up, from an unseen assailant pushing Olive off a slide and breaking her arm, to the family dog getting poisoned with Chekhov’s Nightshade, to this guy who shows up to demand his child and is later found hanged. Emily manages to connect the news of the strange man’s suicide with the disappearance of that same guy’s son two years earlier. She puts together that Titus is the one responsible moments too late to save her husband from being crushed under his muscle car. Fortunately for Brian, this is a Lifetime movie, and he survives, spending a little time in a photogenic coma. Tamara then kidnaps Olive while Emily has a showdown with Titus. Leaning heavily on the cliches of the genre, Emily (with some timely assistance from a police detective) disables the young psychopath. The movie ends with Brian coming home from the hospital to find his car all fixed up. Glad they tied up that loose end. I was worried about that car.
Horror movies are something with which I have a bit of a passing familiarity, so I’m especially unforgiving to toothless examples of the genre. There is no more lazy and half-assed horror than those that lean heavily on the fakeout jump scare. You know the one: the music swells, the protagonist peers in the dark, LOUD NOISE… oh, it’s just the cat. One or two are perfectly fine to set the audience on edge, but after that it starts getting a little tedious. By the third act, Playdate feels like Halloween for people too afraid to watch Halloween. It’s the Pat Boone cover of “Ain’t That a Shame,” taking something that would be threatening to a suburban white audience and watering it down to be palatable.
And yet, the film opens with an adult fear so primal it hopelessly defanged a friend of mine. Which leaves me baffled: who the fuck is this thing for? I wrote as recently as my last Lifetime Theater entry that the target audience is a known quantity in this corner of pop culture, and yet Playdate seems to buck that trend. What I’m left with is a colorless version of the serial-killer-next-door story chiefly interesting for answering the question, “Hey, whatever happened to the cute girl from Wet Hot American Summer? No, not Amy Poehler, the other one.”