While watching a film, reading a book, or even listening to a podcast, two simultaneous stories exist in my head. The first is what I’m perceiving. The second is what I wish would happen. The best feeling in the world is when the first exceeds the quality of the second. The next best is when I think, “you know, in a better movie/book/podcast/interpretive dance X would happen,” and then it totally does. This happened while watching this week’s Lifetime Theater, the imaginatively named A Sister’s Nightmare (not to be confused with Lifetime’s A Daughter’s Nightmare, which IMDB was only too happy to recommend if you liked this one).
That’s not to say it’s a good movie. Oh no. I’ve only watched one Lifetime movie thus far that I’d actually hold up as good. Merely that even after as many of these things as I’ve watched, a Lifetime movie that felt like the product of filling in a Lifetime Madlib somehow had the capacity to… surprise is the wrong word. So is delight. How about please? This movie somehow had the capacity to please me. I realize this makes me sound like a Roman Emperor, loudly commanding Lifetime original programming to fight for my amusement, and I think I’m okay with this.
The Lifetime Madlib should be fairly obvious to anyone who’s still reading along with these. You start with a middle-aged female protagonist. She has a family, a distant or unhelpful mate, and possibly a job in law enforcement. She also has a (probably teenaged) daughter with whom she has a troubled relationship. Also, this daughter has some kind of medical or mental problem that will somehow figure into the finale.
Getting more specific, a woman on the outside of the nuclear family arrangement, one who is usually younger and more attractive, will threaten the relatively stable family life using vaguely-defined vaginal superpowers. While the initial assumption is that our heroine is overreacting at best and crazy at worst, but by the final act everyone realizes that only her steely determination averted total disaster.
A Sister’s Nightmare attacked the Madlib with gusto. In retrospect, it was part of the director’s deep con, since this was clearly a movie for dedicated Lifetime fans. And yes, I’ve come to accept that I am one of these. Jane Rydert (Kelly Rutherford, who is best known to me as Dixie Cousins from the late, lamented Brisco County, Jr.), is a cop in small town Washington. She’s getting married to Phil (Matthew Settle, who I will always know as badass Ronald Speirs from Band of Brothers), a diffident law student who mostly exists to wear sweaters and speak in low, nonthreatening tones. They’re raising teenaged Emily, Jane’s daughter with her now-deceased first husband, and who suffers from crippling aquaphobia. Which requires at least one actor to say “aquaphobia” without cracking a smile.
The monkeywrench arrives in the form of Jane’s older sister Cassidy (Natasha Henstridge) who has suddenly been released from the mental hospital where she has resided for fifteen years. With nowhere else to go, she moves in with Jane, Phil, and Emily. Jane is petrified of her sister, revealing in stories and fragmentary flashbacks Cassidy’s history with borderline personality disorder. Cassidy instantly shows an unhealthy obsession with Emily, and at the halfway point, the movie spills its (obvious) twist: Cassidy is Emily’s biological mother.
Jane reveals her origin story to Phil while he’s sort of mildly upset about the whole thing. Cassidy was an unfit mother who murdered her husband and nearly drowned Emily in the tub. Jane had to shoot her to save the baby. The story has some holes, but let’s be honest: in a Lifetime movie, I’m not expecting an airtight script. The movie was canny enough to use this knowledge against me.
For one thing, they set up Cassidy’s menace well. Her unexpected release is because of the sudden medical retirement of the head doctor at her hospital. We never actually see what’s happening, but anyone who’s ever seen a movie like this — and not even just a Lifetime version — is already assuming Cassidy is responsible via poison or blunt force trauma. Late in the second act, Cassidy gets it in her head to take Emily up to a lake to get over her fear of water, choosing one that the park guide is careful to point out has some treacherous currents. Then there’s Henstridge herself, playing the role with the reptilian menace that made her “the chick from Species” for so much of the ‘90s. Contrasted with Rutherford’s smooth voice and baby doll features, and we know who the bad guy is.
As the final half-hour unfolded, with an increasingly unhinged and suspended Jane stealing her partner’s gun and car to rescue Emily from a lakeside camping trip, I thought to myself, “You know, in a competent movie, Jane would be the crazy one.”
And what do you know? The story came entirely from Jane. Though we were shown it as flashbacks, which implies impartiality, it was the self-serving story of the real villain. So Jane was the monster who threw Cassidy into a mental hospital for fifteen years and had some kind of arrangement with the head doctor (I guess. It’s never stated.), while she stole Emily and raised her as her own.
This might sound like I’m praising A Sister’s Nightmare as a good movie. I’m not. Don’t make that mistake. It’s better than a lot of Lifetime movies out there, but it depends on a thorough knowledge of the network’s rules. I also ruined the twist, which is the best part about it. If you’re going to watch a Lifetime movie, you can do a lot worse.
So what did we learn? When unjustly committing your sister to a mental hospital, check on the head doctor’s health regularly, and try to come to an arrangement with his successor before the handoff. Alternately, if you’re living with your crazy sister who had you committed to a mental hospital, try not to act so evil. Maybe get some allies before kidnapping your/her daughter.