Spend enough time reviewing Lifetime movies, it’s inevitable you’re going to have to discuss Hitchcock. His troubling history of misogyny would be the obvious track to take, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my Very Special Journey, it’s that the obvious choice is seldom the correct one. Because of this week’s baffling film, the Canadian melodrama Killing Daddy, we have to discuss the basics of storytelling. Mostly because it’s clear the writers never did.
Hitchcock’s favorite thing in the world was fucking with people, mostly because he took the second syllable of his name literally. His favorite targets were his actors (especially poor Tippi Hedren), but that was in the service of mass dickery. He really wanted to mess with audiences. To that end, he employed the thriller scale, where on one end you have surprise and on the other suspense. The classic example is two characters sit down at a table that has a bomb under it and the characters have no idea. In the surprise scenario, the audience doesn’t know there’s bomb either and it just goes off. In the suspense scenario, the audience knows there’s a bomb and gets the deliciously tense sensation of watching it tick down to zero.
In prose, which one you go with tends to align with the format of what you’re writing. Short stories are almost required to have a twist ending, which necessitates surprise. The longer the format, from novella to novel and so on, the more you’re shifting toward suspense. Surprises are still welcome, but most book-length fiction leans on suspense.
Suspense, at least in the early days of the film industry, was considered to be the superior form of the two options. Hitchcock regarded surprise as somewhat cheap. After all, surprise is easy. Anyone can do it; at its lowest form, it’s jumping around a corner and shouting “Boo!” Suspense takes some skill to set up and even more to keep going. Prolonging suspense is basically cinematic edging. You’re getting almost all the way there until it’s unbearable. Also, Sting is there for some reason.
Then along came Shyamalan. I’ve gone on record that The Sixth Sense is a good movie, and I will defend Unbreakable as flawed but fascinating. The problem was, Shyamalan thought he’d hacked the human brain. In many off-putting interviews, he talked about how The Sixth Sense was some rosetta stone to entertainment, and what it taught him was that his entire movies should hinge on one big twist. Two problems. One, if you’re known for your twists, people know they’re coming, making them less twisty and more inevitable. It’s essentially become suspense in service to surprise, and none of that is for your story. Two, no one is actually watching your movie. They’re playing an imaginary chess game — or checkers, in the case of Signs and The Happening — against you, never letting themselves be immersed in the story.
The key for a writer is to know which one to use. Shyamalan fell in love with surprise and ended up a laughingstock. A super wealthy laughingstock who can basically work or not work as much as he wants. Yeesh. Well, no one went broke underestimating people’s intelligence.
The writer of Killing Daddy, Trent Haaga, is no M. Night Shyamalan. Man, I don’t even know who I’m insulting anymore. It would be tempting to claim that Lifetime’s overlit and underwritten Cinematic Universe isn’t equipped to build a movie on the back of a twist, but they totally did. The problem is that when the twist is telegraphed from the opening bell, it’s not much of a twist. Pretending it is just makes everyone look like an idiot. Then again, this entire movie seems designed for precisely that purpose.
About halfway through watching it, my wife wandered in and wanted to know who everyone was. I did my best to explain before realizing that this family unit is complex enough to belong in a Russian novel. Okay, there’s the titular Daddy (he has a name, but it literally could not matter less), who has recently been incapacitated by a stroke. He can understand language, but he’s paralyzed and can only make sad faces. He has two daughters by different mothers, the overachieving blonde businesswoman Laura, and the trainwreck runaway and possible part-time hooker Callie (short for Callista because fuck it why not). Dad lives with Emma, who in a confusing note, is the mother of neither young woman. She’s just the loyal assistant who Daddy is also banging.
Got it? There will be a test.
Callie is the main character, and she’s introduced as harboring a righteous anger at her father. Problem is, not enough is revealed to buy her story in the slightest. She blames Daddy for her mom’s suicide and for later having Callie committed to a mental institution. In real life, yeah, maybe Callie’s got something, but this is Lifetime. She vows to destroy the lives of not just Daddy, but Emma and Laura as well. So we’re supposed to buy her as a hero? Sorry, Lifetime, no. Especially not when she’s wearing heavy eye makeup and leather pants. That’s pop culture code for Sith Lord.
When she gets a tweaker ex to smother her dad with a vorpal pillow, her plan quickly goes awry. She ends up awesomely shooting the tweaker and burning his hotel room down, although sadly not to the strains of Evanescence. Eventually Emma (assisted by the family lawyer that Callie seduced and blackmailed) help convince Callie that she’s like, super fucking insane, and she should knock it off. She ends up in a mental institution and the final shot is of her grinning. Which… what’s the implication here? That she’s going to break out? That this is setting her up as the Joker of the Lifetime Cinematic Universe (hereafter called the LCU)? What’s going on here?
So what did we learn? Well, if you get committed there might just be a good reason. Also, tweakers do not make reliable employees, especially (and ironically) for criminal enterprises.