Criminal Passion (1994 DTV)

US / 97 minutes / color / Planet, DreamLogic, Trimark Dir: Donna Deitch Pr: Donald P. Borchers Scr: Max Strom, John Allen Nelson Cine: Joey Forsyte Cast: Joan Severance, Anthony John Denison, John Allen Nelson, David Labiosa, Wolfgang Bodison, Shannon Wilcox, Henry Darrow, Rachel Ticotin, Janet MacLachlan, Millie Slavin, Lynda Merritt, Kurt Bryant, Luana Anders, Sammy Shore, Shannon McLeod, Lou Felder.

“My friends call me crazy. I say I’m curious, curious to know what goes on in the dark in those places where most people would rather not go.”

So says Detective Melanie Hudson (Severance) in an interesting little movie that settles somewhere halfway between an erotic thriller and a neonoir; clearly it was intended to be, and probably was marketed as, the former, but the erotic element is surprisingly downplayed and the focus is on a quite neatly done mystery plot, with some pleasingly expert misdirection. I’ve seen more skin and sex in many a mainstream flick than there is here.

Rachel Ticotin as Tracy.

Melanie’s a cop with the LAPD, and a self-confessed oddball: she has definite trust issues, and admits that she’s at heart really a psycho killer even though she’s on the side of good and doesn’t kill people. She’s evidently had a relationship with colleague Nathan Leonard (Denison) but broken it off because, in essence, he bores her—and no wonder: either Denison has inherited the genes of a plank or he’s expertly portraying an extraordinarily tedious knucklehead.

Anthony John Denison as Nathan.

Nathan’s bud on the squad is the even more primordial Detective Mike Verutti (Labiosa). Their boss, Captain Ramoz (Darrow), is looking toward imminent retirement and obviously just wants the easy life.

The only person on the squad who’s particularly simpatico with Melanie is semi-closeted gay Detective Jordan Monroe (Bodison).

Wolfgang Bodison as Jordan.

There’s a serial killer at work, natch. This one has the m.o. of viciously lacerating his victims after sex. His latest victim is ballet dancer Isabella Sabatini (McLeod). The obvious suspect is architect Connor Ashcroft III (Nelson), Isabella’s most recent lover, who also happens to have been a lover of the previous victims. The only problem facing the cops is that Connor’s dad (Felder) is a “big-time Southern Republican” senator who’s prepared to use his political clout to shut down the entire investigation.

But, leaving that aside, is Connor really the killer? Could it be that his ex-girlfriend, sculptor Tracy Perry (Ticotin), clearly still obsessed over him, is knocking off each of her replacements? Or could the shrink hired years ago by Senator Ashcroft to get Connor through the PTSD of discovering his suicided mother, Joanne Pinder (Wilcox), have developed an unhealthy passion for him?

Allen Nelson as Connor.

Or, just possibly, could Melanie herself be the killer, motivated by jealousy? After all, she’s already told us she has the spirit of a psycho. And her supposed first encounter with Connor reads suspiciously like a reunion . . .

For the cops, it clearly complicates matters when Melanie beds Connor—or, more accurately, swimming pools him. It also buggers up the plot, because somehow we’re supposed to believe all the other cops involved wouldn’t promptly insist she recuse herself (so to speak) from the case. This development does, however, give the moviemakers the opportunity to display quite a lot of Severance and if anything—perhaps because, hurrah, there’s a female director—rather more of Nelson.

David Labiosa as Verutti.

There are some oddities.

A big issue is made of what a pain in the ass it is for the cops that the feds butt in to take over the case. Yes, fine: this trope is par for the course. Trouble is, that thread of the plot just peters out, as if the screenwriters forgot about it.

Another oddity: Two quite central supporting characters go unmentioned in the closing credits. According to the IMDB, Connor’s obsessive and uber-hot ex-girlfriend Tracy Perry is played by Rachel Ticotin (and a bit of GoodSearching confirms this), but I still have no idea who played Ray, the forensic scientist whose serological work plays an important part in the plot. Did they both wish to take the Alan Smithee option?

Henry Darrow as Ramoz.

Criminal Passion is marked by lots of nice little bits of moviemaking—direction, cinematography, lighting, sound editing—in amongst the decidedly mixed-bag acting and screenplay. Among several lovely pieces of technical work, I noticed

  • a moment, rendered so superbly that briefly hearing becomes our dominant sense input, rather than vision, when Melanie and Nathan are walking along a metal dock to try to find Connor at his workplace
  • a rooftop pan at whose end we think we’ve encountered someone pointing a gun at Nathan, only to realize we’ve gone a full 360 degrees and the guy with the gun is Nathan himself

Luana Anders and Sammy Shore offer great cameos in the movie’s opening minutes as Martha and Stan Goldman, the elderly neighbors who discover Isabella’s mutilated body.

Shannon Wilcox as Joanne.

As I say, there’s a lot that’s good about Criminal Passion. It does its level best to shake off the commercial imperatives without which, I’d guess, it’d never have found funding. As with so many of these 1990s direct-to-video movies sold as erotic thrillers, it reminds us that this genre, so often ignored, is a modern incarnation of what once was classic-era film noir.

Joan Severance as Melanie.

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