Beyond Suspicion (1993 TVM)

vt Appointment for a Killing
US / 92 minutes / color / Frank & Bob Films, Patricia K. Meyer, von Zerneck–Sertner, NBC Dir: William A. Graham Pr: Randy Sutter Scr: Karen Clark Story: Appointment for Murder: The Story of the Killing Dentist (1988) by Susan Crain Bakos Cine: Denis Lewiston Cast: Markie Post, Corbin Bernsen, Don Swayze, Jeanne Cooper, Laurie O’Brien, Suzanne Barnes, Danielle von Zerneck, Matthew Best, Kelsey Grammer, John Putch, Melissa Pace, Janet Graham, Geoff Hansen, Anna Maria Sistare, Harry Murphy, Marjorie Hilton, Donré Sampson, Michele Wilson

This movie is sometimes confused with “classic” horror outing The Dentist (1996) dir Brian Yuzna, probably because in both of them Corbin Bernsen plays a psychopathic dentist. Of course, if you really want to view a classic screen psycho dentist you should look no further than John Shaner’s Dr. Phoebius Farb in the Roger Corman movie The Little Shop of Horrors (1960).

But back to Beyond Suspicion:

Successful family dentist Dr. Stan Benderman (Bernsen), widely admired in the community for his willingness to do pro bono work for the poor, is in fact a sex-crazed serial killer. His standard m.o. is to seduce an attractive young woman—typically one of his dental assistants—and then persuade her to marry some schmo and take out a big insurance policy on him. Then Stan murders the poor sap and the two schemers split the insurance money.

Markie Post as Joyce

Corbin Bernsen as Stan

The first such crime we witness is a more elaborate one. Stan’s seemingly long-term mistress Gloria (Barnes) has just married a sucker, Brad Shaw (Hansen), who has wealthy parents (Murphy and Hilton, I think; the movie’s credits aren’t helpful here). With accomplice Duke Curran (Swayze)—an ex-con whom Stan is “philanthropically helping”—Stan murders the parents; the cops assume it’s a burglary gone wrong. After enough time has elapsed for the heat to die down and Brad to inherit, Stan and Duke off Brad.

Don Swayze as Duke

Suzanne Barnes as Gloria

Stan’s wife, Joyce (Post), is aware of his reputation for philandering but only when she catches him in flagrante does she walk out, taking son Christopher (Best) with her. Stan tries to woo her back but, becoming suspicious that he might be a killer, she contacts the cops. Soon she’s working with Ron McNally (Grammer) of the ATF, allowing McNally’s team to bug her house so she can trick Stan into incriminating himself. But if Stan should ever catch on . . .

This is a surprisingly interesting TV movie. Its plot might seem a tad ramshackle on first viewing, but this is because it’s in fact based quite closely on real events. The real murderer who provided inspiration for the character of Stan Benderman was Dr. Glennon “Glenn” Engleman, a dentist convicted in 1980 of a string of murders and suspected of others; he died in jail of diabetes in 1999.

Matthew West as Christopher

Kelsey Grammer as McNally

You can find quite a lot more about Engleman’s murderous career here, although the site links him (incorrectly) to The Dentist rather than to the more obscure Beyond Suspicion. The current movie acknowledges as its source a nonfiction book about Engleman, Susan Crain Bakos’s Appointment for Murder: The Story of the Killing Dentist (1988).

Markie Post and Corbin Bernsen are fine as the two main players, and they’re given some good support by the likes of Janet Graham as Stan’s dental assistant Silvia, Laurie O’Brien as Joyce’s mysteriously unnamed best friend, John Putch as ATF cop Lipsky, Don Swayze (looking alarmingly like older brother Patrick) as Duke, Jeanne Cooper as Stan’s Tarot-reading psychic mom Renata, and Suzanne Barnes as Gloria. Donré Sampson has a pleasing cameo as Turner Isaacs, a felon who muddies the water by making a false confession to Brad Shaw’s murder. Kelsey Grammer is a bit flat as the main cop, and a couple of the other supporting cast are best quickly forgotten.

Laurie O’Brien as Joyce’s (unnamed) best friend

Janet Graham as Sylvia

Direction and cinematography are nothing special, and the music (by Chris Boardman) is much as you’d expect. In those respects Beyond Suspicion is a perfectly competent but in no way exceptional outing.

What pulled the movie out of the crowd to me, however, was Karen Clark’s screenplay. Bearing in mind the constraint of having to conform to real-life events, this is very neatly put together, and toward the end it becomes of some interest as it tries to dig into the mind of Stan Benderman (and, by extension, that of Glenn Engleman). To say that Stan gets turned on by killing would be true, but a gross (and misleading) oversimplification: so far as we’re given to understand, he has no sexual interest in his victims. It’s more that, for him, killing is both a complement to and a substitute for sex.

Jeanne Cooper as Renata

This becomes plain as Joyce is trying to entrap him and he reminisces about a dental assistant he once “helped”: Marcia (or Marsha). In the usual way, he found a husband for Marcia then knocked off the husband for the insurance money.

To Joyce he claims (we assume falsely) that he was never sexually intimate with Marcia: they did share intimacy, but it was what he calls homicidal intimacy.

“When you’ve been keeping a secret to yourself for weeks and months and you finally get back together with your partner . . . shee, there is such an outpouring, such a . . . release. That’s what I had with Marcia. It’s the ultimate intimacy.”

And, obviously, for him it’s the ultimate turn-on. Serial killers are for obvious reasons generally loners, but Engleman, the fictional Stan’s template, operated with a series of ad hoc accomplices who were also his sexual partners. The screenplay’s attempt to provide a psychological rationale for this pattern of behavior—perhaps following the lead of Bakos’s book?—is I think to be lauded.

Donré Sampson as Turner Isaacs

Beyond Suspicion (1993) is not to be confused with a different TV movie of minor noirish interest, Beyond Suspicion (1994); I have the latter on the list for future coverage.

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