The crappy psychological thriller has become something of a staple of television over the past couple of decades, poorly-plotted slasher soapies and simple-minded journeys into darkness becoming almost unavoidable as TV networks cash in on the fact that most people like to be scared, but only a little bit before supper. Donít go scaring us witless before bedtime, now, thatís just not polite - and anyway, it interferes with all the ads, and also means we have to rely on the intelligence of the viewing public. This will not do.
But how do we create a thriller thatíll inoffensively creep people out? Easy - just look back at the history of thriller cinema and give it the fast food treatment. Find the ingredients that the most people respond to and put them all into the one product, and then surely one thriller will fit everyone, right? Well, failing that, itíll always play well on Friday night telly.
Five years ago, Breathtaking might well have been made as a mini-series for British TV and eventually turned up in the Inspector Generic or Principal Suspicion timeslots that are a regular feature of Australian television. But instead, maybe following the lead of US entertainment networks like Showtime and (much earlier) CBS, British pay TV provider Sky has decided to get into the movie business; one of the results is a join-the-dots thriller with the immensely silly title Breathtaking (which, presumably, is meant to refer to the star of the show).
The story, such as it is, introduces us to psychiatrist Caroline Henshaw (Joanne Whalley, now happily de-Kilmerised), who lives the rather swanky life with her partner Richard but occasionally finds herself completely freaking out at inexplicable things. She knocks a vase off the table and then pulls a knife on the resulting debris whilst contorting her face into an expression thatís either pure fear or a reaction to the news that Jar-Jar Binks is a recurring character in the Star Wars saga; itís hard to tell which. From this, though, we know sheís Not Quite Right. When one of her patients, the put-upon Sandra Maitland (Lorraine Pilkington) insists on staying with her husband and stealing the occasional sports car despite the fact that he spends most evenings assaulting her verbally, physically and sexually, Caroline is more than just outraged - something in her snaps. Suddenly our demure and rather rich psychiatrist is carefully plotting and executing the perfect murder, which she may well get away with. But why is she doing it - could it be the ghosts of her past? Could it be that the psychiatrist is actually the one who needs psychiatric help? Could it be a result of the shock of smashing her favourite vase? Could it be the utter blandness of her partner? Or is there another agenda?
Thereís nothing in Breathtaking that hasnít been trodden through before in countless thrillers and novels, but thatís not especially unusual - the psychological revenge thriller is a fairly limited genre. Itís all about what you do with the cliches youíve got, and in this case the answer to that one is ďnot very much at allĒ. The script, by first-timer Nicky Cowan, is just plain awful, loaded with trite faux-seriousness and lines so bad that even the cast seem ashamed; for much of the time, everyone involved recites their lines as though theyíd rather be anywhere else but here. This leads to the suspicion that nobody here can actually act, but we know thatís not true - Joanne Whalley may not be winning any Oscars any time soon, but sheís capable of way better than this, and there are some other very experienced cast members here who seem to have switched off for the occasion as well. Visual cheesiness is rampant, from the oo-err-missus ďsexy stocking shotsĒ at the start (itís an ADULT thriller, folks!) to the horror-cliche hallway-dream sequences.
Still, at least the visual cliche-fest supports the plot. When Sandra Maitland decides to end it all with a drug overdose (the effect of the drugs represented by the camera shaking as though this were a scene from Earthquake) her next-door neighbour, somehow intuiting that sheís about to die, starts playing a really, really bad song on his guitar. She promptly throws up, cleverly saving her own life and making a valid critical point at the same time. The neighbour looks triumphant; he has obviously saved people this way before. When Sandra and her husband steal a red sports car, they start this high-tech machine in classic B-grade fashion - by grabbing two random wires under the steering wheel and shorting them. When WILL car manufacturers learn?
The major silliness, though, is reserved for Caroline, a medical professional who spends almost the entire running time wearing a ludicrous collection of out-there fashions. Aside from an obvious fondness for massive, sci-fi-style collars on her jackets (and weíre talking HUGE here; these collars make the entire wardrobe of Servalan from Blakeís 7 seem stylish by comparison) she also finds the opportunity to wear a fetching off-the-shoulder glamour number to her hospital day job, and a garish neon-coloured Ď60s outfit to another professional appointment. No wonder her patients seem saner than she is. Late in the movie, Caroline does some inexplicable sexual innuendo with her tongue and a massive cream bun. Weíre still not sure exactly why.
Itís an inauspicious return to the directorís chair after a long absence from David Green, who was last seen helming the Nicolas Cage action flick Fire Birds and the Phil Collins comedy Buster over a decade ago. Or maybe itís just that he and editor Kant Pan (heís not a cinematographer, because he kanít... oh, never mind) know theyíve got a turkey on their hands and just wanted to see it through to the dinner table. Regardless, unless this is the first psychological thriller youíve ever seen, youíd want to be recklessly undemanding to get anything much out of Breathtaking.