Wednesday, March 23, 2016

China Lake Murders, The (1990)

... aka: Killing Cop
... aka: Krimi a Sárga tónál (Crime in Yellow Lake)
... aka: Sale journée pour un flic (Bad Day for a Cop)
... aka: Un asesino en la carretera (A Murderer on the Road)
... aka: Una vacanza a rischio (A Dangerous Holiday)

Directed by:
Alan Metzger

In 1983, Robert Harmon made the short CHINA LAKE, which revolved around an unstable big city police officer played by Charles Napier who eases work-related stress by going to the desert and using his badge and uniform to ensnare and then terrorize (sometimes kill) motorists. The film helped the director land THE HITCHER (1986) a few years later, which remains the film he's best known for today. The China Lake Murders (which was made for cable TV and debuted on the USA Network) is basically the same exact story with the same exact primary character using many of the same exact shots with much of the same exact events and dialogue, only stretched out to feature length. Some call it a remake, some call it a sequel and it's sort-of both because it recaps all of the original yet expands upon it. Either way, it's clearly based on Harmon's film (and original script) and yet the director's name is nowhere to be seen in this film's credits. The screenplay is credited only to N.D. Schreiner. The link between these two productions is Beth Tate, the co-story writer and co-producer of the original short, who also is credited as co-producer on this version.

Things begin with a scene-by-scene recap of the short, with many of the exact same scenes. It's made obvious right from the beginning that the director watched Harmon's film before making this one because a lot of the shots are even identical. Starting at a police station meeting, we're informed that Officer Donnelly (Michael Parks) is away on vacation at China Lake, a place he visits every single year at around the same time. We next see him driving his bike down in the desert dressed in full uniform. He pulls over Lynn Harrelson (Lara Parker), accuses her of being drunk, makes her do a sobriety test, gets her to turn away from him, then grabs her and stuffs her inside her trunk; leaving her there to die. Next, he's off to a gas station where he changes into regular clothes. In this version, with just a few alterations he can easily turn his police bike into a regular motorcycle. Since the short didn't have a hero, we get one here in the form of compassionate new-sheriff-in-town Sam Brodie (Tom Skerritt), who's on the case once Lynn's husband (Tom Dahlgren) shows up to report her missing.

Next we're treated to the same diner scene from the short, where Donnelly chats with lonely waitress Kitty (Lauren Tewes, from The Love Boat) and has a violent fantasy of burning an obnoxious customer's (Jack Kehler) hand on a grill. He even sees the “Cement Workers Stay Hard Forever” (nyuck nyuck!) bumper sticker as he leaves. The only real difference is that the tongue burning bit has been left out. Naturally, Donnelly will later cross paths with the cement worker in the final scene recycled from the short. Before that happens, Donnelly goes to a bar, plays Pac Man and gets drunk. He steps outside to take a piss on the side of the building and is arrested by Deputy Bobby Wade (Doug Mears) for public indecency. The next day, Sheriff Sam lets Donnelly go with a slap on the wrist on the provision that he leave town. When the visiting officer's bike won't start, the two end up sharing a beer and stories back at Sam's place and then Donnelly, well, he just won't go away.

Sam, a divorced single dad, is sleeping with his secretary Cindy. She's played by athletic blonde Nancy Everhard (previously seen in DeepStar Six and Deathstone), who's 25 years Skerritt's junior. I guess that's a bit more believable than Drew Barrymore, who was 40 years (!) younger than Skerritt in Poison Ivy a few years later, though Barrymore's character at least had a motive to sleep with him! As Sam and Cindy start working on getting the old police files transferred over to computer, they notice a pattern. There have been 14 disappearances and murders in the area over the past five years and they've all happened at around the same time of year... the same time Donnelly has been vacationing in the area. For some reason, Sheriff Sam fails to link the two together and instead befriends Donnelly, gives him access to his home for use whenever he needs it and even allows him to come along on official police business. It isn't until several murders later and seeing Donnelly act like a blatant psycho that our hero finally catches on.

Not a bad little expansion on the short. While the original has better direction and camerawork and is nicer aesthetically and at capturing the beauty and desolation of the desert locations, this has its own merits. We knew little about the killer in the short, which worked for it, but the expansion on the character here to make him a little less one-dimensional also works. Parks takes a different approach to the role yet is equally as effective as Napier, plus the longer script gives him more to work with. The interplay between Skerritt and Parks adds some additional interest and the rest of the performances are fine. Like the original, this is lacking in suspense and there's next to no psychological component at work in its depiction of a cop off his rocker. Also in the cast are Bill McKinney (Deliverance), Lonny Chapman and J.C. Quinn.

After working for years as a cinematographer, the remainder of director Metzger's career has been almost entirely TV shows and made-for-TV movies. William Beaudine Jr. (son of the incredibly prolific B film director of the same name) was a producer and the unit production manager. There were several VHS releases for this one; first from MCA / Universal and then from GoodTimes, and it continues to pop up on TV from time to time.

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