Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – A Prayer in the Dark (1997)

My notes on A Prayer in the Dark (1997)

Continuing my look at films adapted from novels by Stanley Ellin … based on Ellin’s 1974 suspense novel Stronghold, this has been easy to overlook thanks to its uninspiring, could-mean-anything title, which replaces the multiple meanings of the original with something that could go equally on a Hallmark card or a Hallmark movie.  It’s also one of numberless TV movies crafted as vehicles for mature female stars who had hit TV series decades earlier, with ex-Wonder Woman Lynda Carter as a Quaker bank manager put in a tough spot when a bad seed she once took into her family returns with a couple of goons to pull off a four million dollar robbery.

Set in upstate New York but made in Canada, it was directed by Jerry Ciccoritti – who made the interesting, fetish-friendly Graveyard Shift vampire movies in the 1980s (and, showing admirable loyalty, gives acting gigs to several of the players in those films – Silvio Oliviero, Lesley Kelly, Soo Garay).  The script by Andrew Laskos sticks close to the novel, though the production is slightly more interested in soap than suspense as it turns out ex-con/killer/robber Jimmy Flood (Colin Ferguson) is targeting Emily Hayworth (Carter) and her family not because of the money but because he’s still hung up on Emily’s restless daughter Janet (Teri Polo).  On one hand, the film tries to work up some sympathy for poor kid Jimmy, but he’s also planning on double-crossing and even killing his back-up crew Lester (Oliviero) and Digby (Philip Jarrett) to get away with the cash and the girl – and Ferguson gives an all-gurning performance which reduces the villain to a cartoon.

Carter, however, is excellent and this wins points for not stereotyping its Quakers while admitting that too much piety can be hard to take.  In Richard Fleischer’s Violent Saturday, Ernest Borgnine plays a stern-bearded Quaker caught up in a bank robbery – and he abandons his non-violent principles to stick a pitchfork in a hoodlum.  In his novel, Ellin didn’t take that easy out – and the most effective stretches of the film find Emily and her ‘meeting’ group debating and then putting into action non-violent means of resolving the situation without just giving in to the crooks.  Early on, the crooks talk about Bogart in The Desperate Hours and a key scene finds Lester watching Shane on television – though they’d have done better to take a look at Cash on Demand since their heist scheme is so unworkable that even characters in the film have to admit it.  Ciccoritti, who’s done a ton of TV movies and episodes, corrals disparate elements – home invasion, moral quandary, family drama, shoot-out action – and makes the whole thing play – but the book would benefit from a remounting as a less soft-focus feature.


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