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Whispers in the Dark (1992)

John G. Nettles

What emerges here is a painfully generic potboiler briefly masquerading as softcore porn.

Whispers in the Dark

Director: Christopher Crowe
Cast: Annabella Sciorra, Jamey Sheridan, Anthony LaPaglia, Jill Clayburgh, John Leguizamo, Deborah Unger, Anthony Heald, Alan Alda
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Paramount
First date: 1992
US DVD Release Date: 2004-09-07

There's a Steven Wright joke that goes, "I came home the other day and found that everything in my house had been stolen and replaced with an exact replica." This line is an apt description of the cast of 1992's Whispers in the Dark, composed of otherwise excellent actors playing so to type that they resemble other people impersonating them. Kind of like if Jack Nicholson walked through a movie pulling his hairline back and saying nothing but "Wait'll they get a load of me" over and over.

Here is Annabella Sciorra, fresh off The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, playing A Woman in Jeopardy, John Leguizamo playing A Brittle Violent Guy, Alan Alda hauling out his usual Older Sensitive Guy, Anthony LaPaglia as An Edgy Cop, and Anthony Heald as Smarmy Dickhead #376. The exception is Jamey Sheridan, who plays Bill Pullman.

And one really wants these people to put more of an effort into this movie, because writer-director Christopher Crowe has his hands too full trying to make his erotic thriller erotic and/or thrilling to breathe life into his actors. The resulting film is workmanlike at best and has the fishy reek of a trawler net full of red herrings.

Sciorra is Ann Hecker, a Manhattan psychiatrist with a jerk boyfriend (Heald) who's just walked out on her, a problem with recurring out-of-focus wet dreams, and a $300-an-hour practice on Fifth Avenue, despite the fact that she doesn't seem to be very good at it, unable to maintain any sort of professional detachment from her patients. One patient in particular disturbs her, a woman named Eve (Deborah Unger, delivering the best performance in the movie) who is in an obsessive relationship with a mysterious man who likes to tie her up to things and initiate extreme danger-play with a noose, which Crowe illustrates with lovingly arty montages. Sensing Ann's arousal at these stories, Eve plays them up, getting off on her ability to manipulate her therapist.

Between the dreams and the erotolalia, Ann is hot and bothered at being so, well, hot and bothered, and seeks the help of her friend and former mentor Leo Green (Alda). Rather than berating her for coming to him with a Freudian problem that a Psych 101 student could figure out, he agrees to work with her. At the same time, she takes up with Doug (Sheridan), a ruggedly handsome pilot she meets in her building, and suddenly Ann's problems are all solved. It turns out all she needed was a good man with no depth whatsoever.

Or not. Eve's stories are still nagging at Ann, and she goes to Eve's regular rendezvous spot to catch a glimpse of the mysterious stranger with all that rope (at this point the idea of Ann being competent enough to command $300 an hour is as absurd as call-girl Barbra Streisand making that much in Nuts), only to find Eve canoodling with Doug. Eve finds out about Doug's philandering as well and publicly threatens Doug and Ann. Shortly thereafter Eve is dead, bludgeoned and left hanging by the neck in her apartment, and Ann must ask herself if Doug, the relentlessly white-bread man of her dreams, is actually a psychotic perv.

Enter Detective Larry Morganstern, a cop-who-pays-by-his-own-rules who suspects Doug of the murder but also badgers Ann to break doctor-patient confidentiality, both in her sessions with Eve and with artist John Castillo (Leguizamo), an ex-convict with a bondage bug of his own who also knows Eve. Whom can Ann trust? Will she be the next victim?

And why are there no more sexy montages after the first act? Crowe overloads the first half of his film by dwelling on Eve's fetishes and their effect on Ann, implying a clear (if ham-handed) attempt at some kind of psychological subtext that disappears as soon as Eve is murdered and the film degenerates into strict movie-of-the-week damsel-in-distress territory. Not that this film should be 9 1/2 Weeks, but Crowe makes a big deal about opening the kinky-sex door and then slams it shut and forgets about it. Either it's germane to the film or it's not, and it's a bad sign for your movie when the gratuitous sex isn't gratuitous enough.

Which leaves us with the "thriller," a second and third act composed primarily of stale bits reminiscent of old cop shows, wherein people can be led into traps by calling them on the phone and New York apartments are the easiest places to break into, where confidential file drawers are conveniently unlocked and damning pieces of evidence are left lying around in plain sight. Or perhaps this is a clever trick on Crowe's part to lull the viewer. I must admit that when the murderer was revealed, I didn't see it coming -- because I'd discounted it as too obvious even for this flick.

What Whispers in the Dark represents is an opportunity tragically wasted, a film that could have been about the dark places in the psyche, with a superb cast in the roles -- psychiatrists, detective, artist -- of explorers of the soul. What emerges here is a painfully generic potboiler briefly masquerading as softcore porn.

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