Chockablock with nods to Lynch and early De Palma, bleakly amusing thriller will appeal to specialty crowds, but is too arty and deliberately plotted to cross over as the next "Scream" machine. Strong reviews should assure latenight cult interest and bright ancillary afterlife for "Wicked."

Chockablock with nods to Lynch and early De Palma, bleakly amusing thriller will appeal to specialty crowds, but is too arty and deliberately plotted to cross over as the next “Scream” machine. Strong reviews should assure latenight cult interest and bright ancillary afterlife for “Wicked.”

Ellie Christianson (Julia Stiles), your not so typical 14 year old, wants to play house with her malleable, eager to appease dad (William R. Moses). She gets the chance when cheating mom (Chelsea Field) turns up dead, bludgeoned to death by one of several tract community suspects. Killer’s identity emerges, “Vertigo” style, midway through pic.

A smart change of pace for helmer Michael Steinberg, who co directed “The Waterdance” and soloed on “Bodies, Rest & Motion,” pic works best as suburban Gothic spin on “Lolita,” with father fixated Stiles drawing immediate suspicion for her willful behavior and inappropriate advances. When red stuff begins to flow and ersatz Bernard Herrmann music kicks in, we’re on familiar turf. Lineup of wackos and potential victims in the gated community, plus plenty of red herrings, complete the Hitchcockian equation.

Linda Hart is just right as a prissy neighborhood watchdog; Patrick Muldoon (“Starship Troopers”) is the dimwit womanizer next door; Michael Parks deadpans throughout as a Johnny on the spot homicide detective with eyes for Hart. Parks, ripe for a major comeback, works a crime scene the way Tom Jones works a Vegas lounge.

Of course pic rises or falls on strength of Stiles’ stand in mom. The young actress is more than up to the task, segueing from surly, troubled teen to garishly dolled up seductress, then back again. Her stranglehold on marshmallow Moses is completely convincing.

Ten year old Vanessa Zima is equally good as the little sister who starts out scared and incredulous, but slowly warms to the cat and mouse game. Swedish thesp Louise Myrback makes her screen debut as an au pair who has much to gain from a death in the family.

Equally important are Dominic Watkins’ production design and Bernd Heinl’s lensing. Tech credits give the brightly colored, high security Casa del Norte setting all the creepiness of the proverbial Old Dark House. Optical effects, to take us inside Stiles’ paranoid mind, and killer’s p.o.v. Steadicam are pluses. Mom’s assailant is glimpsed in glass shards on the floor; later, danger is signaled by a gurgling watercooler. Moments may not be up there with Hitch’s shower scene, but they’re still audacious and effective.

Eric Martinez’s score is loud and unnerving, and reminiscent of a half-dozen De Palma themes without feeling like a rip-off, and the end credit number, Jack Jones’ “Wives & Lovers,” strikes the right satiric chord.

Drawbacks include Eric Weiss’ formulaic script, which tips us to identity of the killer too soon, and Muldoon’s nitwit neighbor, who belongs in “Caddyshack 3″ or an “Evil Dead” sequel. Both detract from what is, for the most part, a stylish, dandy nail biter. Steinberg does a nice job of undermining our complacency toward gated, tract house “paradise.”

Wicked

(Thriller --- Color)

Production

A Frankenstein Entertainment production. Produced by Frank Beddor. Directed by Michael Steinberg. Screenplay, Eric Weiss.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Bernd Heinl; editor, Daniel Gross; music, Eric Martinez; music supervisor, Diane DeLouise Wessel; production design, Dominic Watkins; costume design, Sara Jane Slotnick; associate producer, Greg Steinberg; line producer, Jaime Beardsley; casting, Johanna Ray. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 17, 1998. Running time: 96 min.

With

Ellie Christianson - Julia Stiles Ben Christianson - William R. Moses Lawson Smith - Patrick Muldoon Inger Christianson - Vanessa Zima Detective Boland - Michael Parks Karen Christianson - Chelsea Field Lena, the au Pair- Louise Myrback Mrs. Potter - Linda Hart
Camera (Deluxe color), Bernd Heinl; editor, Daniel Gross; music, Eric Martinez; music supervisor, Diane DeLouise Wessel; production design, Dominic Watkins; costume design, Sara Jane Slotnick; associate producer, Greg Steinberg; line producer, Jaime Beardsley; casting, Johanna Ray. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 17, 1998. Running time: 96 min.
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