Sam and I got to talking about the web traffic at B&S About Movies and we’re astounded by the hits—over 6,300—and not a day passes without at least one hit—for J. David Miles’s disturbing, 2013 true crime documentary Goodnight, Sugar Babe: The Killing of Vera Joe Reigle (Caveat: It’s Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses . . . in real life.)
Now we tell you this, not to brag, but to bring attention to J. David Miles’s feature film debut as a screenwriter: Dead Silence. No, not the 1997 made-for-HBO thriller starring James Garner (TV’s The Rockford Files) and Marlee Matlin. No, not the 2007 James Wan’s supernatural puppet romp, either. The Dead Silence we’re reviewing comes from the days of the Estevez-Sheen acting dynasty, when not only Emilo and Charlie perpetually appeared on our TV and theatre screens, but their sister, Renée, got the big push to stardom (she’s since retired from the business after a seven-year run on NBC-TV’s The West Wing).
It was that acting-dynasty connection that quickly moved Renée through the ranks from her supporting roles on TV’s Growing Pains (1987), Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers, Heathers, and Moon 44 (she’s one of the mining executives alongside Roscoe Lee Brown; you’ll notice her) to booking her first leading-lady role as “Zanna Young” in Dead Silence.
In a plot that recalls 1997’s later-more popular I Know What You Did Last Summer (itself derived from the superior 1965 William Castle chiller I Saw What You Did), Zanna, Joan, and Sunnie (Renée Estevez, Lisanne Falk, Carrie Mitchum) are college seniors on the cusp of graduation. And their holiday turns to horror when they hit-and-run a lonely hitchhiker in the desert during a spring break vaycay in Palm Springs—and they decide to keep the accident a secret.
Miles’s script has a nice meta-noir prologue and epilog touch (before meta-film became cinema-vogue; see our reviews for Greenlight and For Jennifer) with Sunnie as a broadcasting major who’s scored a Palm Springs TV newscaster gig* and is finishing her thesis project: a documentary about the trio’s friendship-college years in their rental home dubbed “The Pink House.”
The ubiquitous night of drinking at their hotel leads to a cute guy inviting them to a desert party—and they accept, as all devil-may-care, bad boy-seeking rich college girls do. As Sunnie loses sight of the cute boy’s car and they’re lost on a desert road, she strikes a roadside hitchhiker.
Initially, they move the “homeless man” to the roadside and agree they’ll call the police. But as Zanna points out: Sunnie already has one DUI on her license and, with alcohol on her breath, she’ll be charged with murder—and goodbye newscaster job. Zanna, the law school-bound ringleader of the deception, starts her career off right: she runs their crime through a car wash. Then, when Zanna and Joan take the car to have the windshield replaced, Zanna cleverly pays cash—then five-fingers the garage’s paperwork. Oh, and Joan’s credit card is missing: she returns to the scene of the crime to find it—and a deputy-on-patrol shows up. Later, the deputy finds the card in the desert sands, while a further investigation uncovers a university logo water bottle.
And who’s sent to cover a breaking news story about the body of a man found in the desert: the-first-day-on-her-job Sunnie. Then Joan cracks under pressure and drowns herself in the hotel’s pool. And the ever cold-and-calculating Zanna decides that’s the “out” for her and Sunnie. Ah, but in the finest film-noir fashion: Zanna, whose nefarious legalese created this mess in the first place, makes a deal in exchange for immunity—and hangs Sunnie out-to-dry in the arid desert sands.
While we’re on the subject of acting-dynasties: Renée’s co-star, Carrie Mitchum, is the granddaughter of Robert Mitchum (Night of the Hunter, Thunder Road) and, oh, and she was married to the ever-reliable direct-to-video star Casper Van Dien (she’s since retired from the industry after a fourteen year run on daytime TV’s The Bold and the Beautiful). Uncle James starred in The Dukes of Hazzard precursor Moonrunners, while her dad, Chris, starred in Aftershock, The Serpent Warriors, and SFX Retaliator.
Ah, you got bamboozled, too: I also assumed that fellow leading lady Lisanne Falk would be related to Peter “Columbo” Falk: nope. But for you classic rock dogs: she was the girl on the cover of Foreigner’s 1979 album Head Games** erasing her phone number from the bathroom wall. And for you movie hounds: she was in Heathers, Less Than Zero, and Night on Earth. (Yep: like Estevez and Mitchum, Falk retired from the business, in the late ‘90s).
And since we’re rattling off actors names in the “Everyone Has to Start Somewhere Department”: Bryan Cranston appears as Professor Harris and Beau Starr as Detective Barron. Do we have to mention Breaking Bad and Halloween 4 and 5 and Goodfellas? Well, we’ll mention that another of Beau’s early roles was the TV-cable radio-noir Dead Air, since that’s an obscurity. (And, since we’re talking about films with the same title: not the 2009 Dead Air, but the 1994 Dead Air.) Oh, and for the Trekkies: Tim “Lt. Tuvok” Russ from Star Trek: Voyager is the deputy on the case.
Directing J. David Miles’s smart writing debut is writer/director/show runner Peter O’Fallon—making his feature film directing debut. Known for his extensive network and cable TV resume, O’Fallon followed the direct-to-video/cable-released Dead Silence with the theatrically released—then de rigueur mafia flick—Suicide Kings (1997) starring Christopher Walken and Dennis Leary (back when the SNL’er made his “feature film” move). Ironically, O’Fallon also worked with a post-Goodfellas Ray Liotta in the drama A Rumor of Angels (2000).
Dead Silence is one of those oldies that hasn’t run on TV in ages, the VHS tapes have expired to the blue screen of death, and it’s never been released on DVD—and never will be. So our only choice to watch are these two pretty clean VHS rips from its Lifetime Movie Network run on You Tube HERE and HERE. This lone feature film effort from J. David Miles is an under-the-radar TV movie gem where a great script, directing, and acting hum along in perfect harmony. It’s a highly recommended watch in these now silent, viral lockdown days.
* If the lead character had been a radio broadcaster instead of a TV newscaster, we would have included Dead Silence in last month’s “Radio Week” of reviews. You can catch up on those reviews with our “Exploring: Radio Stations on Film” featurette.
** Other actors who’ve modeled albums covers: Valentine Monnier of After the Fall of New York and Monster Shark appears on the cover of Chic’s 1977 debut disco album. Al Corley of Incident at Channel Q and Bigger Than the Sky—and a recording artist in his own right—modeled on the cover of Torch, Carly Simon’s 1981 album.
There are more TV movies to be had with our “Week of Made for TV Movies,” “Lost TV Week,” “Son of Made for TV Movie Week” and “Grandson of Made for TV Movie Week” tribute spotlights to those films that, in many cases, are even better than the movies that played in theatres.