The actress’ name was Roxanne Hart. As a young teen in the late 80’s, I’d had a sizable geek crush on her. She was, after all, the female lead in Highlander, a film that I’d seen twice theatrically and numerous times on video. Highlander dealt with immortals battling throughout time, and Hart had played a reporter named Brenda, who uncovers the truth about Christopher Lambert’s Connor Macleod, a New York antique dealer who was actually well over a hundred years old. Hart was the Lois Lane to Lambert’s Clark Kent, plucky and intrepid.
And we had just thrown her off the roof of Hollywood’s famous Roosevelt Hotel.
Okay, we didn’t really throw her. In actuality, we tossed a lifelike dummy from the roof of the Roosevelt and then later filmed Roxanne herself lying in a pool of blood at the building’s base. This was in service of a film called Grave Misconduct, the second assignment that I and my writing partner Matt Chernov had picked up from RHI, a production company that specializes in TV movies that premiere on cable. We’d recently completed Shark Swarm, a four-hour miniseries written for NBC that ultimately aired (to stellar ratings) on the Hallmark Channel and bore little resemblance to our script. Grave Misconduct was pitched to us by our executive friends at RHI as a riff on Basic Instinct. It deals with a woman who makes her living as a librarian while struggling to break into the business of writing mystery novels. When she comes into possession of a murder mystery manuscript penned by a recently deceased friend, she passes it off as her own work. The book, entitled Grave Misconduct, soon becomes a roaring success, but it’s not long afterward that the murders depicted in its pages begin to occur in real life, and the blame is focused on the thieving would-be author. And hey, it turns out that her dead friend who wrote the book might just have been murdered as well.
It’s the pulpiest of set-ups, but Matt and I took to it immediately. Growing up, we’d each been fans of a particular subset of Italian horror films known as giallos. These were lurid, melodramatic, bodycount mysteries, usually set in the art or publishing world, which most often featured female heroines plunging into labyrinthine whodunnit’s as people around them were stylishly and imaginatively murdered, usually by a black-gloved killer that in the end was revealed to be, gasp, someone the heroine trusted beyond reason. Dario Argento’s Tenebre is a sterling example. We set about making Grave Misconduct our very own giallo. We plugged in a black-gloved killer who gleefully dispatched everyone around the author (played by Crystal Bernard from Wings) causing her to question her own sanity as she searches for clues. The character is on a book-signing tour shared with a host of authors who are all jealous of her recent success, and they serve as red herrings along the way.
We were buoyed by the director, Armand Mastroianni, a man who hit the horror scene in the early 80’s with a film called He Knows You’re Alone that has the distinction of being one of the first post-Halloween American slashers as well as being the acting debut of Tom Hanks. Armand instantly keyed into what we were going for. He urged us to make the script gorier, make the kills more intricate. He came up with an ending coda that has our heroine confronted by the zombified corpse of both the killer and her dead friend (a dream sequence). He applauded us when we managed to sneak in references to a few John Carpenter films. He was a ball of genre-loving energy on the set. It was Armand himself who threw that dummy off the Roosevelt. It was Armand who supervised the blood splatter around the inert Roxanne Hart on the ground outside the hotel for the shots of the aftermath. He and I cackled together as buckets of red karo syrup were ladled onto the sidewalk around her as a crowd of onlookers cheered from behind a nearby barricade.
When the film was complete, he sent us his director’s cut, which didn’t skimp on blood and always angled for a maximum creep factor. He added a grisly scene in which the heroine confronts the killer and stabs him repeatedly with a screwdriver. The kills were brutal and haunting. This was a case of screenwriters and director working in harmony. Grave Misconduct was going to shock and surprise cable viewers upon its debut. We couldn’t have been more excited.
I’ll never forget watching that dummy plummet from the Roosevelt and hearing Armand’s wicked laughter as it hit. He turned to me, beaming, and I gave him the thumbs up. He winked at me – we’d just gotten away with something pretty daring and subversive.
Because the movie had been promised to… the Lifetime Network. Together with Armand, Matt and I managed to sneak our gory, twisted horror homage onto the premiere channel for housewives everywhere.
Grave Misconduct premiered on Lifetime in late 2008. When viewers are polled on their favorite Lifetime movies, it regularly ranks in the Top 5. It screens on the channel once every few months, and I always watch, chuckling knowingly to myself as our black-gloved giallo killer goes about his ghastly business.