A slickly produced movie about a homicidal screenwriter who specializes (surprise, surprise) in beautiful young women, USA Network's "Cabin by the Lake" has a nasty, generally unpleasant air about it.
Stanley Caldwell (portrayed with cold efficiency by Judd Nelson) is your average Hollywood scribe: plain-looking, self-absorbed, obsessed with morbid thoughts of death and violence. But Caldwell takes the motto of "write what you know" a little too seriously. Like a trashy, modern-day Bluebeard, he uses a nearby lake to keep an underwater garden of the decaying beauties he has murdered in order to write knowledgeably about the fear in their eyes.
Everything is hunky-dory for Caldwell, until the day he kidnaps Mallory (Hedy Burress), a strong-willed young lady who not only manages to escape her watery grave but also fights her sadistic captor with his own weapon: psychological manipulation.
There are also several one-dimensional characters (a pushy, shallow agent, an effeminate director and an innocent, provincial sheriff), an unexplained romance between Mallory and the sheriff, a gimmick-ridden search for the killer that involves nifty underwater cameras and special effects, and enough ludicrous plot points to fill the lake where the victims are dumped.
Perhaps the general feeling of malaise comes from the film's futile attempt to squeeze yet another drop of originality from a subgenre that already has been visited once too often (not surprisingly, "Cabin" comes to us courtesy of the producer of "I Know What You Did Last Summer").
Still the underwater scenes with Caldwell visiting his victims recall the poetic yet horrifying creations of a writer like Guy de Maupassant.
But the slow uncovering of a deranged mind who manages to commit the most atrocious crimes under the vigilant eyes of a so-called normal society has been explored by many talented directors, from Roman Polanski and Alfred Hitchcock to Michael Powell and Fritz Lang. Maybe the time has come to put this tired motif to rest for at least a while.
* "Cabin by the Lake" can be seen tonight at 9 on USA. The network has rated it TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14 with special advisories for violence).