I'm fairly sure I've never read a Nora Roberts novel, but I had a pretty good time watching Carolina Moon, a made-for-cable adaptation of one of Roberts' best-sellers. Mixing a serial killer murder mystery with supernatural underpinnings, Carolina Moon still has all the requisite Lifetime Movies Channel chick flick sensibilities intact, but there's a juiciness to the acting here - particularly one hellava sexy Southern belle femme fatale essayed by Josie Davis - and an effort to keep things rolling along despite the familiarities, that makes Carolina Moon an enjoyable time-waster.
With a prologue beginning in 1989, Carolina Moon tells the story of young Tory Bodeen (Gabrielle Casha), a victim of child abuse at the hands of her violent, ultra-religious father Han (Shaun Johnston), and her passive, in-denial mother Sari (Maureen Rooney). Living in a small run-down cottage on rich Margaret Lavelle's (Jacqueline Bisset) North Carolina property, Tory has befriended Hope Lavelle (Shae Keebler) - a relationship that brother Cade Lavelle (Kade Phillips) has used to get closer to Tory. On a fateful night, when Tory was to meet Hope in their favorite spot at a pond in the woods, Tory is beaten too severely to come, but she has a psychic vision of young Hope abused and murdered by an unseen stalker. Apparently, everyone (due to Margaret's prompting) blames Tory's father for the murder - because they believe that Tory was indeed there the night of the attack, and is covering for her father. The Bodeens are paid off by Margaret to move away.
Years later, a grown-up, beautiful Tory (Claire Forlani) returns to the small town of Progress, North Caroline, to face up to the visions in her head that won't cease, no matter how far she runs away from them. Tentatively reaching out to grown-up Cade (Oliver Hudson), Tory fears commitment because of her supernatural power to read minds; such abilities have destroyed her past relationships, including a serious one to a cop who aided her in tracking down missing kids through her ESP talents. However, when Margaret finds out that Cade has rented the same cottage to Tory, she tries to buy her off the property; Margaret can't abide knowing the daughter of her own daughter's murderer is living again in Progress. But Tory can't be bought off.
Besides, something terrible comes to the attention of Tory, through her psychic powers. Evidently, young women all over the country are being murdered on the same day that Hope was killed - and all the women are the age Hope would have been that particular year. The killer is murdering Hope all over again, year after year. And it's up to Tory to not only find the killer, but also repair her own emotional scars in order to learn to love Cade. With the help of Southern sex pot Faith Lavelle (Josie Davis), Hope's sister, Tory bonds with her previous rival and rediscovers the power of love over evil.
With enough plot elements for three soapers, Carolina Moon is surprisingly sprightly, sampling the various serial killer/chick flick/ESP threads in rapid succession, keeping the pace of the piece moving right along. Let's be clear: this isn't quality drama by any means. But it does have a ripeness to it, a plushy pulpiness that, had they upped the T&A and violence quotient, might have made Carolina Moon a drive-in classic. Shot beautifully in the rolling hills of Alberta, Canada (subbing for North Carolina, no doubt, for the dollar exchange rate), Carolina Moon has a few well thought-out thriller scenes, including Tory's ESP moments, and the final, not-so-surprising denouement where the real killer is revealed. I particularly liked the way Tory's dreams were integrated realistically with her ESP connection with the dead Hope; with the walls of her bedroom suddenly blown out, Tory's bed sits in the middle of the woods as she speaks with the dead Hope, and it's a very effectively staged scene.
The acting is standard Lifetime emoting, with the male characters firmly entrenched in romance novel cliches (either strong, handsome and sexy, or whipped and handsome, or slimy, ugly and evil), while the women suffer emotional crises while looking quite delectable in their deceptively casual designer duds. Forlani and Hudson make for a handsome yet fairly dull couple, but Carolina Moon belongs to the ramped-up sluttiness of Josie Davis' tramp, Faith. Grinning wickedly behind that honey-smooth Carolina drawl, blonde-bobbed Davis ups the energy considerably whenever she's on camera, providing all the ladies out there watching a chance to fantasize about being the kind of "bad girl" who would sexually attack a handsome doctor (Chad Willett) in broad daylight, in his office, with the door unlocked (a deliciously lewd and comical scene the few men out there watching would no doubt enjoy being a part of, as well).
The only parts of Carolina Moon that get a little sticky are when the requisite chick flick elements have to be emphasized, including scenes where Tory discusses her need to "bring down her walls," and Cade's willingness "to bring down his walls," as well, and all that other boring blather that you've seen a hundred times before in these Lifetime movies (and I write that as a fan of these types of films). Those elements, although familiar and cliched, at least have the distinction of being attached to the unusual supernatural element of Carolina Moon, which gives it a boost to appeal to viewers who normally wouldn't tune in to such a film. With plenty of serial killer action, some cool ESP/fright scenes, and the delicious Josie Davis (feel free to email), Carolina Moon proved to be a surprisingly enjoyable programmer.
The anamorphically enhanced, 1.78:1 widescreen video image for Carolina Moon is spot-on, with strong colors, no grain, and no transfer issues to speak of.
The surprisingly strong, effective Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio mix is welcome here, particularly during some of the spook scenes where your speakers will get a work out with the ambient sounds.
There are no extras for Carolina Moon.
I've written before about how made-for-cable movies may be the last place to get the kind of fast-paced, tightly executed programmers we all came to love at the drive-ins of old, and Carolina Moon illustrates that theory nicely. A more-than-competently scripted and directed serial killer/ESP/chick flick mystery (Stephen Tolkin taking on both tasks here), Carolina Moon satisfies those pulpy desires we have when we want to flake out in front of the tube and cruise below the radar for awhile. I quite enjoyed myself. I recommend Carolina Moon.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.