Solid, go-to Lifetime/LMN true-crime miniseries staple. Sony Pictures' fun Choice Collection line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Dead by Sunset, the 1995 NBC true-crime mini starring Ken Olin, Annette O'Toole, Lindsay Frost, and John Terry. Based on Ann Rule's bestseller which detailed the real-life murder of Portland, Oregon lawyer Cheryl Keeton by her psychopathic ex-husband, Bradley Cunningham, Dead by Sunset, featuring sharp, suspenseful direction by Karen Arthur and standout performances by Olin and O'Toole, does what any good future Lifetime/LMN mini-in-heavy-rotation should do: catalogue a series of heinous outrages perpetrated by an evil man against trusting, duped women. You can't ask for more than that. No extras for this good-looking full-screen transfer.
At an abandoned gas station off the highway, a nervous Cheryl Keeton (Annette O'Toole) pulls in her van to meet her psychotic ex-husband, Brad Cunningham (Ken Olin), whom she fears has abducted her three little boys. Before she can get out of the car, Cunningham savagely beats her to death with a tire iron, while their 3-year-old boy, Phillip (Clay Malensek), watches silently in his car. Flashback 6 months. Emergency room doctor Sara Gordon (Lindsay Frost), divorced from a husband who resented her success, is introduced to disarmingly charming investment broker Brad by a mutual friend, with the friend telling Sara that Brad is in an unhappy marriage. The attraction between Sara and Brad is mutual, but there's no love lost for Brad at Cheryl's law office, where everyone knows that Brad is trouble: a failed businessman with suspect practices, who's also indifferent and cruel to Cheryl. With Brad's focus now squarely on Sara, he begins a systematic and cruel campaign of humiliation and abuse towards Cheryl, setting her up unfairly in Sara's eyes as an unfit mother and wife, before Cheryl fights back in court, publically listing the abuses Brad has visited on her and the boys-an accounting that further unhinges the already unstable Brad. Once Cheryl is permanently out of the picture, and Sara is Brad's new wife, it doesn't take long for her to realize that perhaps Cheryl was right all along....
I don't know how popular Dead by Sunset was when it initially aired on NBC (who was watching network minis in the mid-90s?), but I can tell you that as a devoted Lifetime Movie Network viewer, Dead by Sunset is one of those go-to titles like The Deliberate Stranger (another Rule adaptation), or Mother, May I Sleep With Danger, or the one where Ann-Margret seduces a student to kill her husband Peter Coyote, or the one where Tiffani Amber-Thiessen almost gets nude while making love to a lighthouse ghost, or the one where a disfigured, vengeful Yasmine Bleeth gets plastic surgery, or of course the Gone With the Wind of Lifetime movies, A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story and Her Final Fury: Betty Broderick, The Last Chapter, that fans will put on again and again no matter how many times they've seen it. Dead by Sunset gives true-crime melodrama lovers exactly what they want: vicarious thrills that also allow them the sweet, self-satisfied ability to pass moral judgments off onto the characters. The unsettling, uncomfortable fact that these fictionalized events actually happened to real human beings is a shadowy, background understanding that only enhances the titillation factor: like children, we "enjoy" the process of being scared...once we're reassured it's only a story or movie we're watching, not living. And as with any juicy true-crime case that makes the headlines, we find them fascinating mainly because they haven't happened to us. Indeed, director Karen Arthur (lots of TV, including another cable classic I can't get enough of: The Jacksons: An American Dream) shoots the opening of the movie just like a horror movie designed to spook u, specifically John Carpenter's The Fog, with the abandoned gas station's lights and signs mysteriously crackling and sizzling to life, before we get a glimpse of Olin in the shadows, complete with a knock-off music cue from Carpenter's Halloween (followed by a rattlesnake cue, for good measure), as he waits to viciously bludgeon O'Toole.
After this startling introduction, we backtrack 6 months to ground the murder, allowing the viewer to codify the characters along expected melodramatic conventions. Pretty, bland Sara (blah Frost's dull turn here is the movie's only major drawback) gets to be sneered at for being such a trusting dope, and faintly hated for being an unwitting home wrecker, before the viewer lets herself sympathize with Sara because she's like so many other trusting women led astray by some lying man (Sara's conversion to heroine is complete once Cheryl is murdered and we see how much Sara loves her adopted boys). Of course we get the unrepentant evil villain, too-a cold, calculating psychopath who embodies all the female viewers worst fears and stereotypes about meeting an attractive, dangerous man who turns out to be a manipulative, controlling, homicidal bastard (I thought thirtysomething and all the people associated with it was a crime against humanity, but Olin's heated turn here is skilled and extremely effective). And the viewer gets to fear in vain for doomed O'Toole because she's so likable and loyal, still wanting to make her marriage work despite the overwhelming evidence that suggests the only possible recourse for her: a one-way plane ticket to AnywhereElseville (O'Toole, a favorite of mine, is terrific here). With O'Toole's sympathetic turn here, it's for the viewer to identify with her increasing sense of bewildered rage at Brad's despicable behavior.
And the more outrageous those humiliations she suffers-and they are top-notch in Dead by Sunset-the more "enjoyable" they are to the melodrama-loving viewer. Olin's character is in the LMN Whack-Job Hall of Fame: alternately arrogant and craven, aggressive and whining; an unhinged sociopath so well played by Olin that we can't even feel the tiniest bit sorry for the character when we learn the possible source of his pathology (mommy didn't love him enough, what else?). The litany of abuses he heaps on O'Toole and Frost reach a dizzying, almost hilariously perverse, sick overload: he sends O'Toole to a dangerous biker bar, dressed as a whore so he can "catch" her "cheating" on him; he nails the babysitter (a LMN villain prerequisite); he gives his wife VD (when she asks how many there have been, he responds, "Legion! And they all looked, tasted, and smelled better than you ever did!"); he chokes her at their son's baseball game; he locks her out of the house in the rain and then later rapes her; he faxes private, suggestive photos of her to her co-workers; he steals her car; he has the boys pretend they've been slaughtered in a home invasion, complete with fake blood; he holds a straight razor to his new wife's throat; he nails another blowsy waitress; and best of all, he makes his kid build his own coffin as a punishment. If the last half-hour of Dead by Sunset peters out a bit (including a too-brief courtroom trial that should have been the movie's slam-bang finale), who can blame it for being spent, after that parade of grotesqueries?
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.