Mortal Passions (1989): Adulting & Adultery

Sex, murder, and deception — if only all relationship breakdowns were this gripping, says Matty.

Here in the U.K., MORTAL PASSIONS was unceremoniously dumped straight-to-video by Virgin Vision in Spring 1991. In the U.S., it boasts the distinction of being the first picture released by MGM/United Artists in the ‘90s. Having acquired this $350,000 indie for distribution, the studio opened it in Salt Lake City, Utah on 26th January 1990 while the film was still screening at that year’s Sundance Festival in nearby Park City, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic category. Fitting, really: despite its Double Indemnity (1944) and Body Heat (1981) come-on, Mortal Passions is as equally in line with the then-recent sex, lies, and videotape (1989) which had tore up Sundance the year before.   

Zach Galligan and Krista Errickson are Todd and Emily: a young married couple whose relationship is disintegrating. In therapy with the mostly desk-bound Dr. Powers (a glorified cameo from David Warner), the clean-cut Todd is depressed, suicidal, and adamant that his wife is cheating on him. The demure-seeming Emily is perturbed by Todd’s despondent attitude, fearful of his allegedly violent mood swings, and sick of him paying more attention to the renovation of their home than he does to her [1]. Oh, and, quelle surprise, she is knocking boots with someone else. 

A gently kinky romp between Emily and her rugged lover, the Austen-alluding Darcy (Luca Bercovici), leads to a scene of blackly comic farce when the two attempt to kill Todd as he sleeps… Only to be interrupted by Todd’s estranged brother — and Emily’s old flame — Berke (the ponytailed Michael Bowen, a future Tarantino regular now best known as the Buck-who’s-there-to-fuck at the start of Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) [2]). Berke’s impromptu arrival completes Mortal Passions’ hand. A pleasantly character-driven piece, Todd, Emily, Darcy, and Berke are a well conceived bunch with distinctive personalities. A few clunky lines hit the ear awkwardly, but, by and large, Galligan, Errickson, Bercovici, and Bowen deliver Alan Moskowitz’s softly tongue-in-cheek script with conviction, enabling director Andrew Lane to adopt a satisfying, minimalistic approach that places his talented cast front and centre. Indeed, at its best, Lane’s lingering style and unwavering focus on performance really does call to mind the observational quality of Steven Soderbergh’s aforementioned Sundance darling about shagging, fibs, and camcorders. 

However, as the enjoyable Mortal Passions edges deeper and deeper into thriller territory following a shock moment at the forty-minute mark, Lane — the former filmmaking partner of B-movie renaissance man Wayne Crawford [3] — adds a few bolder visual wrinkles. His strongest suit, though, is the vibe that he captures. The helmer unleashes skin, murder, suspense, and deception with efficiency; but it’s his evocation of that unique feeling of being a twenty-something — of those moments when you’re caught between the petulance and immaturity of adolescence and the realisation that you’re an adult with responsibilities — that makes Mortal Passions so fulfilling.

USA ● 1989 ● Erotic Thriller ● 91mins

Zach Galligan, Krista Errickson, Michael Bowen, Luca Bercovici ● Dir. Andrew Lane ● Wri. Alan Moskowitz

[1] Said home is the oft-used William J. Washburn house. Situated on S. Harvard Blvd, Los Angeles, the Washburn house has an extensive B-movie resume, serving as a key location in The Immortalizer (1989), Sorority House Massacre II (1990), and a slew of Fred Olen Ray flicks such as Teenage Exorcist (1991), Spirits (1990), and Inner Sanctum (1991) — the latter of which would make a conceptually appropriate accompaniment to Mortal Passions. Adding to the Washburn house’s cult credentials is the fact that the property is next door to the house used in Twice Dead (1988), Mirror Mirror III: The Voyeur (1996), and Ray’s Evil Toons (1992), and is located across the street from the home used in Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs (1991).
[2] Bowen and Galligan would work together again in Cupid (1997).
[3] Lane and Crawford were responsible for Night of the Comet (1984), Valley Girl (1986), and Jake Speed (1986) among others. Bowen also features in the first two.

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