The new Lifetime movie The Grim Sleeper wasn’t bad… for a Lifetime movie. Okay, maybe that was way harsh, Tai. It wasn’t bad, period. But it also wasn’t anything spectacular. I really wish Lifetime would let up on the “based on a true story” movies. They end up in the dreaded Lifetime limbo between fun/cheesy and legitimate/affecting. This one in particular was kind of like an extra-long, very special, ripped-from-the-headlines episode of a generic crime show. Although I’ll give Lifetime credit for tackling race issues, albeit in a pretty predictable way. Their movies are usually so white you’re not allowed to wear them after labor day. Badum bum!
We start the movie in South Central L.A. in 1987 as an unseen man shoots a woman in his car, takes a Polaroid photo of her, and dumps her on the side of the road. The resulting scene, where she hobbles home in platform shoes, her ankles twisting in such a way that should require a stunt double, really disturbed me. I thought to myself, “Wait, will this be good?” The woman crawls to the door of a friend’s house, bleeding, and when she turns we see it’s Macy Gray. Not gonna lie, the presence of musicians in these movies usually concerns me, Tim Gunn style, but Macy turned out to be pretty great. I’ll get to that a little later, though.
Cut to 20 years later, as we’re introduced to Christine Pelisek, an ambitious newspaper fact checker who’s played by Dreama Walker and her swinging ponytail. It’s funny, because a commenter in one of my recent TV posts thought Dreama was weak on Don’t Trust the B—-, whereas I happened to really like her. But whereas her bright-eyed and bushy-tailed routine appealed to me there, here I wasn’t so into it. But I could just be bitter because Dreama’s spending her time making Lifetime movies instead of picket signs that read “SAVE THE B.” I just expect the stars of canceled shows to devote their lives to getting them back on the air.
Christine is your typical movie/TV newspaper employee who wants to further her career by getting a great “scoop.” She has some flirty banter with Morales (Brendan Fletcher), the geeky medical examiner, who gives her a list of unsolved murder cases the cops are looking into. He only does it to get into her pants. Everything he does in this movie is to get into her pants. EVERYTHING. Just so we’re clear. But Christine is a single lady focused on work, as evidenced by all the empty Chinese food containers strewn about her apartment.
Meanwhile, another murder has occurred that bears a striking resemblance to ones in the same area years ago. A 15-year-old foster girl who’s turned to prostitution is shot, photographed, and disposed of by a mysterious man who picked her up in a car. Her foster sister Melayna (Dinora Walcott) feels responsible, because she left her sister on the street after they had an argument. Christine talks to her about it, and they go through that whole “This is so hard!” / “I know it is.” / “No you don’t! You couldn’t possibly know.” / “But I do. My best friend was murdered” deal. Clearly for Christine, it’s personal, because it always is.
Christine decides she’s going to write a powerful story about these unsolved crimes that’ll knock everybody’s socks off and get her promoted to reporter. Oh, and it’ll also get justice for all the victims and their families. That too, I guess. She decides to get more info by talking to a surviving victim, Margette Lincoln. FYI, that’s Macy Gray. Margette and Christine have a conversation about what happened the night she was almost killed, and Macy Gray is such a good actress that I did like fifteen double takes. She had none of that “I am remembering my lines right now and kind of conveying what I think is an emotion” feeling that a lot of musicians have in Lifetime movies.
Christine confronts an LAPD detective (Michael O’Neill) about why he never informed the public about all these connected murders in the same area, arguing that he would have warned the community about it had the victims been white. He claims that the kinds of women who became victims of the killings — prostitutes and drug addicts — wouldn’t pay attention to the warnings anyway, and he couldn’t risk losing the killer. Well a lot of good that did after not catching him for 20 years, during which time he took a 13-year break.
The detective and Christine end up having this cute rivalry as he reluctantly reaches out to the victims’ families and takes a more sympathetic approach. But it kind of felt like the movie was trying to avoid tackling these real issues of race and police discrimination by having a cop and reporter practically sing “Anything You Can Do” at each other the whole time.
Christine writes a story about the murders that her editor just loves and wants to put on the cover, but she has to come up with a catchy title for the killer. The way they come up with it, by saying he took a long break like Rip Van Winkle and is just “like the Grim Reaper himself,” was worth at least five eyerolls, but at least it explained the movie’s title. It’s not, in fact, a reference to someone who has a really stern face while they sleep, nor was it a reference to a murderer who kills their victims while sleep-walking. Glad we could clear that up.
Just as Christine’s story gets published, another murder happens. She feels really sad about it, and medical examiner Morales comforts her in the hope of — you guessed it — getting in her pants. She tells him he’s a great friend, and two seconds after I scribble FRIENDZONED in my notes, Morales says “friendzoned” really forlornly. Well, yeah dude. Maybe you should stop using grisly murders as a way to get girls to sleep with you.
Christine and the detective continue their “You stop it!” / “No, you stop it!” routine and work together to try to crack the case. Margette recognizes a house she was taken to the night the killer attacked her, but turns out the guy who lived there died and wasn’t involved. The biggest mystery in the case is the fact that a bunch of different cars were used, making it harder to track the guy down. As familial DNA testing ends up proving, the killer was actually a mechanic for the LAPD, and he fixed cars around the neighborhood, stealing them to go commit the murders. Of course, as always happens in these movies, all the characters discover the killer’s identity at the exact same time independently, so just as Christine is lurking and taking a photo of the guy, the police swarm his house.
We end the movie with Macy Gray singing “Hallelujah,” the most overused yet consistently moving song ever, over a montage of Christine hugging the victims, throwing Margette’s curtains open in a really annoying way, and hanging out with her new boyfriend Morales. Ugh, really? Can no Lifetime movie end without getting the heroine together with some douchey guy? What am I saying? Of course it can’t. An onscreen update lets us know that accused killer Lonnie Franklin Jr. is being held without bail and awaiting trial. And I’m sure that’ll end up getting the Lifetime treatment in no time. You mark my words. Except don’t, because I don’t actually know anything.