As I have repeatedly and pitifully mentioned this week, Bill has been away on a business trip. And, as I often do when he goes away on business trips, I’ve been watching a lot of made for TV movies, as well as a couple of 80s era classics. Lifetime made for TV movies are usually pretty cringeworthy, although sometimes they turn into “guilty pleasures.” I typically watch the movies they make about true crime cases, especially if I’ve already read about a case. I am a bit of a true crime buff, as some regular readers might already know. I probably ought to stick to writing about books and movies, though, because when I write about true crime cases in the news, I sometimes get angry reactions from family members. It’s never my intention to cause pain to anyone when I write about true crime. I just find the criminal mind and police work kind of fascinating.
Anyway, more than once, I’ve written about Lifetime movies and how sometimes, they’re pretty terrible. Sometimes, I think their treatment of true crime stories is downright disrespectful, such as it was with Secrets of a Gold Digger Killer, which was about Celeste Beard Johnson, who married a wealthy older man and murder him for his money. I also thought Lifetime’s movie, Girl in the Basement, which starred Judd Nelson, and was based on the horrific 2008 Josef Fritzl case out of Austria, was also pretty badly done. This week, I’ve watched three other Lifetime movies that weren’t too terrible. They weren’t great– but they didn’t make me angry, and I never cringed while watching them. However, I did notice that the three made for TV movies had something in common with the aforementioned Girl in the Basement…
Girl in the Box
Girl in the Bunker
Girl in the Shed
Do you see the same trend I do? Granted, all of these movies are based on true stories about yucky men who abduct young women or girls and put them in different forms of confinement. But, when I went on Lifetime’s “channel” on Apple TV, I noticed this list of movies with similar titles.
To clarify, I don’t typically go on Lifetime’s Apple TV channel looking for entertainment anymore. When I was younger, Lifetime used to be more my speed. They showed television that was supposed to be “for women”, which includes awesome classic sitcoms like The Golden Girls, health related programming, or movies that were made by the big three networks of yore. I’ve noticed that more recently, Lifetime has gotten into the business of making movies. Most of them are very slick and kind of campy, filmed in Canada, and often boast talent that was on the “big screen” a few decades ago. Again, I usually watch the ones about true crime, so I honestly don’t know what other subjects Lifetime covers. I’m sure someone can tell me.
In any case, this week I watched Girl in the Box, Girl in the Bunker, and Girl in the Shed. I’ve already shared my thoughts on Girl in the Box, which was what started this week’s Lifetime movie trend for me. It was Sunday afternoon; Bill had just left for Bavaria. For some reason, I thought of the 70s and 80s era true crime case involving Colleen Stan— “the girl in the box”. I went looking to see if there was some fresh programming about that case, and discovered Lifetime’s 2016 movie that was based on the case. Because I had nothing better to do, I decided to download it and watch it. Then I noticed the other two movies with similar titles, and downloaded those, too.
A couple of days ago, I watched the 2022 movie, Girl in the Shed: The Kidnapping of Abby Hernandez. Prior to watching Lifetime’s movie, I had not heard of this case out of Conway, New Hampshire, which began on October 9, 2013. Fourteen year old Abby Hernandez was just days away from her fifteenth birthday when she was kidnapped by a creepy psychopath named Nathaniel Kibby. Just like Colleen Stan before her, Hernandez was hitchhiking, something she apparently did frequently. Kibby picked her up. He was seemingly friendly and trustworthy until he stopped the car, handcuffed her, and blindfolded her. He took her to his home and, for about nine and a half months, kept her imprisoned in a storage container/shed.
In Lifetime’s treatment of this case, Kibby is played by Ben Savage– brother of Fred Savage, who is very familiar to me as a child of the 80s, thanks to his starring role on The Wonder Years. Ben was on the show Boy Meets World, which I never saw, because it was popular at a time in my life when I was too busy for TV. Abby is played by Lindsay Navarro, who looks quite a bit older than fourteen. I’m sure that’s by design, of course. Not only do younger actors have more restrictions on how much they can work, but I’m sure the subject matter of the film may have prevented using younger, more believable actors.
In the Lifetime movie, we see still baby faced Ben Savage as Kibby, vacillating between a conspiracy theory obsessed weirdo to someone with a conscience. He sees giving Abby a “storage shed” to live in as a kindness. He straps a shock collar around her neck to stop her from screaming, but also to prevent her from having to wear a gag. He uses the threat of a taser to keep her under control. He wears a totally creepy looking face mask to prevent Abby from seeing his face, assuring her that someday he’ll let her go. Abby somehow realizes that to survive, she must befriend her captor, which is what she does.
Meanwhile, her mother, Zenya (Erica Durance) is depicted as the only one who never gives up on finding Abby. I’ve noticed that in Lifetime movies, the police are usually depicted as jaded, skeptical, and uncaring. When Zenya calls to report her daughter missing, the cops assume she’s run away. When Abby is forced to write a letter home, and news of it gets leaked to the press, the public turns on Zenya. She gets hateful phone calls and nasty letters in the mail (I don’t understand this practice at all, but people really do this…).
When Kibby loses his job, he gets into counterfeiting money. This is ultimately what leads him to release Abby, as he’s been to prison before, and doesn’t want to go back there. A woman calls him on the phone and threatens to turn him in for paying her with counterfeit cash. It seems kind of crazy to me, but I guess it really happened. Kibby drops Abby off near where he had picked her up months earlier, and she’s left to walk home. There’s no information about Kibby’s prosecution, which took place in 2016 and ultimately led to a federal sentence of 45-90 years in prison.
If I were to go only on the Lifetime movie, Abby and Kibby were practically buddies. There’s no mention or depiction of the horrors of what actually went on in this case. Granted, again, it might be because the case involves a then fourteen/fifteen year old child. But the Lifetime movie waters down the story so much that it seems like Kibby was just lonely and looking for a female friend. The reality is, Kibby sexualy assaulted Abby on a daily basis. And no, that’s not something I necessarily would have wanted to see, but not including that part of the story really dilutes it and undermines just how truly awful Abby’s ordeal really was. Also, the shock collar thing… that was a new one for me, but the way Savage plays it, it’s like Kibby was trying to be “nice”. There’s nothing nice about taking away someone’s voice. But at least he didn’t threaten to cut her vocal cords, like Cameron Hooker did to Colleen Stan.
Reviewers on IMDB had similar impressions that I had. One reviewer even went to school with Abby and was disgusted by how this story was portrayed. I kind of wonder why Lifetime bothered with this… since the actual ordeal isn’t accurately presented at all. I get not wanting to depict CSAM, but this is so whitewashed that it’s kind of laughable. It definitely could have been better. At least it wasn’t horribly offensive, though. Ben Savage isn’t a scary or convincing predator, so I didn’t have any nightmares. His brother Fred, on the other hand, has portrayed creeps convincingly… both on screen, and apparently in real life.
I thought Girl in the Bunker was somewhat better, although it was still pretty watered down from the truth. This 2018 Lifetime made for TV movie is based on the real life case of fourteen year old Elizabeth Shoaf of Lugoff, South Carolina, who was abducted by the late Vinson Filyaw on September 6, 2006. Filyaw, who died in prison of natural causes last year, had been a construction worker, but posed as a police officer to gain Shoaf’s trust. He placed her in handcuffs and walked her around the woods, disorienting her until he finally put her in a 8×8 foot underground bunker, where he had all the “creature comforts” of home.
According to the Shoaf was on her way home from school when her boyfriend gave her some marijuana to keep. The boyfriend was apparently a fan of weed and didn’t want to get busted by his parents. Shoaf had the weed on her when she ran into Filyaw.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s family was wondering what happened to her. I hadn’t realized it at first, but Elizabeth’s mom was played by Moira Kelly. I just happened to watch Kelly’s film, The Cutting Edge (1992) the other day. I almost didn’t recognize her in Girl in the Bunker. I had been wondering what happened to her. An even bigger surprise was who they got to play Vinson Filyaw. I’m sure most of you reading this have heard of a 1982 film called E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. I didn’t actually see that film for the first time until 2002. However, I was ten years old when it was released, and it was HUGE. Well, the guy who played Filyaw was none other than Henry Thomas, who famously played Elliott in the movie, E.T. He was more convincing as a villain.
I also thought, Julia LaLonde, the girl who played Elizabeth, was a very good actress and looked like she was about the right age. I could believe she was fourteen years old… or at least somewhat near that age.
Again, there’s no mention of the horrors of what actually happened to the real Elizabeth Shoaf, who was stripped naked, bound in chains, and repeatedly assaulted. And again, I wouldn’t expect a graphic depiction of that on television. But, if I was going to go on what was in the Lifetime movie, I’d come away with the idea that ol’ Vinson was just looking for a friend to ease his loneliness. It looks like most of the reviewers on IMDB liked it, as most of the comments about it are pretty positive.
I have noticed that censorship has changed a lot over the years. It used to be that the censors were a lot more concerned about “bad words”. You’d never hear someone on primetime TV say the word “shit”, for instance, even if you did hear them drop the n-bomb or homosexual slurs. It seems like violence, even if it was sexual in nature, was less taboo. Now, the language is less restricted, at least as far as words like “shit” are concerned, but they don’t want to depict true crime in a way that remotely approaches the horrors of what actually happened, particularly if the story involves minors. It seems to me that if being accurate is so problematic for legal reasons, maybe the genre shouldn’t be tackled by filmmakers. But at least in these two cases, the victims survived.
I’m reminded of an old plotline on The Brady Bunch. Bobby Brady is driving his family nuts because he’s obsessed with Jesse James, who was a cold-blooded killer. Bobby sees him as a hero. Carol and Mike Brady try to teach Bobby a lesson by letting him watch an old movie about Jesse James, but all of the parts that show him as a bad guy are edited out of the movie. Their point is lost, and Bobby is even more convinced that Jesse James is a great guy. To be fair, I don’t think Lifetime goes quite that far. I mean, even though Ben Savage is unconvincing as a menacing creep, we don’t get the idea that his character is a hero. And Henry Thomas is somewhat convincing as a criminal, even though he’s not shown actually doing what his character did in real life. But the point is, if Lifetime is going to make movies about horrifying crimes, they probably ought to do more to actually depict the crimes as horrifying… and make the villains less likable.
Anyway… I’ve probably written more about this subject than it deserves. The dogs didn’t get a walk yesterday due to bad weather and my interminable wait for packages to arrive. So, I probably better sign off and walk them, do my Thursday chores, and get on with my last day of loneliness. Maybe today, I’ll watch an old, campy, guilty pleasure favorite, like Xanadu or Flash Gordon. There are only so many Lifetime movies a person can take in a week. 😉