Y’see, it’s pretty much identical plotwise to one of those women-in-peril TV movies from the 70s/80s that I rave about constantly – albeit with one major difference: it’s nasty... REAL nasty! We’re all used to the straightforward, linear and cosily familiar style of TV movies like She Cried Murder – and While She Was Out slots easily into that mould. But, whereas the worst thing that might befall Lynda Day George and pals was a twisted ankle, and the cops would always show up at the end, there’s no such security here. Kim Basinger is on the run from some truly dangerous thugs with only a toolbox grabbed from her car for protection – and, believe me, she’s not afraid to use its contents in ways that would give Tobe Hooper nightmares.
First rule of suspense filmmaking: give us characters we care about. Basinger, who’s just been getting better and better in recent years, is Della, a suburban mom with a borderline abusive husband (Craig Sheffer) but two nice kids. After a Christmas Eve domestic, she escapes to the mall in search of a little retail therapy. But the snowy roads are lethal, the car park is gridlocked and, to add insult to injury, a black Plymouth is taking up two parking spaces. Incensed, Della writes an angry note and leaves it on the windscreen, before parking down the road and enduring a miserable time in the mall, where such events as running into a smarmy school friend and having her name misspelled by a dull-eyed cashier subtly remind her that Women Are Socially Disadvantaged and Commercialism Is Bad.
Back outside, Della’s in for a nasty surprise when the drivers of the badly-parked Plymouth – four punks led by Lukas Haas (who seemed like such a nice boy in Witness) – show up and corner her at the outskirts of the parking lot. I’ve decided not to tell you any more than that, suffice to say that things turn very nasty very quickly, and Della’s soon running for her life through a hazard-strewn construction site. And you thought the Black Friday sales were scary!
Hurtling along and bombarding you with shocks, While She Was Out is what those of us in the movie-reviewing business refer to as “a rollercoaster ride”, and what people in the rollercoaster business refer to as “technically, just a film” – although I’m sure they’d agree it’s a pretty good one. Kim Basinger makes as compelling and resourceful a heroine here as she was in Cellular, while Lukas Haas’ gang of youths make frightening villains not because they’re intimidating or sinister, but simply because they’re stupid, reckless and dangerous – exactly the sort of people who give darkened parking lots a bad name.
Because so few films are directed by women – especially in the horror/thriller genre – you can’t help but look for notable differences when you come across one. Susan Montford certainly doesn’t pull any punches with her directorial debut (which she also scripted from a short story by Edward Bryant), and creating an interesting female lead is obviously a priority, but genre fans won’t find any “special spin” on the material to distract from the thrills. That said, it’s intelligent enough, with a build-up that sets up a disconcerting, melancholy tone, and a double-payoff that finishes off the expectedly cathartic climax with a nice little twist of the knife.
One word of warning: don’t be tempted to seek out and watch the trailer. In fact, avoid all trailers for this in case they’re the one included on the UK DVD release, which basically condenses the entire film into two minutes, ruining every single plot development along the way, including the ending. Other than that, if you come across any opportunity to see While She Was Out, you grab eet, you watch eet, you love eet!
Apologies to anyone with a fake Mexican accent.