When one goes to a film festival, one expects to see films that normally wouldn't show up anywhere else. Some of them might be too unusual or different for general release, either because of the filmmakers' ideosyncracies or because of deep cultural differences between the viewers and the audience. Some might be overly ambitious failures. Some might be masterpieces by unsung geniuses. Some might be godawful messes that were included for reasons beyond the ken of all but the festival committee. What one doesn't expect is mediocre Hollywood filler. Which is why A Killing Affair was so surprising when it showed up at the AFI Festival.

Basically, A Killing Affair is suspense film, with little to distinguish it from any of the other 100 American suspense films released in the last year. About the only interesting feature is that it's set in rural West Virginia during World War II, but little in the story or characters arises from the time or place, so the setting is no more than local color. Otherwise, the film unwinds in precisely the same way that all of its brethren do.

The story concerns a woman who is alone in a secluded house, menaced by a mysterious stranger. Her husband, a womanizing cad, is away across the river, and she doesn't know when he'll return. The only neighbor, a mile away, doesn't want to get involved. The ferry is too far, and there aren't any boats around. So she must deal with the stranger by herself. And, as the film progresses, the role of the stranger becomes more complicated than a mere boogeyman. The setup lacks originality, but is a reasonable base for a suspense story. The execution, unfortunately, is totally ordinary.

David Saperstein, who also wrote the film, shows a journeyman's talent in his first directorial effort. Everything hangs together reasonably well, the camerawork isn't terrible, the pacing is acceptable, the acting satisfactory. A Killing Affair gives the feeling of a director who relied too heavily on the rest of the crew. It looks like the cinematographer did pretty much what he felt was right, the editor cut it his own way, the composer made all the musical decisions, and the actors followed their own instincts, without anyone exerting a unifying force on the film. That is the director's task. Saperstein seems to have stood back too far, allowing able professionals to handle routine jobs, rather than convincing them that more than the routine was demanded.

Probably the strongest element of the film is Peter Weller's performance as the mysterious stranger. He demonstrates, as he did in Firstborn and Shoot the Moon, a fine ability to combine menace and attraction. Unfortunately, the script ultimately requires some pretty bizarre twists in the character, and, while Weller tries hard, he's not quite able to pull them off.

Kathy Baker, in the central role of the film, fails almost from her first appearance. While apparently an accomplished stage actress, she is unable to find the key to making us care about her character. We never sympathize with her, or have a strong desire to see her removed from danger. The character is written weak, which made her task much harder. This is the sort of role more suitable for an established screen performer, as they can carry into the film a history that makes us care about the characters they play.

Saperstein's script is not well shaped. Constrained by working from someone else's novel, and apparently not a good one, Saperstein failed to solve certain problems of the story. Too many of the characters' actions are unmotivated, or stupid. He also provides insufficient opportunities to develop suspense. Neither does he do much to convince us of the period or place of the film. The story could equally well be set anywhere, with little or no change in dialog or plot.

Cinematography (by Dominique Chapuis) and editing (by Patrick McMahon) are professional and unengaged. Any other of dozens of their compatriots could have filled in for them, and produced exactly the same thing. John Barry's score is also more professional than exciting.

A Killing Affair is destined for brief runs in theaters across the country. It will probably be opened regionally, and has already been shown in some parts of the US. While the film has nothing really wrong with it, it's hard to recommend such a resolutely average effort. I suppose that Peter Weller fans might want to see it, but others need not worry about missing out on anything. It will soon be on videocassette and cable, anyway.

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