A throwback to all the B-grade knockoffs that followed such hit late ’80s/early ’90s household thrillers as “The Stepfather,” “Pacific Heights,” and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” “Paradise Cove” will be nobody’s idea of an original movie, let alone a good one. Still, it provides a degree of schlock entertainment value, as a young couple discover their Malibu fixer-upper comes with a crazy homeless woman squatting on the premises, itching to turn homicidal … again. Low on suspense and plausibility but high on tasteless and absurd ideas, Martin Guigui’s film does offer undiscriminating viewers some fun, albeit more of a laughing-at than laughing-with variety.
Knox (Todd Grinnell) and Tracey (Mena Suvari) have driven from Detroit with their labradoodle to assume ownership of the beachfront property left behind by the troubled mother he was estranged from. There’s been a fire, so the place is a damaged mess, if still structurally sound. Fortunately, Knox is a contractor, so with the help of some locally-drafted personnel (notably Eddie Goines as Griff), they plan to do the renovating themselves — then sell the modest but enviably situated place for a fortune that can bankroll their future in some less-pricey zip code. A future with kids, it is hoped, though efforts in that direction have so far been unfruitful, a source of particular stress for Tracey.
What they don’t realize for a while is that they’ve also inherited a “guest”: Bree (Kristin Bauer van Straten from “True Blood”), who lives below the house among the stilts that bear up its spectacular-sunset-view deck. She is an apparent ex-actress or model (we know because she leaves her old portfolio laying around everywhere) whose producer husband and young son died in a mysterious crash (uh-oh). Once the newcomers suss her out, she makes it clear that in her view they are the unwanted trespassers. While Tracey is unsympathetic, Knox feels a certain pity, particularly after Bree claims this was once her house — and that his mother “grifted” it into her own possession.
Soon wife is asking husband, “You haven’t noticed that under all that she’s f—in’ hot?” This heralds a shamelessness that “Paradise Cove” compounds just minutes later by letting the crazy lady materialize alongside Knox in the shower, where he really does not put up much of a fight having his marital virtue compromised.
Nonetheless, the couple and those around them are soon being mortally imperiled by guess-who. What victim will she claim first? (Let us note this movie features both a beloved pet and an African-American supporting character.)
Sherry Klein’s script is pedestrian at best, with lots of logic gaps — the biggest being that the protagonists don’t seem to grok Bree’s found a way into the locked house, even after she’s clearly gotten in several times. The film might still have worked as a boilerplate thriller if director Guigui demonstrated any knack for atmosphere or thrills. Alas, his bland, over-bright visual presentation and poorly staged violence muffle that potential. Even when things escalate to a lurid crescendo incorporating loutish homeless veterans and waterboarding (this movie would truly offend if it were any less silly), there’s no special style or energy to give such excesses their full exploitative due. That’s a pity, since the relish with which Bauer van Straten throws herself into Bree’s villainous flamboyance merits a richer sendoff.
Stlll, the pacing is just brisk enough to lend a cheesy concept sufficient “Are they really going there? Oh yes, they are!” watchability, with dashes of inappropriate sexuality and weird marital dynamics adding additional flavor. There are things to ponder, such as why Grinnell’s dullish but seemingly not-daft hero would hide all his last remaining cash in a kitchen drawer when there’s a scheming nutcase about, or why Suvari (who had a much more interesting role just last month in another suspense tale, “Don’t Tell a Soul”) gets stuck having to play the heroine as whiny and critical, when not baby-talking to the dog. Aren’t we supposed to root for these people?
These are the kind of duff notes that make a bad movie engagingly wrong. And by betting the melodramatic farm on a reactionary depiction of grasping, manipulative, entitled homeless people, “Paradise Cove” is well ahead in that department from the start.