In a radio interview conducted earlier this year, Jane Seymour said that she took the title role in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman due to the fact that she had learned just the day before that her third husband, David Flynn, had spent all of her money and left her 9 million dollars in debt. Her agent informed her that it would be in her best interest to take the very next television role that came along, as this would allow her to earn a steady paycheck to support herself and her children and begin to pay off this deficit. The show ended up running for several years and was quite popular in its day, with an enduring legacy that brought us a television film wrap-up and a recent Funny or Die sketch that brought back many of the actors from the show’s run. Dr. Quinn also holds a special place in my heart as well, as it instigated the first argument I ever had with my family in which I knew I was morally correct: I was staying with my grandmother during the airing of an episode in which the town preacher wants to burn a book (presumably Faust) in which a man sells his soul to the devil. My grandmother was insistent that, for religious reasons, “we must be careful about what we put into our minds”; I was equally insistent at age 7 that burning books was a moral evil. I was punished pretty severely, but I knew I was right.
With that personal anecdote out of the way, let’s talk about Praying Mantis, a 1993 TV movie directed by Seymour’s fourth husband, James Keach, whom she likely met on the set of Sunstroke the previous year. You may know Keach as the man who gave Jane Seymour all of those oddly shaped diamond pendants every Christmas for the past few years. Did you notice that there weren’t any of those commercials this year? Yeah; they split up in 2015. To be fair, 22 years is a long time for a Hollywood couple to be together. I picked up the VHS copy of Praying Mantis a few years back based on the cover image alone: a bride in a wedding dress stands with her back to the camera, clutching a large knife behind her. The film also stars Barry Bostwick as her newest victim, Dr. Quinn co-star Chad Allen as his son, and Frances Fisher as the sister of Bostwick’s late wife, who has been living with the family.
The film opens with an expository scene in which Seymour’s character, Linda, marries a man and then murders him immediately after the ceremony (once they have established that she talks about her father all the time and that she convinced him to have a small ceremony without any attendees). She then sets her sights on Don (Bostwick); he owns a small bookstore chain, and she poses as a romance novelist looking to research Russian history for her work. She slips into his life and ingratiates herself with his “teenage” son Bobby (Allen), whose mother passed away a few years before. In the interim, the departed woman’s sister, Betty (Fisher), has lived with the father and son and acted as a mothering influence on young Bobby. Betty is almost immediately suspicious of Linda when the latter unwittingly reveals that she doesn’t know that Anna Karenina is a novel, but she eventually succumbs to Linda’s attempts to lure her back to her alcoholism. Don throws Betty out, and she sees a news item that lends credence to her theory; can she warn him before he becomes Linda’s newest prey?
Even if you didn’t know from the outset that this was a made-for-TV movie, it would be obvious in the film’s opening moments, wherein we see terrible lighting issues, hear cheap music, and bear witness to opening credits created using the same font as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Although there’s a reasonable amount of tension generated over the course of the narrative, this is still a very by-the-numbers lady killer story, a kind of genderswap The Stepfather produced for a Lifetime audience. Although it’s impossible to say so definitively, my guess is that Seymour probably agreed to participate for the same reason she signed on for Dr. Quinn: fast money. She sleepwalks through this project, meaning that the heavy lifting is mostly performed by Fisher, who is up for the task and manages to put a lot of subtlety into her performance. If you catch this movie on TV late one night, it might be worth a viewing, but I doubt it’ll ever rise out of obscurity enough to warrant the remastering necessary to show this film on anything other than VHS. The thrills are fun but ultimately have no staying power.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond