The Cohen Case Files: Misbegotten (1998)

Written by Larry Cohen

The world of Cohen as a screenwriter-for-hire is a treacherous place to enter. Full of under-funded, poorly directed crap, it takes a hearty soul to enter such a place and report back if there is anything worth salvaging. I made it through Misbegotten, but just barely. The experience nearly destroyed me, but I have made a partial recovery and here is my report.

Paul (Nick Mancuso) and Caitlan Bourke (Lysette Anthony) are a successful couple who want to have a child. Caitlan is approaching the age where that could be an impossibility and Paul has more than a few years on her, so time is of the essence. Unfortunately, Paul has a low sperm count so Caitlan suggests artificial insemination via an anonymous donor. Brushing aside Paul’s common-sense suggestion that they just adopt—because otherwise there would be no film—they visit a fertility clinic run by Dr. Dotterweigh (Matthew Walker). While the good doctor does not explain why he has been given such an unwieldy name, he does explain Paul’s low sperm count in such a way to practically emasculate the poor guy in front of his wife before assuring them that the clinic’s donors are chosen with the utmost of care. Despite Paul’s serious misgivings, he agrees to look through the donor profiles with Caitlan.

Meanwhile, a sociopathic thug named Billy Crapshoot—seriously—is terrorizing the mean streets of Vancouver through a series of random carjackings that end in murder. Played with a loopy note of angry sarcasm mixed with confusion by Kevin Dillon, Billy catches a lucky break when his latest victim turns out to be a fairly well-off songwriter named Conan Cornelius (Stefan Arngrim).

Let that name sink in for a minute…Conan Cornelius.

Billy dumps Conan’s body and discovers the poor guy had no real family or friends to speak of. With no one around to report his victim missing, Billy moves in to Conan’s house to enjoy the easy life for a while. Going through Conan’s mail, Billy discovers a letter from the fertility clinic approving him as a donor. Apparently no one at the clinic has ever met the real Conan in person because they don’t bat an eye when Billy shows up in his place to make his donation.

Surprise! Caitlan and Paul choose Conan’s profile for their donor. After strong-arming a clinic worker to find out who claimed his sperm, Billy starts stalking Caitlan, eventually meeting her and trying to force her and the unborn baby into his life as a ready-made family.

Misbegotten is a bad film with a plot that almost begs for the reviewer to make bad puns. If I were so inclined, I could make jokes about the production being stillborn or describe the tone as an aborted attempt at suspense. But to make such jokes would bring me down to the same hacky level as the filmmakers who conceived and birthed this tedious flick.

The film was directed by Mark L. Lester, a journeyman in the genre trenches with one certifiable cult favorite in Class of 1984 to his credit, but you may know him from such time-killers as the anemic adaptation of Firestarter or the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Commando. He brings nothing to the table here other than a confused tone, a flat TV-movie quality look, and the good sense to keep the running time at 90 minutes.

But there is plenty of blame to spread around with this film and some of it has to be given to Cohen. While he is working from a novel by James Gabriel Berman, I don’t know how much of the source material is on the screen. Likewise, it’s possible that other writers worked on the project but went uncredited and it is customary for the director to make changes to the script. All that said, there is too much wrong with this film at the basic story level—clumsy dialogue, characters doing stupid things to move the plot along, confused motives—to let the credited screenwriter off the hook.

There are echoes of Cohen’s obsession with American masculinity in the film. Paul has trouble accepting Caitlan’s desire to use a donor because in his mind, it makes him less of a man that he cannot get her pregnant. Meanwhile, Billy swaggers through the film high on his own machismo except when it comes to women. Through some hazily-filmed flashbacks, it’s made clear that Billy was raped repeatedly in prison, rendering him impotent. It’s maybe the only character motivation that is believable and intriguing that he sees the child Caitlan is carrying as his only chance to have a family.

But honestly, giving that much thought to this film is reaching. Lester is not interested in how Caitlan’s pregnancy changes Paul’s behavior any more than he’s interested in how Billy’s prison experiences have left him a remorseless psychopath. He directs the film to be nothing more than a cheap combination of Fatal Attraction and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and even fails to clear that low bar.

The first half of the film is a bore as Lester slowly moves the pieces of the plot into place. If I were being charitable, I might say that his attempts to keep Paul and Caitlan anchored in some semblance of reality are admirable. But in execution, their protracted scenes as they talk out whether or not to use a donor are interminable. The goofy second half then flies off into crazy movie serial killer territory with Billy cold-bloodedly killing well over a dozen extras and bit players. The outlandishness of the plot twists and the ease with which Billy pulls off an assault on a well-guarded hospital should provide some campy fun, but the sequences wind up feeling muted and hamstrung by the low budget.

There is really nothing to recommend about Misbegotten. It fails as a thriller, a psychological study of how infertility changes a couple, and as a campy attempt to cash in on films that were popular ten years before it was made. It simply sits there as a lump of lifeless scenes, bloody killings, and idiotic characters. It might not be a bad idea for Cohen to drop this one from his resume.

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