The Hiding Place, by Reed Lackey

11 Oct

Horror stories in TV and film already come in multiple varieties: slashers, paranormal, creature-features, gore-fests, etc. But one variety of horror story that is rarely considered as such is the closer-to-reality ilk of true crime dramas such as CSI or even Law & Order. While it is true that the tone and intention behind these stories are often more dramatic in flavor, I’ve often speculated that the violence described in most episodes of criminal procedurals easily rivals the grisliest of gruesome activities of Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers.

I would submit for your consideration a new entry in that sub-category of “true-crime horror” a new film by Nick Searcy, his sophomore feature effort, called Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer. The title implies a certain horrific conceit already, but the based-on-a-true-story trial in question was the trail of Kermit Gosnell, an abortion doctor who was discovered to live and operate in horrendously filthy and cluttered conditions, and who was responsible for the deaths of numerous infants and at least one adult woman through unlawful and unsanitary practices.

The film centers around the discovery of Gosnell’s operation and the ensuing legal battle which would collide on the intensely volatile battleground of reproductive rights. The film’s rendition of Gosnell had been hiding for years behind the legal authority to perform abortions and gave little credible concern to the unethical and unsanitary practices his office continually engaged in behind the protection of those rights. The film quickly addresses the polarizing difficulty of pursuing a conviction against a medical practitioner of abortions because the case will be almost immediately partisan and unable to properly distinguish itself from being a definitive surrogate for all other abortion cases.

Scripted by notable conservative Andrew Klavan and populated by previously outspoken conservative personalities such as Dean Cain and Alfonzo Rachel, it could be easy to dismiss this film as heavily biased conservatively. But what struck me so emphatically about the film’s tone was how it successfully made a case, not against abortion as a subject entirely, but against those who would hide behind the legality of abortion to commit heinous and despicable atrocities. While it’s certainly true that someone could walk away with the understanding that the filmmakers do not approve of abortion’s legality, the film itself accomplished a deft balancing act in both its script and direction of not capitalizing on the easy moments to take cheap shots at a political issue.

This is a story told with great concern for human dignity and for the ethical issues inherent in medical practice. I personally felt no remote hint of accusation towards mothers in the position of considering an abortion, but rather the full weight of any narrative malice aimed at this specific doctor (and towards the media – more on that in a moment) who would cowardly hide behind their legal rights or the polarity of the issue to ignore criminal malpractice.

The film’s production and distribution history is nearly worthy of its own film. Initially intended as a direct-to-TV film, the film fought difficulties in both being allowed to crowdfund due to the source material and in being distributed once the film was completed. Individuals involved with the production – most prominently Nick Searcy, the director and co-star – claim there was political bias in the difficulties associated with the film’s creation and distribution. And this is somewhat compatible with the treatment of the real-life trial by the mainstream media when it occurred.

One of the most effective elements of Searcy’s film is the inclusion in the last third of the almost complete ignoring of the trial of Kermit Gosnell by the media, presumably due to the controversial nature of appearing to cover “abortion on trial”. Searcy manages to balance introducing this element as narratively critical without over-sensationalizing it to feel contrived. In truth, both the script and the direction are impressively clinical in its depiction of the events. It recalled to me old episodes of Dragnet in its ability to evoke sometimes startling emotional power by keeping the tone and information very direct. This is even more to the film’s credit because it allows the emotional elements to resonate more powerfully, especially in regard to the damnable silence by the media coverage.

The performances are strong, often understated. While the film does maintain a certain television docudrama feel, it never slides into clichéd triteness or emotionalism. My only minor grievance with the film is the performance of the director himself as Kermit Gosnell’s defense attorney, Mike Cohan. Nick Searcy’s skills as an actor are not remotely in question, but he puzzlingly chose not to approach the portrayal of this defense attorney with the same degree of clinical objectivity and restraint with which he so admirably handles the overall rhythm of the picture. His portrayal is often almost cartoonishly villainous, with little visible nuance or internal conflict to defending such an overtly unsettling case. I’ll concede that an active decision may have been made that such a defense attorney would approach the case in exactly that way, but it caused the performance to stand out amidst a sea of more restrained, conflicted, and subtle performances.

Overall, Gosnell: The Trail of America’s Biggest Serial Killer is an effective and impressive treatment of a potentially violently polarizing subject. While it is unlikely that viewers of more liberal political leanings will be able to avoid feeling that that film leans to a more conservative verdict, it would be difficult for anyone to substantiate that the film strives towards anything other than objectivity and narrative integrity. The director and production team are to be commended for approaching what could easily have been a political hit piece and treating the subject with sensitivity and dignity, creating a compelling and frightening story.

It is even more frightening in that it occurred. Dramatization aside, the facts in the case remain intact, and there are few horror films that could rival the atrocities at play in the case of Kermit Gosnell. The efforts towards continuing human rights and dignity while exposing cowardly abuses that hide behind them is the real champion of the film, and it’s a case that deserves to be heard in a film that I believe deserves to be seen.

One Response to “The Hiding Place, by Reed Lackey”

  1. Christina E Dunigan October 14, 2018 at 9:20 am #

    The reality was worse than what was shown in the film. They had to tone it down.

    Gosnell got the idea for “snipping” the spines of the live-born babies after attending the National Abortion Federation Risk Management Seminar in Dallas in 1992. There, highly-reputable NAF member Martin Haskell presented his “D&X” abortion procedure later dubbed “partial birth abortion” by the prolife movement. D&X involves dragging the fetus out feet-first, stopping just before delivering the head, shoving scissors into the base of the skull to create a hole through which to insert a canula to suction out the brain. This would collapse the skull and ensure the delivery of a totally dead baby of any gestational age. Gosnell cut the spinal cord rather than making a hole to remove the brain.

    After the Partial Birth Abortion Ban, Gosnell tried to comply with the law by injecting drugs into the baby’s heart to kill it, but he lacked the skill so he just used what he considered a modification of Haskell’s procedure.

    You could assert that NAF isn’t culpable that Gosnell decided to create his own ghoulish twist on one of their prized abortion methods. But NAF does have a culpability that wasn’t revealed in the film, much to my chagrin.

    After Karnamay Mongar’s death, Gosnell tried to redeem himself by becoming a NAF member. A NAF representative came to Philly and inspected Gosnell’s clinic and saw the horriffic conditions. She contented herself with merely denying him membership. She did not report him to the authorities — something she certainly should have done even though we all know in retrospect that nothing would have happened. But more than that, she failed to tell NAF clinics to stop referring women to him. And worst of all, she took absolutely no steps to ensure that Gosnell would no longer be permitted to start his illegal third-trimester abortions at a NAF member clinic in Delaware, where he worked one day a week on patients that they collected money from and turned over to him. Gosnell initiated the abortion that resulted in the birth and subsequent murder of Baby Boy A at that National Abortion Federation member clinic.

    The Gosnell story in some ways reminds me of Amadeus. When I first saw it, I thought that they ramped up Mozart’s childish scatological behavior in order to offend modern sensibilities as much as his contemporaries would have been offended. To the contrary, I later learned. Mozart was not content with blatant farting at parties. He would drop his pants and defecate on the table.

    Thus it is with Gosnell. He was toned down because the reality was so far beyond belief.

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