‘Sudden Fury: A Family Torn Apart’ (1993): True crime thriller with Neil Patrick Harris

Mill Creek Entertainment has released a DVD and digital download combo pack of Sudden Fury: A Family Torn Apart, the true-crime made-for-TV movie that originally aired on NBC back in November, 1993. “Dramatized” (uh oh…) from Leslie Walker’s non-fiction book, Sudden Fury, which detailed the 1984 killings of Bob and Kay Swartz by their adopted son, Larry, Sudden Fury: A Family Torn Apart, written by Matthew Bombeck and directed by Craig R. Baxley, stars Neil Patrick Harris, Johnny Galecki, Linda Kelsey, John M. Jackson, Lisa Banes, James Handy, Tim Kelleher, Timothy Bass, Eric Lloyd, and Gregory Harrison.

By Paul Mavis

Sudden Fury: A Family Torn Apart won’t bowl over fans of true-crime made-for-TV thrillers, but solid performances and some well-wrought slow-burn tension help distract from the misguided fictionalized inventions.

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In the quiet Annapolis, Maryland suburb of Cape St. Claire, the police arrive at a horrific scene: computer engineer Joe Hannigan (John M. Jackson) and his wife, high school teacher Maureen (Linda Kelsey), have been brutally slaughtered in their quaint two-story Colonial. What’s puzzling is that the Hannigan’s 17-year-old son, Brian (Neil Patrick Harris), is so calm about it all….

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Veteran detectives Stockman (James Handy) and Cahill (Tim Kelleher) immediately suspect the weirdly-composed Brian, who claims he heard nothing of the mayhem the previous night. However, Brian’s 7-year-old brother Chris (Eric Lloyd) claims he saw someone standing over his dead mother’s body out in the back yard, a shaggy figure carrying an axe—a figure that looked like the boys’ other brother, Daniel (Johnny Galecki). The cops immediately turn their attention away from quiet, “good boy” Brian to rebellious, “bad boy” Daniel, who had numerous scrapes with the law and who had been thrown out of the Hannigan house by Maureen and Joe.

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Unfortunately, there’s just one hitch with Chris’ eye-witness account: wiseass punk Daniel had been locked up in the state hospital the night of the killings. Did he escape to carry out his oft-stated desire to kill his parents? Did he help Brian kill Maureen and Joe? Or did something else happen that evening, a night of unspeakable violence brought on by years of parental abuse, both psychological and physical, against boys who were already severely damaged by their foster care upbringing?

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I didn’t see Sudden Fury: A Family Torn Apart when it first aired on NBC, but that’s not really surprising. By 1993, the “Big Three” network made-for-TV “docudramas” were starting to peter out, both in quantity and quality. They were still glossy and highly promoted, but there was a definite passe air to them. If you wanted mean-spirited, sexy made-for-TV thrills, cable was doing a better job at that time with MTVs, particularly Lifetime, which was quickly making a name for itself by producing and airing cheap, nasty “true-life” crime-and-sex thrillers.

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Sudden Fury: A Family Torn Apart is a typical example of the late-era “Big Three” network true-life MTV. It’s glossy and smooth and (relatively) expensive-looking. It’s based on a best-seller (for that built-in audience nervous networks craved), chronicling a notorious, highly-publicized crime. It features familiar-if-not-“A” level TV personalities that the producers hoped would score some recognition with the attention-deficit channel-flipping audience (Harris had finished Doogie Howser, M.D., Galecki was just starting out on the popular sitcom Roseanne, and Harrison still had a high Q rating from long-running hit Trapper John, M.D.). Unfortunately, Sudden Fury: A Family Torn Apart has a too genteel, too proper, too bloodless tone compared to its nervy, crass cable cousins.

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Using the time-honored story construction of opening with the immediate aftermath of the crime, and then proceeding with the cops beginning their investigation, before interwoven flashbacks fill in the blanks, scripter Matthew Bombeck eschews the juicier details of the crime (more on that below) to focus on the dysfunctional dynamics of the Hannigan family. It’s not anything we haven’t seen a dozen dozen times over, but it’s competently structured and written. Director Craig R. Baxley, who started out as a straight-up action director (Action Jackson, a couple of Dolph Lundgren epics) knows how to generate suspense (he was much more successful helming some tense Stephen King TV adaptations, such as Storm of the Century and Rose Red), tuning the family confrontation scenes to an increasingly worrying pitch. Aiding this measured, intelligent approach to the material is the claustrophobic production design of Garreth Stover and the dark, threatening cinematography of Joao Fernandes (that seemingly idylic–from the outside–Colonial is transformed into a grim, shadowy, unwelcoming environment).

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Baxley takes the same low-key approach to his actors’ performances, as well. Gregory Harrison, nominally the “biggest” star here, doesn’t really have much to do, saddled with a character who makes little sense (he brings a suspected murderer into his house, with his wife and two young children…and can’t explain why?), but he goes about it with a straight face. Neil Patrick Harris is necessarily drab as the “good boy” who always follows the rules, but he fits the bill as a repressed, disturbed young man. Johnny Galicki gets the showy role as the rebellious, sullen mouth-off, but to his credit, he keeps the teen character believably grounded. You buy his adolescent resentment and confusion and anger. And Linda Kelsey and John M. Jackson do a nice build as frustrated parents who turn abusive, even if Sudden Fury: A Family Torn Apart doesn’t have the time to adequately flesh out their characters (Broadway pro Lisa Banes does a lot with almost nothing as a friend of the family).

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Where Sudden Fury: A Family Torn Apart gets into trouble is in what it leaves out. Of course most if not all TV docudramas and minis based on true-life crimes will deliberately mix up facts, compress characters, and outright invent situations. I don’t usually go in for comparing a movie to the real event it’s based on, because artistic license is a valid dramatic tool. However, when the fabrications don’t match up to the historical reality, there’s a problem of imagination…or lack thereof. I wasn’t familiar with the Swartz killings, but I did a little digging online, and what immediately came to mind was: there’s really no mystery there. SPOILERS The cops knew almost immediately that the Neil Patrick Harris character killed the parents, not the Galicki brother. Apparently, someone thought a more conventional, contrived, extended investigation had to be tacked on to make the movie palatable (Harris stated in an interview he didn’t think people would “believe” the actual facts of the case). It didn’t. From what I read, the case was fascinating just as it was; embellishment wasn’t needed.

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Perhaps the producers figured that hewing too close to the truth would result in relatively unsympathetic main characters. Sudden Fury: A Family Torn Apart wants to place blame squarely on the parents for their strict discipline, their religious mania, and their physical and psychological abuse (Hollywood’s never-ending, cliched examination of small-town/suburban America’s “dark underbelly”). They want us to feel sorry only for the killer. However, that’s not what the original author of the true-crime book wanted (Leslie Walker stated she didn’t believe the parents were “monsters,” not-so-subtly hinting that the movie went overboard in that direction). After all, the “truth” of Sudden Fury: A Family Torn Apart‘s depiction of the Swartz/”Hannigan” parents is fictionally sifted through real killer Larry Swartz’ story–a story no one else except his brother verified in full. I suspect what’s presented here is a Hollywood screenwriter’s version of the truth, filtered from the side of the story presented by the criminal defense lawyers, which means it either somewhat resembles the real truth…or it’s about as dependable a declaration as a long-distance phone call to Hawaii via two Donald Duck orange juice cans and 4,000 miles of string.

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There are lots of case facts that don’t make it to the screen–facts that would mostly eliminate any sympathy one might feel for the killer (real killer Larry didn’t wander around in a benevolent daze like Doogie; he tried to frame his punk brother for the crime…a crime that included almost scalping his mother, before sexually assaulting her with a broom handle–feel sorry for him now?). Regardless of how you assign blame in Sudden Fury: A Family Torn Apart, what’s critically missing from the finale are the murders themselves. We need to see what happened, but the moviemakers tastefully cut away right at the moment of impact. Why they do that I can’t imagine. Certainly there had been other earlier network MTVs that went further with the violence (Mark Harmon’s vicious, sick beatings in The Deliberate Stranger, or Barbara Hershey’s truly frightening axe attack in the equally superlative A Killing in a Small Town).

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The need for those on-screen killings isn’t prurient (although a thriller should be, at least once, thrilling). They’re needed for the suspense pay-off. Why carefully craft that tension, and then cheat the pay-off? The viewer needs it, either for catharsis (if you side with the kids) or indictment (if you’re team parents). That might seem like a small drawback considering the overall polish of Sudden Fury: A Family Torn Apart…but it keeps this MTV from achieving any “true” impact (…and you can bet Lifetime wouldn’t have been so demure).

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

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