Color, 1998, 92 mins. / Directed by Jon Reiss / Starring Paul Hipp, Radha Mitchell, Boyd Kester, Bitty Schram / First Run (MSRP $29.98) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) / DD2.0

Best known for his acclaimed rave documentary, Better Living Through Chemistry, director Jon Reiss cut his teeth on music videos and first tackled narrative film a year earlier with his own twisted contribution to the well worn "cuckoo in the nest" thriller genre. Though not overly graphic in the traditional sense, Cleopatra's Second Husband is packed with enough implied perversion, dysfunction, and psychological torture to fuel a dozen late night cable TV heavy breathers, few of which would dare to enter the territory explored during this sick puppy's third act.

Robert (Paul Hipp), a submissive photographer enduring an oppressive relationship with his wife, Hallie (Bitty Schramm), plans to go off with her for a country vacation. They arrange for two strangers, Zack (Boyd Kestner) and Sophie (Pitch Black's Radha Mitchell), to housesit in their absence but find the situation far out of control upon their early return to Los Angeles. The housesitters ask to stay on while they find an apartment, and soon Robert's life becomes consumed by these intruders whose charisma may mask a darker purpose. Hallie finds herself unable to cope with the mind games on display, but Robert has an entirely different approach to the situation.

A direct descendant of chamber work horrors by the likes of Claude Chabrol and Roman Polanski, this indie shocker takes it time to build up a full head of steam but more than pays off in the end with a succession of morbid twists and turns. Many viewers may be put off by some of the more uncomfortable propisitions raised by the ultimate direction of the story, but at least it's more interesting and unpredictable than junky, silly, major studio exploiters of marital trauma like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The Tie That Binds. (Remember those?) The film isn't an unqualified masterpiece by any means; some of the stylish flourishes call attention to themselves at the wrong time, and the script could have used a little tightening in the first half. However, the actors remain nimble and convincing in their tricky roles, and overall the film is executed with enough visual invention to prevent the claustrophobic setting from becoming too limited or stagey.

Regrettably not 16:9 enhanced (rare for a title this recent), First Run's disc of Cleopatra's Second Husband (whose title suggests an oblique parallel between Robert and Rome's Marc Anthony) looks colorful but definitely on the soft side, while the surround audio track remains active throughout. Detail is wanting in many of the darker shots and dark areas tend to smudge, though this may be a shortcoming inherent in the original film considering the large number of trick shots, filters, and diffused lighting effects on display. A feature length commentary track features Reiss and journalist David Williams, in which they discuss everything from the film's genesis (a real life experience of the director's) to the technical and financial pluses and minuses of shooting indie 35mm projects within a limited space. Other extras include a gallery of photographs featured within the film, talent bios, and a purposefully vague theatrical trailer (as well as trailers for a handful of other First Run titles).

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