A Killer in the Family (1983) starring Robert Mitchum, James Spader, Lance Kerwin, Eric Stoltz, Salome Jens, Lynn Carlin, Stuart Margolin, Arliss Howard directed by Richard T. Heffron Movie Review

A Killer in the Family (1983)   3/53/53/53/53/5

James Spader and Robert Mitchum in A Killer in the Family (1983)

My Father the Killer

Having been sentenced to two life sentences for murder, Gary Tison (Robert Mitchum - Battle of Midway) finds himself moved to a low security prison due to his good behaviour where he is able to have picnics with his family. It is there he plays the doting father who is especially proud of son Donny (James Spader - Alien Hunter) who is studying law at college and encourages him to keep studying. What Donny doesn't realise is that his father has talked his younger brothers Ricky (Eric Stoltz) and Ray (Lance Kerwin) into breaking him and cell-mate Randy Greenawalt (Stuart Margolin). When Donny discovers what they are up to he agrees to help out as long as no one gets hurt except after successfully busting Gary and Randy out of prison the two criminals return to type and brutally murder a family when they take their car. Whilst Ricky and Ray tow the line in fear of their father, Donny is less willing to do as he is ordered as he begins to see his father's true colours.

I had never heard of the name Gary Tison when I sat down to watch "A Killer in the Family" but have watched more than enough movies to spot one based on a true story even before it is mentioned. As such "A Killer in the Family" is part dramatization, covering the break out of Gary Tison and his cellmate Greenawalt on the 30th July 1978 by Tison's three sons along with the events which immediately followed it as they went on the run. It is surprisingly brutal for a made for TV movie as it covers the murder of a family who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And typically of a made for TV movie whilst it only dramatizes events up to a point it delivers a prologue of what happened to all those involved. I've kept details to a minimum as in truth "A Killer in the Family" works best with just the barest of knowledge.

Eric Stoltz in A Killer in the Family (1983)

But the interesting side of "A Killer in the Family" is in the conflict between father and sons who discover that the doting father who said prison was dangerous when they visited was all an act and he was in truth a heartless killer. It means for Ricky and Ray they are torn because they are frightened by their father as the killer side of him comes out but out of loyalty to their father accept what he says. But then you have the educated Donny who is less intimidated by their father using his logic to try and reason with him.

All of which is good and both Robert Mitchum and James Spader hold the movie together nicely as it is their relationship which becomes the movies focus. But "A Killer in the Family" is a TV movie and one which lacks some of the finesse of a big screen movie and often suffers because of the supporting cast delivering weak performances especially during the early prison scenes.

What this all boils down to is that "A Killer in the Family" is both interesting and entertaining with the performances of Robert Mitchum and James Spader keeping hold of your attention. But it is a TV movie and has plenty of the typical issues you get from TV movies especially some weak supporting performances.