‘Dead by Sunset’ (1995): Juicy melodrama is exactly what true-crime lovers want

I don’t even know what’s up anymore with Lifetime or Lifetime Movie Network; I haven’t watched since we ditched cable years and years ago (I think they just make Christmas movies now where everyone’s best friend is some screaming Billy Eichner queen). But back in the day, those channels, particularly LMN, were a treasure trove of lurid, pulpy, old-school true-crime mellers, and Dead by Sunset―featuring one of the genre’s “Psycho Hall of Fame” performances from Ken Olin―was one of the best.

By Paul Mavis

A few years back, Sony Pictures’ fun Choice Collection of manufactured-on-demand library and cult Columbia Pictures titles (are they still making those?) released Dead by Sunset, the 1995 TV mini that originally aired on NBC on November 19th and 20th, 1995, and starred Ken Olin, Annette O’Toole, Lindsay Frost, and John Terry. Based on true-crime master Ann Rule’s bestseller, which detailed the real-life murder of Portland, Oregon lawyer Cheryl Keeton by her psychopathic ex-husband, Bradley Cunningham, Dead by Sunset, featuring sharp, suspenseful direction by Karen Arthur and standout performances by Olin and O’Toole, does exactly what any good future Lifetime/LMN mini-in-heavy-rotation title should do: catalogue a seemingly unending series of heinous outrages perpetrated by an evil man against trusting, duped women…for the delighted delectation of the rapt viewers. You can’t ask for more than that in a true-crime meller.

Click to order Dead by Sunset on DVD:

At an abandoned gas station off the highway, a nervous Cheryl Keeton (Annette O’Toole) pulls her van in to meet her psychotic ex-husband, Brad Cunningham (Ken Olin), whom she fears has abducted her three little boys. Before she can get out of the car, Cunningham savagely beats her to death with a tire iron, while their 3-year-old boy, Phillip (Clay Malensek), watches silently in his car.

Flashback six months. Emergency room doctor Sara Gordon (Lindsay Frost), divorced from a husband who resented her success (don’t all men? The pigs.), is introduced to disarmingly charming investment broker Brad by a mutual friend, with the friend telling Sara that Brad is in an unhappy marriage. The attraction between Sara and Brad is mutual, but there’s no love lost for Brad at Cheryl’s law office, where everyone knows that Brad is trouble: a failed businessman with suspect practices, who’s also indifferent and cruel to Cheryl.

With Brad’s focus now squarely on Sara, he begins a systematic and cruel campaign of humiliation and abuse towards Cheryl. Setting her up unfairly in Sara’s eyes as an unfit mother and wife, Cheryl fights back in court against Brad’s machinations, publicly listing the abuses Brad has visited on her and the boys―an accounting that further unhinges the already unstable Brad. Once Cheryl is permanently out of the picture, and Sara is Brad’s new wife, it doesn’t take long for her to realize that perhaps Cheryl was right all along….

I don’t know how popular Dead by Sunset was when it initially aired on NBC (it’s Monday night conclusion was up against Monday Night Football on ABC, and popular counterprogramming Murphy Brown and Chicago Hope over on CBS, so…), but I can tell you that as a devoted Lifetime Movie Network viewer, Dead by Sunset was one of those go-to, must-see titles that fans of the channel would put on again and again no matter how many times they had seen it (like The Deliberate Stranger, another Rule adaptation, or that glorious trash Mother, May I Sleep With Danger, or the one where teacher Ann-Margret seduces her student to kill her husband Peter Coyote, or the one where Tiffani Amber-Thiessen gets side-nude while making love to a lighthouse ghost before they edited it in subsequent reruns, or the one where a disfigured, vengeful Yasmine Bleeth gets plastic surgery, or of course the “Gone With the Wind” of Lifetime reruns: A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story and Her Final Fury: Betty Broderick, The Last Chapter).

Dead by Sunset gives true-crime melodrama lovers exactly what they want: vicarious thrills that also allow them the sweet, self-satisfied ability to pass moral judgments off onto the characters (it feels so good to say, “I would never do that!” doesn’t it?). The rather unsettling, uncomfortable fact that these fictionalized events actually happened to real human beings is a shadowy, background understanding that, in the end, only enhances the titillation factor: like children, we “enjoy” the process of being scared…once we’re reassured it’s only a story or movie we’re watching, and not living.

As with any juicy true-crime case that makes the headlines, we find them fascinating mainly because they haven’t happened to us. Indeed, director Karen Arthur (lots of TV, including another cable classic marathon of melodramatic excess I can’t get enough of: The Jacksons: An American Dream) shoots the opening of the movie not like a straight thriller but rather a horror movie designed to spook us (she’s specifically divining John Carpenter’s The Fog, with the abandoned gas station’s lights and signs mysteriously crackling and sizzling to life). We even get a glimpse of Olin in the shadows, complete with a knock-off music cue from Carpenter’s Halloween―followed by a rattlesnake cue, for good measure―as he waits to viciously bludgeon O’Toole. Subtle, it ain’t…and thank god for that.

After this startling introduction, we backtrack six months to ground the murder, allowing the viewer to codify the characters along expected melodramatic conventions. Pretty, bland Sara (blah Frost’s dull turn here is the movie’s only major drawback) gets to be sneered at for being such a trusting dope, and faintly hated for being an unwitting home wrecker, before the viewers let themselves sympathize with Sara because she’s like so many other trusting women led astray by some lying man (Sara’s conversion to heroine is complete once Cheryl is murdered and we see how much Sara loves her adopted boys).

Of course we get the unrepentant evil villain, too―a cold, calculating psychopath who embodies all the female viewer’s worst fears and stereotypes about meeting an attractive, dangerous man who turns out to be a manipulative, controlling, homicidal bastard (I thought thirtysomething was a crime against humanity, but Olin’s heated turn here is skilled and extremely effective). The viewer gets to fear in vain for doomed O’Toole because she’s so likable and loyal, still wanting to make her marriage work despite the overwhelming evidence that suggests the only possible recourse for her: a one-way plane ticket to AnywhereElseville (O’Toole, a favorite of mine, is terrific here, as usual). With O’Toole’s sympathetic turn, it’s for the viewer to identify with her increasing sense of bewildered rage at Brad’s despicable behavior.

And the more outrageous those humiliations she suffers―and they are top-notch in Dead by Sunset―the more “enjoyable” they are to the melodrama-loving viewer. Olin’s character is, no question, in the “LMN Whack-Job Hall of Fame“: alternately arrogant and craven, aggressive and whining; an unhinged sociopath so well played by Olin that we can’t even feel the tiniest bit sorry for the character once we learn the possible source of his pathology (mommy didn’t love him enough, what else?).

The litany of abuses he heaps on O’Toole and Frost reach a dizzying, almost hilariously perverse, sick overload: he sends O’Toole to a dangerous biker bar, dressed as a whore so he can “catch” her “cheating” on him; he nails the babysitter (a LMN villain prerequisite); he gives his wife VD (when she asks how many there have been, he responds, “Legion! And they all looked, tasted, and smelled better than you ever did!” Classic); he chokes her at their son’s baseball game (that’s actually pretty normal); he locks her out of the house in the rain and then later rapes her; he faxes private, suggestive photos of her to her co-workers; he steals her car; he has the boys pretend they’ve been slaughtered in a home invasion, complete with fake blood; he holds a straight razor to his new wife’s throat; he nails another blowsy waitress; and best of all…he makes his kid build his own coffin as a punishment. And I thought my old man was nuts. If the last half-hour of Dead by Sunset peters out a bit (including a too-brief courtroom trial that should have been the movie’s slam-bang finale), who can blame it for being completely spent, after that parade of absolutely delicious grotesqueries?


Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

5 thoughts on “‘Dead by Sunset’ (1995): Juicy melodrama is exactly what true-crime lovers want”

  1. Whaaaaat? You didn’t like thirtysomething?!?!? That’s positively un-American! LOL! Great review. I’m still giggling. And damn, Ken Olin was fine back in the day. Off I go to find some Lifetime made for TV movies…..NOT! 🙂


    1. Oh my god with all the whining and kvetching about love and life and messy children, and the house that never got remodeled as a metaphor for life, and above all: the smug, self-satisfied knowledge that the trivialities of their carefully-groomed yuppie lives were gonna be just fine in the end if they only have friends and tasteful clothes….Jesus christ spare me.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Ken Olin was MUCH better as a villain than he ever was as the “thirtysomething good guy.” Check out his earlier turn as spouse killer in 1990’s Good Night, Sweet Wife. Is he too old to play the lead in a Hunter Biden biopic?


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