Today our Lifetime and Hallmark movies are the sort of fluff and trash that developed from the recesses of very creative minds, but in the ’90s many of the films we remember were adapted from true crime. This week we examine Victim of Beauty, which tells the true tale of the murder Sharon Faye Smith, through the lens of her family’s experience.
1991 saw two made-for-television films titled Victim of Beauty, and much material online confuses the two films. Trailers for the story of Shari’s murder are in fact, the other film. Even Netflix has confused the two, blending the posters together for its title card. (Netflix, I have experience as a writer, editor, researcher, and I’m Adobe Creative Suite-certified!) Our film stars Jeri Ryan, not Sally Kellerman, and is streaming as Victim of Beauty, but is alternative known as Nightmare in Columbia County (trailers and images under that search also bring up material from the other film).
Larry Gene Bell kidnapped Shari in 1985 at gunpoint. Bell called the Smith family repeatedly, speaking to Dawn, taunting the Smiths that he would let Shari go home (she had already been murdered, that jerk), and eventually revealing the location of the body. During the manhunt for Bell, he called the Smiths eight more times. After Shari’s death Bell kidnapped and murdered Debra May Helmick, 9, and taunted the Helmick family in the same way. Bell was captured in 1985 and executed in 1996.
Victim of Beauty focuses on the terror experienced by the Smith family. As an audience, we see very little of Shari beyond the opening scene where she is revealed to be a smart, sassy little sister of Dawn, an aspiring beauty queen. (Dawn won Miss South Carolina in 1986.) It’s a blessing that we then skip the torture and death of Shari, and instead understand her family’s love by way of their grief. It’s a stark contrast to In Defense of A Married Man where the fictional victim is an unhinged woman standing in the way or marital bliss, or the treatment of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, who are barely acknowledged in American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.
Jerri Ryan portrays Dawn, who doesn’t have a whole lot to do, other than look distressed and very pretty. She’s outstanding though–she’s so good it’s hard to imagine this is the same actress who played a boring grifter on The OC. Ryan is the best part of the movie, and second to her is William Devane as the town sheriff determined to find Bell and bring him to justice. Unfortunately Devane’s efforts are so over-the-top that it seems like the film’s big twist will be that Sheriff Metts is the man who murdered Shari and Helmick.
Victim of Beauty should be a lot worse, but it succeeds in its efforts to show the love and devotion of a family that was not destroyed by a killer. The film hasn’t lived on with the notoriety of its peers, but it should.