Let's face it, people like a tale of murder, the more disgusting, the better. From the penny dreadful novellas of the 19th century to more films that possible to list, murder has held the fascination of audiences. Without any doubt, one of the most heinous serial killing sprees ever was in 1977-1979 in Los Angles California, the Hillside Strangler murders. This was a rare phenomenon; this was a team of serial killers, Kenneth Bianchi (C. Thomas Howell) and his adopted cousin Angelo Buono (Nicholas Turturro). While most serial killers are solitary hunters, these two worked together, two halves of one twisted psyche. As one of the infamous cases in police history these murders have been the subject of various treatments on both the large big and small screen but never has one been made that is as brutal as this one.
The film starts with a perverted act by Bianchi, as a store guard, he blackmails a pretty young shoplifter into stripping for him (with the implication of a lot more). He has failed out of joining the police for in Rochester New York, so he heads west to California to hook up with is an extremely sleazy cousin. Once there Buono introduces some what naÔve cousin to a world of easy women, drugs and eventually violence. They try to start an escort service by forcing a young girl and her friend to prostitute them only to be shut down by the local pimp and his crew. In a fit of rage, they murder a hooker they believed to be responsible. This was the start of what they called the scam, each murder escalating in brutality and perversion. Bianchi, the more handsome of the pair, would typically pose as a police officer and stop young women on the road. In this strange way, he could act out his long desire to be a cop. Buono would then pop in and escalate things to their sick conclusion. Was time went on rape and strangulation was not enough, they would torture their hapless victims, binding them and even injecting household cleaners into their veins.
A bizarre dynamic is slightly explored in this work. Bianchi was the more submissive of the two, at times completely under the hedonistic sway of his older worldlier cousin. Buono was a master manipulator, able to get Bianchi to do the unimaginable. In no way can Bianchi be construed as a victim here, although influenced by Buono he was an eager participant. Often, Bianchi, after a fight with his girlfriend or some other set back, tells Buono that he needs to go out cruising. Bianchi was somewhat successful as a con artist. Thanks to a low-cost printer he created a little side business as a cut rate psychotherapist.
Buono is a textbook sadist. He relishes in the pain and humiliation of others, especially women. This misogynistic and violent man needed to show off his ability to degrade others found the perfect audience and partner with Bianchi. Buono needed to always be in control, torture and murder gave him a god like the sense of control that he craved.
C. Thomas Howell has been an actor for most of his life, although I think he hit a career high with Red Dawn in 1984. While most of his career has been devoted to likable characters here, he plays one devoid of any hope that the audience will identify with, a character impossible to become emotionally invested in. Thankfully, he doesnít even try to play Bianchi for even an iota of sympathy. He shows us a man that although pulled into being a serial killer enjoyed the feeling the murders provided. A similar situation exists for Nicholas Turturro. Turturro is best known as James, the likable detective on NYPD Blue. Again, not a single aspect of his portrayal of Buono evokes any emotion other than disgust in the audience. These two usually steady actors play against type here with some mixed results. The performances are often a bit stiff; they could have gone a bit closer to the edge emotionally. Perhaps this was intentional, presenting the killers as emotionally detached from their actions. They did nail the complex relationship between the two men. Bianchi needed to be controlled, and Buono was more than willing to take the more dominant role.
One refreshing aspect of this film is it does not even attempt to make sense of these killings. All too often the film maker seeks some reason for the murderous behavior, something that a rational human being in the audience can use to rationalize what they are seeing. Instead, director Chuck Parello shows us two men that enjoyed rape, torture, and murder. There are no bleeding-heart excuses, no Ďmy mother didnít love me,' just two pathological murderers that deserved every punishment the law could provide. Filming such a story from the perspective of the killers is extremely difficult. As mentioned before there is no hope for the audience to identify with the lead characters. For this genre of film, the bar is set very high, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, is the watershed mark and was so well done that any film pales in comparison. Parello even made a sequel to that film in 1998, preparation for Hillside Stranglers. I remember a film that looked at these events from the eyes of the police investigators assigned to the cases. This film fills in the disgusting details left out of that film. Parello interestingly uses color. The palette is often washed out, the murders shown in only part of the screen. As some of the events that lead up to the murders unfold, the events are reflected visually as the color palette took on an increasingly vivid nature. The colors reflect the lives of the men, subdued until the actual act when they seem to come alive as another human being is murdered.
TLA Releasing has done a good job with the DVD. The Dolby 5.1 audio was surprisingly good. The rear speakers were used for some subtle effects, a radio playing off to the side, the bubbles in a fish tank. The audience is given a real sense of being there. The video was clear, free of defects. There was a commentary track by the director that adds some insight into the production. It did sound as if it was recorded in a tunnel though. This was an interesting film that could have aspired to more but is worth a viewing.
Posted 12/04/04 08/05/2017