Hillside Strangler

Hillside Strangler


Reviewed by: Keith Hennessey Brown

Kenneth Bianchi would very much like to join the police. He's also a psychopath. After being rejected again his mother - or, as we later learn, his adoptive mother - suggests Ken might benefit from a change of scenery and arranges for him to go west and visit his cousin Angelo in LA It's a bad combination, the older, more experienced, but equally psychopathic Angelo exerting a negative influence on his younger, impressionable cousin.

They decide to set themselves up as pimps, using Ken's charm and Angelo's capacity for brutality to lure and control naive innocents into their clutches. After buying a list of clients from a hooker, Gabrielle, they are visited by a rival pimp and his thugs, who take their money and guns and send the girls packing.

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Seeking vengeance, the pair track down Gabrielle and Ken strangles her to death. Turned on, they quickly develop their modus operandi. Posing as plain clothes policemen they find it easy to arrest hookers - followed by any woman who has the misfortune to cross their paths - and take them in for "questioning" to rape, torture and murder, before dumping their bodies...

John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer has a lot to answer for. Without it, we would never have had a piece of dreck like Hillside Strangler. Chuck Parello, debuted as a director with the unwieldy-titled Henry Portrait Of A Serial Killer 2: Mask Of Sanity, which was followed by Ed Gein, co-scripted by Stephen Johnston, his writing partner here, who handled similar duties on Matthew Bright's Bundy.

What Parello and Johnston do ain't nice. But, unlike Wolverine, we can't even say that they're the best, which is very different from McNaughton, who never presented his film as an actual biopic of any real-life serial killer, despite drawing inspiration from the infamous Henry Lee Lucas. Ironically, the low-key way in which Henry delivers the "facts" proves far more effective and true to the documentary tradition than the faux case study approach of Parello and Johnston, given the way in which they distort their material - no mention is made of the three murders allegedly perpetrated by Bianchi in Rochester before he and Angelo crossed paths - and the manner in which it is presented.

The biggest problem is that they want us to identify with Bianchi and, to a lesser extent, Buono. It's almost hagiographic at times, with insufficient distance, or authorial comment present, to establish a distinction between the distorted, hateful, misogynistic views of the two men and those of the film and its creators, as a succession of women line up to act dumb and get killed in the best slasher movie tradition.

Hillside Strangler's saving grace is the quality of the performances from C Thomas Howell and Nicholas Turturro. Both are scarily convincing, the former equipped with a glib charm and tendency to fall apart when faced with opposition, the latter more overtly sadistic and controlling. Here, at least, comparisons with Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer's Michael Rooker are appropriate. If nothing else, Parello can be said to direct actors well, remembering that Steve Railsback was equally impressive in Ed Gein.

All told, one has to question the filmmakers' motives and, indeed, those who programmed EIFF. As with the equally flawed Trauma being the product of the festival's ex-artistic director's new company, one suspects that if this had been produced by an entity other that Tartan, it wouldn't have had a look in.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2004
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Alleged biopic of serial killing cousins who posed as cops in California.
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EIFF 2004

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