Director Parello and Co-writer Steve Johnson make up nicely for their titanic sized bomb ED GEIN with this taut and ugly serial killer bio-pic. To be fair to the creative duo, my knowledge of the actual HILLSIDE STRANGLER case is much more limited than with Gein, so any deviations from reality taken here would be outside my focus. Hence I would not be likely to criticize them for it. Irregardless of my feelings about their ED GEIN film, THE HILLSIDE STRANGLER is a winner.
The film opens on a quite but acutely unsettling note as C. THOMAS HOWELL (playing against type and proving himself once and for a all a very capable actor indeed as KENNETH BIANCHI) humiliates and, off screen, sexually assaults a shoplifter he catches at his department security job. His gleeful satisfaction is short lived as he gets the results back from his police service exam. Seems he failed miserably on the test scores to become a cop. With his dreams shattered, he heads to Sunny Las Angles to live with his grease ball cousin ANGELO BUONO (played to a scummy hilt by NICHOLAS TURTURRO). Once these two men are together they begin to feed off of each other’s sexual mania’s in a game of one upmanship.
The first third of the movie centers on the duo’s ever-escalating sex crimes that included kidnapping, extortion, becoming low rent (and unsuccessful) pimps and rape. When they decide to kill a prostitute (including a necrophiliac rape) they believe sold them out to a ruthless pimp, the bloodlust takes full hold of them both. Soon they are cruising the area hunting women like prey. All the while Bianchi juggles attempts as normalcy – he had a pregnant girlfriend that he hid his double life from as well as continued to become a cop – but failing miserably on those real world counts.
The film has met with a great deal of distain for its unflattering and unflinching look at these crimes. The style of the film is cold and distant with no real moral compass on view. No attempt to be careful is made in depicting the crimes on screen. So if a young woman is beaten, brutalized, stripped naked, hogtied, raped and strangled, Parello shows us those very acts. The brutality is not shied away from. Critics have been outraged claiming the movie of base titillation in these seems. But that seems to me to say more about the critics than the filmmakers. Titillation is where you find it and what I saw where horrible scenes of wanton brutality played out as such.
While these moments are harrowing, it is the quieter character moments of the movie that are most unsettling. An early scene in which Bianchi is upset about losing the Police gig and finds comfort in literally curling up in his aged mother’s lap, even as she protests that he is “too old to do that” is creepy to the extreme. Another scene late in the film, has Buono fighting with is mother over dinner in front of Bianchi. Suddenly in a drunken outpouring the woman reveals Bianchi’s molesting and rape of his own pre-adolescent daughters. Buono is non-plussed and only wants them to stop arguing and be “a family”.
Thankfully, there is no attempt to sanitize any of this or punch it up with extra “exciting” fight or chase scenes like they did with the fictionalized climax in ED GEIN. This film stays true to the ugliness of the material.
The entire cast is outstanding but C. Thomas Howell is a revelation. He still shows moments of that almost childlike charm that endeared him to millions of teenage girls in the mid eighties, but here he uses it to lure those very same types of girls into their web to be kidnapped, tortured, raped and killed. His sudden shifts in mood and personality are astonishing and very, very scary.
The copy I saw was an unrated screener. There is an “R” rated print out there but there is simply no way this film could survive the vivisection required to get it to that point. So avoid the “R” print at ALL costs. Rumor has it that even the Un-rated DVD is missing footage, but I have not been able to confirm this. THE HILLSIDE STRANGLER is one of the best true crime films to come down the pike in a long, long time.