With the rash of fictional serial killer films finding their way onto DVD, the true tales of these foul fiends are often lost, or forgotten. We've all heard the frightening statistics β at any given time, there are 20 to 50 active mass murderers on the loose in society. Even if we don't realize it now β the local media isn't making the proper connections, or regional law enforcement doesn't have enough evidence to link the seemingly similar cases β there are reports of these heinous crimes filling our everyday lives. Yet it seems easier for filmmakers to draw up imaginary composites of these inhuman monsters than to actually address the real deal. Understanding that horror hits the pocket book a heck of a lot harder than a tawdry talking head documentary, there are more Buffalo Bills and Jigsaws in the pop culture conversation than movies trying to understand the nature of individual evil. James Ellroy and Benjamin Meade want to change all that. Using the story of Bob Berdella, a notorious Kansas City serial killer as the basis for their narrative, they offer up Bazaar Bizarre. It strives to be a metaphysical dissection of the media's manipulation of mass murderer chic. In truth, it's a labored lost opportunity.
Bob Berdella was, by most accounts, an exceedingly odd duck. Most considered him a harmless blowhard, a stocky charlatan running a booth at the local flea market. He specialized in the unique and unusual, claiming to have collected his weird wares β masks, shrunken heads, bone jewelry, etc. β from routine trips around the world. While many scoffed at his international insinuations, his Bazaar Bizarre was a staple among the outer fringes of Kansas City couture. On the day before Easter, 1988, a young man was found wandering a local neighborhood. He was bloody and almost incoherent, completely naked except for a dog collar and leash around his neck. Finally drawing the attention of the police, the bewildered boy told an inhuman tale of torture and abuse. He had been picked up six days before by an overweight man, the bait being the promise of drugs. Before he knew it, he was tied to a bed and subjected to cruel, callous acts. The perpetrator? One Bob Berdella. Upon arrest, the seemingly mild mannered merchant confessed to using his home as a lab, "experimenting" on his victims with various devices and designs, all to inflict perverted pain and suffering. He admitted to killing six young men, and the house of horrors the cops uncovered would leave a community speechless. It turns out Berdella was more than odd β he was a sadistic psychopath who used the male body as a means of pleasureβ¦and persecution.
There are certain things that do not belong in a documentary about serial killers. The list would seem pretty obvious to the untrained eye β interviews with individuals who have no direct connection to the crimes, speculative statements about the extent of the evidence or the real nature of the crimes, local bands playing bad blues inside a mediocre music video style β and yet these are the very elements that self-proclaimed avant-garde "artist" Benjamin Meade uses to tell the story of Kansas City slayer Bob Berdella. All throughout the mock/documentary/rama Bazaar Bizarre, Meade uses the juicy commentary of author James Ellroy (LA Confidential) to provide an outside voice of reason and outrage in the discussion of this madman's brutal crimes. He also includes statements from people who had a passing interest in the case, as well as those who shopped at Berdella's flea market stall. While their varied voices add spice to the otherwise typical tale of a man using violence to fill the sexual void inside himself, the third persona parameters seem a little out of place. It doesn't help matters much that, even though the evidence suggests otherwise, our experts offer up conjecture and speculation on the extent of and rationale for Berdella's spree. He confessed to killing six men, and there was no substantiation to contradict that number or imply any ancillary motive. But Meade tosses in more than one assertion that many more of Missouri's missing and dead could be connected to Berdella. It's an odd way to make a case, since the confessed crimes are nasty enough.
And then there is the compendium of absolute crap that passes for musical moments in this movie. While the aesthetic reality of wanting to pepper a true crime presentation with lumbering laments performed by one of the stupidest looking bands ever to be cobbled together for a low budget, independent documentary is questionable at best, Meade makes it a part of his overall production design. There are sequences when the lyrics mimic what we've heard/seen previously, attempts at adding context and clarity via bland boogie-based stomps, and the most insane of all ideas β and actual multimedia moment when actor Christopher Leo (who plays serial killer Berdella) breaks out into lip-synced song. While the previous problems are easily dismissed (James Ellroy is so adroit and masterfully matter of fact that you can't help but be swept up in his straight shooting) the inclusion of these atonal atrocities more or less destroys this film. Meade may think he is providing a kind of cruel juxtaposition between the blood letting and the banal, but the result is so shocking, so "In the name of all that is holy, why?" that Bazaar Bizarre cannot recover from it. No amount of disemboweling, implied sodomy or male nudity can compensate for what is, inherently, a cinematic mistake of epic proportions.
There are other problems with this presentation as well. The mixing of reality and speculation, the black comedy moments of cannibalism and vivisection, fail to add up or create focus. It's intriguing to see and hear the troubled, traumatized man who actually escaped Berdella's den of iniquity, especially since he seems both casual and confused about what truly happened to him, even all these years later. The reporters who covered the case at the time appear equally evasive. One stands near the scene and breaks off a list of accusations. Another, now living in Hawaii, offers more specious, spacey conclusions. When speaking to the police involved at the time, we get nothing more than by the book BS. The district attorney also tows the public prosecutorial party line, offering his open and shut conclusions about the crimes and the individual who committed them. Even Berdella, shown in a jailhouse interview, plays his part perfectly. He attaches very little personal responsibility to his actions, while casting a wide net over any ancillary or tangential bit of blame he can lay his hands on, all to ease his own blood-covered burden. He even mentions a conspiracy to "kill" him in prison, suggesting that the inability to gain a sentence of death (it was part of his plea) means that prisoners and guards will be plotting to pick him off once he makes it to the Big House.
Had Meade found a way to center these divergent elements, to paint the entire Berdella case in contemporary, contextual terms β like the impact on the community at the time or how the crimes made Kansas City deal with its male prostitution problem β we may have had something more than this scattered shambles. But as it plays out, even with Ellroy's sermons of serial killing, Bazaar Bizarre is like watching a third rate revisit of the John Wayne Gacy case. There is really nothing "new" to what Berdella did. He was an overweight man with homosexual urges who used some manner of inner resentment to fuel his sick need to rape and torture young men who wouldn't normally give him the time of day β physically or otherwise. The pay for love facets add a moment or two of interest, as do the attempts to recreate the crimes (though the gore seems so base and b-movie). But the real reason this entire enterprise fails is because of Meade's unwillingness to play straight with the designs of the documentary. As part of the extra features here, we get a laughably self-serving bio of the director that seems to indicate he's the second coming of Stan Brakhage (who Meade actually made a film about). Art for art's sake is one thing. Screwing up a real life crime story to fit a forced stylistic design is just dumb. There is nothing novel in the approach offered by Meade, and it makes Bazaar Bizarre ridiculous instead of real. There's a potentially interesting segment of America's Most Wanted buried in this befuddling mess. Unfortunately, it won't be worth your time to find it.
As they tend to do with their releases, Pathfinder provides a rather lackluster transfer for this title. Offered in a faux letterbox image, the cropped 1.33:1 full frame picture is problematic. Granted, filmmaker Benjamin Meade made a couple of critical visual choices when he helmed this project. There is a grainy, 8mm quality to the cinematography (the aggravating gray specs are unavoidable in the night scenes) and the color is, at times, oversaturated to give the movie a kind of '60s/'70s exploitation feel. The stock footage looks just fine, as does the inclusion of some video from the vaults. But overall, the presentation is mediocre at best.
The Dolby Digital Stereo mix provides a nice balance between the underscoring and the conversations. All the dialogue is easily discernible and there are none of the internal mic issues we usually associate with an independent effort. On the downside, the aforementioned music videos are even more vile when they burble out of the speakers in all their two channel bar band balderdash.
Pathfinder provides a few added elements of note, including a goofy gallery (more or less actual screencaps from the DVD), two text bios (the other is on Ellroy) a trailer for the film, four pointless deleted scenes (including another song!!!) and a nine minute featurette called "Postmortem". Nothing more than a conversation between Meade and several members of his cast/crew, we hear the filmmaker defend the decision to include the songs in the film, the truly fake make-up of the band depicted, and how a willingness to get naked landed one actor his role. While not a complete back-slapping bit of self-congratulation, this minor bit of bonus content does prove that Meade believes whole-heartedly in his vision. Too bad we can't get behind his designs.
Let's get the critical call out of the way right up front. Since it fails to fully explore the Bob Berdella case with any kind of critical, contextual or cautionary eye, this mediocre documentary easily earns a score of Skip It. Even people with a passion for all things serial killer will probably find Meade's mangled style too much to endure. If you really must revisit this sad, sickening story from the late '80s, then by all means give this title the most tentative of rentals. The amount of pretense here, the overall desire to bury the narrative in pointless nuance, literally drains all interest from this project. While morbid curiosity may lead more than one to this horribly flawed film, all others should steer clear. Benjamin Meade may have had the best intentions when he set out to put Bob Berdella in his sociopathic place in the world. But Bazaar Bizarre is too arcane to offer any real insight or intrigue. It's the same old serial killer story told in an incredibly irritating manner.
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