Though it can be dominated by one particular facet - script, acting, direction - film is, by its very nature, a highly collaborative process. Various artists bring their unique talents to a project, and if everything goes well (or at the very least, without incident) the result will be something coherent, construction and maybe even entertaining. Sure, sometimes one or more of the collective aspects can go astray, leading the movie in directions it could have never anticipated. Then there are times when all the elements are so excellent that the title takes some genuine getting used to. The result, typically, are films labeled "before their time" or "beyond the norm". In the case of Chicago Massacre: Richard Speck, the weak link in the cinematic chain is quite obvious. In fact, from the opening 'shots', you can tell whose failing to hold up their end of the mutual moviemaking bargain.
On a warm July night in 1966, Richard F. Speck, a vagrant merchant marine, wandered into the dormitory of nine student nurses from South Chicago Community Hospital. When he was done, eight were dead - brutally raped, stabbed and shot to death. One survived, and she lived to identify the Texas transplant as her terrifying tormentor. Having spent his life in and out of trouble, be it as a youth in a small town outside of Dallas, or as an abusive husband to his wife, Speck saw the world as owing him something. Apparently, he decided to take it out in blood. Sentenced to death, his execution was commuted to life in prison when the penalty was overturned in 1972. He became infamous once again when a video tape, smuggled out of prison, showed the mass murderer snorting cocaine, fondling a fellow inmate, and sporting some hormonally enhanced breasts. The sickening exhibition led to a massive investigation into the Illinois State Prison system. Speck died of an enlarged heart while still incarcerated. He was not quite 50 years old. Till this day, his crimes are well remembered by the citizens of the Second City. To them, there will always be a connection between said Chicago Massacre and Richard Speck.
Made in 10 days and with a very limited budget, Chicago Massacre: Richard Speck is much better than anticipated. It contains a powerhouse performance from former child star (Parker Lewis Can't Lose) Corin Nemec, offers a script that is level-headed and coherent (most of the time), and manages to capture a real sense of dread and foreboding with limited logistical advantages. In fact, if it weren't for one blatant motion picture defect, this would be an excellent outsider thriller. All the pieces are in place for something familiar and yet fresh, the serial killer story told from a much more passive, personal standpoint. But of course, Michael Feifer isn't really capable of such earnestness or effectiveness. His previous films, including the mediocre Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield (featuring a completely miscast Kane Hodder as the crazed cannibal) and the Final Destination rip-off Grim Reaper, indicate a longtime genre producer barely competent behind the lens. Granted, Chicago Massacre is a vast improvement over previous atrocities, but Feifer has yet to figure out the language of film. His narrative leaps both logic and time spans, moving from the past to the present to the yet to occur at a startling, scattered rate. Even worse, he relies on tricks that amateur hacks put away long ago, post-production jerryrigging that ruins many of the more disturbing moments.
Again, Nemec is sensational, playing Speck as kind of a redneck gone repugnant. It's a very post-modern performance, failing really to capture the loner gone loony that this crazed killer really represented. Still, in a physically demanding part that asks him to be morally repulsive and authentically abusive, Nemec is nice and nasty. He makes a perfect bad guy, and we can't wait until he gets his well deserved comeuppance. About the only awkward part to his performance are the badly rendered facial scars. It's one mucked up looking prosthetic. As his primary nemesis, b-movie veteran Andrew Divoff (Lost) does a good job as Detective Jack Whitaker, a policeman aggressively dedicated to catching this particular psycho. He has a nice, nauseated look in his eyes, showing us how readily this case is eating him up inside. Tony Todd, the Candyman himself, is kind of wasted in what is a standard 'constipated captain' role, and don't blink, or you'll miss the dynamic Debbie Rochon playing a prostitute with a conscience (or something like that - her time onscreen is too brief to get a handle on her character). Still, the rest of the cast is quite competent, essaying the thankless victim parts with verve and spirit. In general, no one misses a beat throughout Chicago Massacre. Unfortunately, they have Feifer finalizing their performances.
While it may appear harsh to level all the criticism at the director's feet, it is painfully obvious that items clearly within the control of this particular cinematic entity - things like pacing, editing choices, framing and lighting - are either substandard, or actually working against the more successful concepts in the film. Take, for example, Speck's trial. Feifer gives us a five minute snippet, and most of the ho hum hoopla surrounds attorneys objecting to questions and testimony. Not the best choice for a pseudo slasher pic. Similarly, when our nutjob goes on his killing spree, the vast majority of the murders occur offscreen or outside the frame as the camera moves in on Nemec. Granted, he is the star, but such narrative narcissism really undercuts the carnage. In order to really hate Speck, we have to know what he did, not just see it suggested. As a matter of fact, we witness the jerk physically abuse more people from his past than those unlucky student nurses. It's as if Feifer specifically looked for ways to thwart horror convention and went with his least viable instinct possible. It is he, and he alone, that turns Chicago Massacre: Richard Speck into semi-schlock. This could have been a solid work of suspense, something along the lines of 2003's Gacy. There, another famous mass murderer got the character study treatment in a far more effective manner. Unfortunately, this twisted tale is more one note than notorious.
Offered by Lionsgate in a decent 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image, the transfer for Chicago Massacre: Richard Speck, is actually pretty good. Though many of the scenes take place a night, and are dimly lit, the picture is solid, with good color corrections and expertly maintained contrasts. Even better, there is limited grain and no pixelization to speak of. Overall, the balance between dark and light is wonderful, and some scenes even have an evocative aura. No one said Feifer couldn't FILM a movie. He just has a hard time making the idiom of cinema decipherable.
Although there is a lot of action here - especially during the flashbacks - this is also a very talky film, and the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 does a decent job of capturing the conversations. Nemec does have a tendency to whisper when he wants to be really menacing - or act especially drunk - but overall, his line readings are easily audible.
There's not much to celebrate when it comes to added content. Lionsgate lets Feifer and Nemec defend themselves in a full length audio commentary, and there's a couple of casual deleted scenes and a stills gallery. Frankly, the inevitable preview trailers are more intriguing. The discussion between actor and director is frank, fun, and very fluid, but we really don't learn much. Aside from the typical indie pitfalls the production suffered from (rushed schedule, financial failures), the vast majority of the conversation is critical yet self-congratulating. Not the most efficient contextual situation. Elsewhere, the cut sequences deal with unimportant subplots (Speck's parole hearings, etc.) while the collection of photos is straight out of a press agents publicity portfolio. No matter how they're labeled, there's nothing particularly 'special' about these features.
There are many reasons to Highly Recommend Chicago Massacre: Richard Speck. Corin Nemec is beyond good, the screenplay is tight and to the point, and the overall level of professionalism far exceeds what we expect or receive from a typical independent knock-off. On the Rent It side of the situation is everything Michael Feifer contributes behind the camera. The narrative stalls at times, the pacing is problematic, and what should be energetic and terrifying is uneven and tepid. Therefore, a happy medium will be reached, and this somewhat winning title will earn as easy Recommended. You may not appreciate the context in which it's provided, and probably think that too many liberties have been taken with Speck's already inhuman actions, but the performances here are well worth appreciating. They definitely overcome the movies more mediocre missteps.