The Hillside Strangler
TLA Releasing // Unrated // $24.99 // November 9, 2004
Review by Bill Gibron | posted November 20, 2004
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Believe it or not, there was a time in popular culture when the serial killer was terrifying. Like other extreme examples of human behavior – spousal abuse, child molestation, sexual perversion – the vigilante slayer with a demented vendetta against the world was a dirty little subterranean secret. Few people talked about it, even less understood it and the aura of mystery surrounding their existence caused many an individual a sleepless night. Yet, for the most part, the mass-murdering maniac was not a presence on the pop culture radar. Instead, he or she was reserved a special place in the unmentionable etiquette of everyday life. With the broadening of the entertainment spectrum – somewhere around the late 1970s – into areas previously shunned, most taboo subjects became TV-movie fodder, and amidst all the exploitative exposés, the sensationalized serial killer film was born. Originally, the narratives were fairly uncomplicated: highlight the crimes, provide a little backhanded psychology, walk through all the steps of the police investigation, and make sure that justice is metered out before the credits role. There was no attempt at revisionism. There was no desire to glamorize or glorify. Multiple murderers were bad, committed by the sick and twisted. The insane nutjob was always human garbage, a horrifying heap of crap taking their soiled agenda out on an unsuspecting public. The cops were champions, looking for clues and fighting the good fight in order to keep us safe and secure. And as for the victims, they were simply nameless, faceless facets of an already clear-cut drama – the 'how' of their deaths being far less important than the 'whys'.

Yet somewhere around the mid-80s, the psychopath on the loose took a turn for the artistic. Instead of merely being a mindless marauder, slicing through campers and copulators with bad, sad intent, the bringer of death became an enigmatic, smooth talking terror, able to hold down normal conversations in public and crawl around in their own filth in private. Oddly enough, audiences really responded to these films, and not only because the murders were grimmer and the scenarios more grotesque. As the popularity of such films increased, so did the ridiculousness of the erudite rippers. Before we knew it, no cat and mouse murder movie was complete without a queer quid pro quo banter royale between detective and death bringer, overscripted lines being exchanged like volleys over a badminton net. Eventually, the criminal became the hero, with audiences hoping that they would be able to get away with their appalling atrocities. Someone like director Chuck Parello thinks this approach to such a sordid subject is outrageous. He has made it his mantra to craft films that present the loss of life with a straightforward stridence. New to DVD from Tartan Video, The Hillside Strangler is his third effort (after exploring the life of Ed Gein and crafting a sequel to the classic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer). Unfortunately, the third time is not so lucky for this limp, uninspired attempt at recounting one of the most terrifying times in West Coast criminology.

The DVD:
Kenneth Bianchi was a born loser. No matter what he tried, he could never succeed. Desperate to get a job with the police, he took every rejection personally. Eventually, his adoptive mother suggested he go off to Los Angeles and hang out with his cousin. Thinking it may be a sign that his life was about to change, he eventually makes the move. Upon arriving, Ken is introduced to Angelo Buono and his wild swinger's lifestyle. It's not long before the two are inseparable. They begin a prostitution ring and even go so far as to buy a John list from a local lady of the night. When the pissed off pimps arrive for payback, Bianchi and Buono are suddenly out of business. Looking for a little retribution of their own, they stalk and kidnap young women – mostly hookers. They take them back to Buono's house, where they rape and murder them. The dead bodies are then dumped along the suburban lawns and local parks of Los Angeles. Thus begins the reign of terror of The Hillside Strangler, an entity of evil that had the second largest city in American in the grips of complete and utter panic. And these perverts loved every minute of it.

There will be a lot of people who point to Chuck Parello's The Hillside Strangler and praise it on how brave the take on the subject matter is. Though it was national news at the time, the random slaughter of LA citizens and streetwalkers by a couple of pathetic perverts has since become a rote topic in the lexicon of the Lector. There will also be those who champion the performances, claiming that both Nicholas Tuturro and C. Thomas Howell light up the screen with their bold, severe characterizations. Though Tuturro has excelled on such shows as NYPD Blue, Howell is perhaps most famous for being a brat pack wannabe who never found mainstream success after the mid-80s (with such hits as The Hitcher and Soul Man to his credit). Both actors reach for realms of neo-realism in their turns as average schlubs gone psycho. And sometimes they succeed. Then there will be a few who argue that a non-sensational (read: limited blood and guts) approach to the Bianchi and Buono killing spree was the proper way for director/co-writer Chuck Parello to approach these crimes. By taking the glamour and the glitz out of the garroting, the murders become that much more shocking. Or perhaps the better way to categorize them is somber. Indeed, as a whole, this docudrama is a dull, dreary affair, made even more trite by everything heralded before. This is a film filled with pointless scenes, massive scenery chewing and almost zero tension or suspense. By treating this tawdry subject matter like the everyday occurrences of a couple of crackpots, everything a thriller is supposed to be is undercut. Suspense is scuttled and tension is tossed aside.

For a while, you can almost buy into Parello's premise. Bianchi is portrayed as a scam artist failure who longs to be a cop (that actually may be too subtle of a description...dude has a hard-on for the police). And the first few glimpses we get of him set up a nice, distinct dichotomy. When he stares at a shoplifter in a ladies dressing room, we wonder how many times he has done this outside of the occupational requirements. A trip to Bianchi's basement room reveals more skin mags, more sex toys and more just plain peculiar paraphernalia than we expect from this button down dork (the set design is like a starter kit for a maniac). By the time he makes his way to LA to hook up with sleazeball cousin Angelo, we know this guy is a ticking timebomb of unrequited perversion just waiting to be unleashed. Sadly, the moment of unmasking comes with one of the film's first hackneyed devices (though the director claims it comes from real life). Because of his straight-laced demeanor, we are not surprised when Ken begs off smoking a joint. But the minute he takes a peer-pressured puff, we literally see an atom bomb go off inside Bianchi. Parello superimposes the images of a nuclear blast over Howell's hacking visage, and the obvious symbolism is really stupid. A few more double exposures later and we now know that TCH and paraquat turned Bianchi bonkers, not any latent lethal lewdness in his persona. There are several more obvious moments of half-assed psychology tossed in The Hillside Strangler (Howell has an awkward speech about the sexual satisfaction in murder that is ludicrous, not lunatic) times when we cringe at the corniness of the confessions. Though Howell is very good at capturing the nervous ticks and inner failure in Bianchi's mental makeup, he is more mannered than manic. He is just not a convincing psychotic.

And, frankly, neither is his co-star. Tutorro is like a lower level made man accidentally dropped off into the wrong film. He would be right at home with Joe Pesci, screaming about familial disrespect and incredibly long naps with the fishes. Voice cranked up to cracking stage while shouting the majority of his lines to make sure neighboring communities hear his hissies, this is a performance as panic. At one point toward the end, his character Angelo Buono proclaims that he and Bianchi are like "two bitches in heat", and this would be a good way to describe Nick's level of method commitment in the film. He has no "off" switch, no way of turning Buono into anything other than a walking piece of filth with a wanton, wicked wiseguy attitude. As written, Buono as an entity is highly incongruous. He is supposedly a substantial ladies man (landing more tail than a short, squat goombah should ever get), yet we don't really understand the attraction. He is not rich, has no real spiel and mostly relies on physical abuse to get his rocks off when a lady's lewd offer isn't instantly forthcoming. As an accomplice in crime, this pat piason is a single-dimensional partner. And since Parello is going for an inferential style of storytelling, requiring the audience to make the connections the film won't – or CAN'T – we are stuck with two seedy stranglers who are as vague to us as the identity of their victims (some are never named, while others get the single line reading version of characterization before being brutalized). Though there are other factors that more or less unravel The Hillside Strangler's moviemaking motives, the lack of strong, scary villains is high on the list of thriller killers.

It is one thing to pull back of the reigns of repugnancy in a film, but director Parello's yanks so hard that he completely derails his drama. There are just too many scenes of everyday doldrums in this movie (Watch Bianchi search the want ads! See Angelo detail a car!) that don't add up to the portrait of peculiarity the filmmaker thinks he's painting. Parello's editing is awful, letting sequences go on far too long while forgetting the basics of mise-en-scene like flow and logic. Events occur pell mell in The Hillside Strangler, with flashbacks leading into dream sequences and – in one particularly clumsy sequence, Bianci begins referring to events that haven't happened yet (see if you can follow the actual order of procedures that occur in the birth and relocation of his child). Individuals are tossed into the narrative, used like tissue paper, and flushed away before they can make any manner of impact. Indeed, almost every female character here is an afterthought, an empty void only good for a voice of reason, vagina or vile bit of victimizing. Parello stages his death sequences like they're ancillary to the storyline, a necessary evil taking away from his slower, staid personality development. The sad thing is, after over 100 minutes, we don't really get to know Bianchi or Buono all that well. Seemingly triggered by a twisted sexual proclivity and...that's about it, we never really learn what got them leaning toward a life of homicide. The two interfamilial scenes (Bianchi with his mother, both boys visiting Buono's bitchy, boozy mom) offer limited clues while suggesting a whole lot more than Parello is willing to own up to or show. It seems like the main point of this film is to focus on a couple of misunderstood mooks who decide to take out their failed aggressions on the available skirt in the city of Angels. Had Parello attempted some manner of artistic or aesthetic experimentation, vying for a novel way of approaching what is, by now, a formulaic bit of fright filmmaking, this movie may have worked. But it's hard to see how anything could help The Hillside Strangler.

Perhaps it's just best to come out and say it – nothing really works here. The Hillside Strangler cannot compete in any genre – horror, psychological thriller, intense character study – and it's constant style and substance checking, along with the lack of any terror or threat, makes the movie incredibly mediocre. The impact on LA at the time was galvanizing and fervent, similar to what happened around the time of the Manson murders. None of that is here. Bianchi and Buono were infamous for dumping their bodies in the open spaces and safe, secluded neighborhoods of suburbia, a direct challenge to the notion that there were places protected from such social disease. Yet we only see one instance of said comfort being cracked. For a film that claims to avoid the tenants of exploitation, there is a lot of nudity in this film, along with some incredibly sickening sexual battery. Every once in a while, a moment will stand out (Bianchi discussing the case with a cop while on a ride along), struggling to break free from Parello's piecemeal grip and actually say something salient, only to have a complimentary scene of mindless muck (what is exactly the point of all those couch sessions with screenwriter/stalker-wannabe Christina???) eradicate its impact. Indeed, The Hillside Strangler is a film struggling against itself. It takes one of the more noteworthy crimes in the lexicon of the serial killer and then avoids all the lurid details. Hoping to be a post-modern Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but totally unable to match that movie's undeniably grim and repugnant tone, flop sweat forms all over this cinematic cesspool throughout the course of its running time. There will be a few who find this take on the psycho story fresh and inventive. And Howell does nothing to completely humiliate himself. But with Tutorro going batshit and Parello paralyzed by his laxsidasical approach, the movie has no choice but to stumble and stagnate, leaving its potential impact at a dead stop. The Hillside Strangler could have been a disturbing display of the 1970s debauchery gone completely degenerate. Instead, it is as confusing and convoluted as the motives revolving around these crimes.

The Video:
By far the best aspect of this production is the look of the film. Parello fills his frame with big production value and, apart from the occasional TV-movie framing, the picture looks wonderful. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image has nice color correction, exceptional detail and brilliant contrasts. There are no major defects or remastering issues to worry about, and there is an interesting combination of authenticity and artifice in the cinematography that shines through on this transfer. While there have been other examples of no-budget cinema lighting up the home theater screen, The Hillside Strangler looks very good indeed.

The Audio:
Obviously limited by budgetary constraints, The Hillside Strangler has a mid-90s alt-rock soundtrack that totally undermines the time and place constraints of the film. Except for one faux-booty bumping song, everything sounds like an outtake from a Hootie and the Blowfish suicide note. Since Parello never strives to make his movie ultra-authentic to its era (he cheats on clothes, cars and locations) the lack of reminiscent records or time-triggering tunes is a major mistake. As for the rest of the auditory aspects, we get a rather limp channel challenge out of the Dolby Digital 5.1 (sound affects and ambience are the only elements attacking the other speakers), but at least the dialogue is crystal clear. All ersatz-Dave Matthews aside, this is a decent sounding film with some major sonic shortcomings in the aesthetic department.

The Extras:
Tartan attempts to increase the value of this disc by pumping it full of bonus content. Unfortunately, most of what is here is rather meaningless. The trailer for this and other Tartan releases are far too slick and subjective to properly sell their films (they tend to feel like those old VHS ads which assume you know al about the movie being mentioned). The deleted scenes are also nothing special, consisting of about two minutes of pointless passages that add zilch to the narrative. C Thomas Howell is interviewed for 17 meandering minutes as he bends and stretches his thespian philosophy to fit the parameters of his performance in the film. What starts out as genial and genuine moves into arcane territory very quickly as the actor gets lost in the sound of his own words. The final added feature is another personal love fest, this time between director Chuck Parello and himself. Parello considers that everything he's put on film is some, if not THE MOST horrifying material ever captured on celluloid. Thankfully, he renders these statements as opinions, not abject facts, leaving plenty of room for the audience to completely disagree. He has nothing but praise for Howell and Tutorro and can't wait to celebrate every acting choice they make. While offering a wealth of information on the real life killers and which parts of the narrative have been fictionalized (surprisingly, there is more truth than the trivial here) this narrative is really just one big backslap for the filmmaker and his own self-aggrandizement.

Final Thoughts:
The success of a serial killer film seems directly tied to the temperament of the crimes. If they mix the sex and scandalous, like a Gacy or a Bundy, the audience is instantly entranced. If they cross the line into areas so repugnant that we can't imagine civilized human beings acting so horrible (Dahmer and Gein come to mind), the rubbernecking geek freak factor is in full force. And if the deaths come with a dynamic completely unexpected, like an odd bit of trophy taking (like Danny Rollings) or some display of outright insanity (David Berkowitz hearing the voice of 'Sam'), curiosity comes calling and, before we know it, we are poised to be the next in a long line of feline fatalities. What The Hillside Strangler has in earnestness it lacks in larger than life ideas. Bianchi and Buono were thrill killers, getting their jilted jollies off by using women as wanton wastes of available orifices. Their crimes were brutal, disgusting, reprehensible and completely without excuse. Their story would seem like the perfect amalgamation of the scintillating and the sick. But somehow, Chuck Parello, C. Thomas Howell and Nicholas Tutorro screw up this spree, making what should have been sinister into something sloppy and sedate. While no one is asking for some high art expression of death (like, say, The Cell) or the continued glamorizing of inhuman violence (the vast majority of the Se7en clones) it would have been nice had the movie offered just a little lasciviousness to counter balance all its banality. If you want to see the story of Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, then this version of The Hillside Strangler may be worth a rental. But with another film already in the works, and a classic TV movie doing perhaps the definitive job, (1988's The Case of the Hillside Stranglers featuring Billy Zane as Bianchi and Dennis Farina as Buono) there is really no reason to waste your time with this particular account. Parello's desire for authenticity has zapped the life out of this true crime case. This is one strangler story that suffocates itself.

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