Sunday, September 30, 2012

Cousins, Unidentical Psychotic Cousins: "The Hillside Strangler" (2004)

While the tagline "From the makers of 'Ed Gein' and 'Ted Bundy'" does not inspire confidence, director Chuck Parello gets two incredible performances out of Nick Turturro and C. Thomas Howell.

In the late 1970's, constant failure Kenneth (C. Thomas Howell) reads psychiatry textbooks and dreams of becoming a cop in Rochester, New York, when he is not spying on girls getting undressed as part of his security job at a department store. Rejected again after applying to another police station, Kenneth moves in with his cousin Angelo (Nick Turturro) in Los Angeles.

Angelo runs a car upholstery business, has five ex-wives, and eight children. He also dwells in the seedy sex underground of Sunset Strip, and brings Kenneth along for the ride. The two go into business together, pimping a couple of girls they have fooled into believing they were going to be models. Kenneth also sets himself up as a psychiatrist, but the guys are victims of a shakedown and their prostitutes escape.

Angelo and Kenneth decide to take revenge on a prostitute who ratted them out. They kill her, then rape her, and decide to take their anger out on all prostitutes, pretending to be cops, kidnapping women, and taking them back to Angelo's house to be tortured, raped, and murdered. Kenneth and girlfriend Claire (Allison Lange) have a child together, the cousins fight, and Kenneth continues his murderous spree in Oregon, and is eventually caught.

In the unrated version of the film, the violence is intense. Howell and Turturro look nothing like their subjects (they should have switched roles), but their intensity is absolutely skin crawling. I completely believed the characters were capable of the evil they committed. Lin Shaye has a tiny turn as Angelo's mother, the scene does serve to show us how Angelo turned "that way," but Kenneth's past is never touched upon fully.

Parello's direction is very good. The cinematography is appropriately dark, and the settings and hairstyles are very 1970's. His co-written screenplay ignores the more interesting aspects of Bianchi's capture (he faked split personality syndrome, and their trial was one of the longest in criminal history). While the murder scenes are not for the squeamish, I wish they had been trimmed a bit, they become nihilistic after a while.

"The Hillside Strangler" case was known for the killers' boldness (or stupidity) in publicly dumping their victims' bodies. The film is another ride through hell, but these straight to video serial killer films are beginning to blend together. Howell and Turturro lift this above the others, barely. (* * *) out of five stars.