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The Hillside Strangler
cast: C. Thomas Howell, Nicholas Turturro, Lin Shaye, Sarah Ann Morris, and Allison Lange

director: Chuck Parello

94 minutes (18) 2004
widescreen ratio 1.77:1
Tartan Terror DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
How deplored has this film become in its short time on the screens and shelves. Quite unfairly, it has to be said. It is an alarming and ugly film, and so it should be. Blame Hollywood if you didn't want this story telling again. Tartan were originally to close their American serial killer trilogy with a portrait of Aileen Wuornas (already told in Overkill shortly upon her arrest) only for that script to be nabbed from under the British production company at the last minute by an American major in a move which still makes it unmentionable to Hamish McAlpine. The Oscar glory for the resultant film, Monster, didn't help one jot. The Hillside Strangler story has been told before, on television, with no cussing, no gory details, an interesting but dishonest film it swabbed the culprits down, glamorising mass murder. The television treatment took it from the point of view of a mystery and the frightening impact it had on a community, at one stage leaving five bodies in the space of a week. The main rule in this trilogy is that of a bio-pictorial study of a serial killer, exploitative ghastly unflinching portraits of the deviants behind some of American's most notorious murder sprees.

The film has been wrongly accused of being misogynistic, that is to say the director is. The film is not, the protagonists are. This is beyond dispute. I am not accusing those who decry the film of insensibility, for this is a shocking film accurately recreating shocking crimes. Like victims of violence the viewer has a right to be defensive and shut it out. It is hoped that in retrospect it might be seen by others what this film is trying to do and I am certain many will.

Appearing against type as the serial killer cousins, Ken Bianchi and Angelo Buono, are C. Thomas Howell and Nicholas Turturro, each of them in turn a disturbing presence. Howell is skin-crawlingly sleazy, his forehead and neck heavily furrowed, eyes awake to the rankest potentialities while Turturro is brash, immoral and nasty, unpredictable and vengeful, you really don't want to be arm's length ration of either of them.

Ken is a failure, prompted by his mother to try and do better for himself in Los Angeles. It is arranged that his cousin Angelo put him up in the short term. Angelo introduces the amateur to public fuck shows, drugs, indeed anything in the A-Z of filth. Ken applies to become an officer with the Glendale Police, gets a job as a Title Officer instead and for extra income starts up an office on the fib that he has qualifications in psychiatry from Columbia University. He calls his mental healthy clinic the Brighter Day Counselling service. One of his clients is a dark Hispanic female named Gabrielle, a budding novelist with a murderous ream of script entitled 'The Mangled Carver'.

Angelo needs to work, but every idea he comes up with has to be appalling in aspect. They start to pimp girls and sickeningly use their first enslaved hooker, the naïve April, to lure a friend from her home state to perform a similar function. When a black pimp and his boys fall upon the house they reduce the operation to nought and Angelo wants blood in reply. He is not going to go after the gang who would cut his career permanently short, instead determined to kill the prostitute that sold them the client base that which brought them the trouble. "I want some payback on some cunt. And I don't care who that cunt is. Could be April, could be my ex-wife," is merely an example of one of the ugly rants from Turturro throughout.

Locating the black hooker, Ken strangles her and has sex with the body in the backseat of the car. Ken becomes addicted to the power, a power he has been repeatedly denied in his rejection by the police academy. The killing spree continues, with prostitutes, then a nurse. They masquerade as policemen. The body count rises. It is terrifying. No woman is safe. The pace and the attitude of the killers should scare any female viewer, also any man who cares for a woman. When watching one can postulate alternative endings, how she might have defended herself, how you might have protected her, a fictional thriller might provide you that, a fiction could be re-imagined by the viewer, but a true story makes it all too horrifying clear our general weakness in the face of unappeasable evil.

It is an unrelentingly grim portrait of snickering malevolence, a superb film as impossible as it is to enjoy. The language is shocking, a million ways to horribly and effectively jibe and insult everyone and the viewer. It is traumatic, distasteful and nerve-wracking. The colours are a wash of lurid greens broken by sliver and shafts of metallic blue, like knife blades in a sickly hue. The horrors are hinted at, there is no lingering, any critical opinion that speaks of a cruel pondering therein is difficult to corroborate. The world of these killers is detestable enough without going in close and staying there and Chuck Parello (who also directed Ed Gein for Tartan) is wise enough to know that.

The closing credits appoint the names of the people from the actual events, but oddly for the running film the actors are given fictionalised names bar the obvious participants, so forgive me for identifying only the few. The fabulous Lin Shaye puts in her usual terrific turn as Angelo's mother. She has been turning in great character pieces since her small role as the 'receptionist' in her husband's production of Jack Sholder's Alone In The Dark. And I have yet to catch up with her lauded turn as the mother in
Dead End yet. She has at long last proven to everyone, as I never doubted, that she was in these films because she was a bloody good actress and not because her husband owned New Line. The performances and production values are high. The production design of Gregg Gibbs is authentically 1970s, as is the costume design of Niklas Palm. David Catchling provides a subtly surfacing score that occasionally slithers out to let in a jangling section a la Goblin.

The general public should be chastened for their hypocrisy. They will lap up their serial killers as long as their crimes are far enough in remove from reality. They prefer their serial killers publicly polite, gentlemanly, committed their crimes out of view. When a director like Parello gives them a mature and honest interpretation they disapprove of the film in addition to the crimes. Just the crimes folks, work it out, get it right!
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