The Hillside Strangler Review

There may be a point to Chuck Parello’s film The Hillside Strangler but whatever it is, it escapes me. It’s neither entertaining nor suspenseful. It’s not frightening or affecting. It doesn’t delve particularly deeply into the psychology of Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, it doesn’t respect the victims and it doesn’t make any attempt to examine the police investigation. All we get are the bare facts stretched into scenes which are so voyeuristically nasty that you begin to wonder why the wretched thing was made and why anyone would willingly watch it. If it’s not quite the nadir of the current trend for quasi-pornographic true crime stories – that would certainly be Ted Bundy - it’s still worthless and unpleasant enough to make you feel queasy while watching it and positively nauseous afterwards.

The film is based on the true story of Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, cousins who raped and killed twelve women in California during the 1970s. Although they performed the murders together, the results were described by the police and media as the work of “The Hillside Strangler”. Bianchi later killed two women on his own in Washington State. He had also killed three women before hooking up with Buono but the film doesn’t bother to mention this. The reasons for the crimes were a combination of self-pity, misogyny, frustration and boredom. Both men were jailed for life and Buono died of natural causes in 2002.

I knew the above before watching the film. The experience of watching the film taught me little else about the case, other than that the men’s methods of killing were unusually grotesque and that they didn’t like each other very much. This sums up the superficiality and tawdriness of The Hillside Strangler. It has nothing to say and spends its time gloating at some particularly horrible murder sequences and wallowing in the misogyny of the protagonists. There’s certainly plenty of sleaze on show in one way or another and fans of scuzziness may well find more interest here than I did. Certainly, the performances of C. Thomas Howell and Nicholas Turturro as Bianchi and Buono are as off-putting as you could want and it’s perhaps worth both actors a little credit for their willingness to be repulsive. Even this is double-edged however. Howell and Turturro work incredibly hard but their efforts merely show up the lack of depth in the script. Bianchi and Buono remain ciphers and, more problematically, ciphers who don’t come over as a convincing part of a community. The consequence is that it’s very difficult to believe that the two men could ever, even for a moment, attract a woman with their pathetic put-on lines or convince anyone that they might be cops for long enough to abduct them. They radiate perversion in a manner which owes more to Jack Nicholson as The Joker than anything drawn from life. Their hatred of women isn’t exactly shared by the film although Parello’s reluctance to give us any consistent sense of the victims as individuals does tend to result in their point of view being the only one which is given any screen time.

The film is competently made but without much technique and it plods with astonishing gradualness from scene to scene without any character development or dramatic tension. Parello’s staging of the central murder scene has a certain grim panache but you can’t help noticing the basic pornographic impulse through the attempt to create a sexual heat and the manner in which he ensures that the victim’s breasts stay in shot throughout. The later murders are not shown in detail but it’s all too obvious that we see the macho misogyny of the build-up and aftermath while the identity and anguish of the victim are short-changed. Indeed, it’s hard to even separate one victim from another. Parello doesn’t seem interested in them as people and the only time he gives us much time with one of them is when she’s doing a raunchy dance. There is one single scene which has some merit; Kenneth and Angelo having dinner with Angelo’s mother, played with blowsy conviction by Lin Shaye. A friendly conversation gradually turns into a fight and a few too many skeletons are exhumed from their closets. It’s not exactly original but it’s well acted and possesses a sense of dramatic excitement which is so disastrously absent from the rest of the film. Technically, the movie is adequate although there’s little visual interest and the lighting has a flat TV-Movie look to it.

It could be argued – as I’m sure Parello would do – that a film about sexual killers should be sleazy and unpleasant. There’s some merit to this argument but the problem is that even a study in stark horror needs to have something to say beyond “Isn’t this horrible”. If attempting to shock an audience who are already aware that killing is a bad thing is the only thing you’re attempting then the film is barely an advance on the equally unpleasant Faces of Death and its numerous progeny. A good comparison is with John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. McNaughton’s film is just as negative and unpleasant as The Hillside Strangler but the differences in ambition and technique are critical. The murder scenes were horrible to watch but they weren’t staged to heat up an otherwise tedious film as the ones in Parello’s film seem to be. We got a sense of Henry and his accomplice Otis as the products of more than simple misanthropy and the depiction of the squalor in which they lived and the hopelessness of their lives was disturbing. McNaughton managed to involve you in the warped processes of these people’s minds and the ending had a terrible tragic inevitability. Chuck Parello isn’t in the same league as John McNaughton and he continually jabs at the audience where McNaughton was content to slowly press.

Please don’t get me wrong. There is an important place for extreme cinema in confronting audiences and pushing boundaries. But when hacks like Parello get involved, the excess is considered justification in itself, tagged with a ‘true story’ label that gives it a bogus air of social responsibility. Parello is doing nothing new here and he’s not exploring any previously uncharted areas. It despises its audience and, in denying them individual identity, dishonours the victims of Bianchi and Buono. Nor does it attempt to make the two killers convincing characters. It’s so lazy that it can’t even be bothered to explain how they were caught or build up a head of suspense or dread about what they do. Even in a film which some consider the lowest of the low, Fulci’s The New York Ripper, we get a reasonably engrossing giallo narrative to fall back on. In The Hillside Strangler there is nothing but sleaze and hatred. If you were naïve enough to think that murder was a positive and socially responsible act then The Hillside Strangler might disabuse you of that notion. Otherwise, I can’t see what possible reason this piece of shit has for existing.

The Disc

The Hillside Strangler is given fairly good treatment on DVD by the frustratingly inconsistent Tartan label. The 1.77:1 anamorphic transfer is clean and crisp with an adequate level of detail and the limited visual interest of the film is served well. This doesn’t appear to my eyes to be an NTSC to PAL conversion and is an improvement on some of their other recent releases. The Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 Surround soundtracks are also very competent although there’s not a great deal to trouble your equipment. Dialogue is very clear and there’s some nice ambience from the surrounds. I gather that the version on this disc is the unrated and uncut version but I can’t confirm this for sure.

The extras are of limited interest. We get a commentary from Chuck Parello which adopts a self-justifying tone from the outset and is sometimes laughable in its attempts to explain some of the more obviously exploitative elements of the film. At one juncture he even has the nerve to evoke Hitchcock (without credit). He seems to know a lot about Bianchi and Buono, so much that you wonder why his insight didn’t find its way into the finished film.

There are also three expendable deleted scenes, an interview which C. Thomas Howell which is filmed so close you get the chance to examine his nasal hair, and some trailers for other Tartan products, all of them better than The Hillside Strangler.

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