Many of you will probably know Laura Prepon as “the redhead” from the popular Fox sitcom “That 70s Show”, and after seeing her play girl-next-door Donna Pinciotti for eight years, it’s kind of hard to accept her as a peroxide-blonde accessory to the rape and murder of three schoolgirls. “Karla” is based on the true story of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka (Prepon), a couple who kidnapped, tortured, raped, and killed three girls, including Karla’s little sister, Tammy.
Through a series of flashbacks, we see these events as an incarcerated Karla describes them to a psychiatrist (Patrick Bauchau) that is considering her application for parole. Laura Prepon’s Karla is a down-to-Earth, stoic woman, whose honesty and forthrightness helps to charm the psychiatrist, and flashbacks show Karla to be completely under Paul Bernardo’s control. And although she is passive to her partner’s frequent rapes of strangers, Karla never actually partook in the murder or torture of any of the girls. Or at least, that’s what Karla’s flashbacks reveal, which includes an image of Bernardo as a bi-polar wife beater who at one point inflicts a heinous amount of pain upon Homolka.
“Karla” boasts incredibly impressive performances from the leads, and Laura Prepon does a stand-up job as the eponymous character, effectively casting aside her “70s Show” persona more than any of the other sitcom cast members have managed over the years since the show’s cancellation. And while Prepon’s portrayal of Homolka may not be the most accurate, it’s hardly the fault of the actress, but rather the script by co-writer and director Joel Bender. Despite this handicap, Prepon manages to stay stellar throughout the film, giving a very restrained, natural performance as a woman who would do anything for her man.
One scene in particular illuminates Prepon’s fine performance. In it, the camera is locked on Karla’s face as she witnesses Paul, her husband, strangle a young woman with an extension cord. Prepon’s facial expression tells more or less the whole story, and is somewhat reminiscent of “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”, where we only see the reaction of a man viewing his daughter’s autopsy.
Actor Misha Collins is equally brilliant as Paul Bernardo. He embodies the bi-polar aspect of Bernardo’s character so believably as to be frightening. Bernardo’s transformation from sex fetishist to wife beater to rapist happens gradually and naturally, up to a point where he stops being a sexually frustrated filmmaker and becomes pure evil. All of which seems incredibly accurate, thanks entirely to Collins’ performance.
Among the supporting cast, honourable mention goes to the silver-tongued Patrick Bauchau (“The Pretender”) as the psychiatrist. Unfortunately, not even Bauchau’s exceptionally suave demeanour can justify the filmmakers casting another actor who probably learned his English only a year ago to play Karla’s attorney. It’s safe to say that Prepon and Collins more or less carry the movie through its hundred minutes with their performances and on-screen chemistry.
Quite possibly the most disturbing aspect about “Karla” is that co-writer and director Joel Bender used to make a living directing and editing “Sweet Valley High” episodes before he moved onto films of this calibre. I guess maybe that’s why “Karla” is made with a technical level of competency, but no real artistic flare or thematic consistency. Perhaps even more unsettling, before his “Sweet Valley High” days, Bender dabbled in penning, directing and editing gory genre flicks.
Imagine the meeting:
“Who should we hire to direct ‘Sweet Valley High’ this season?”
“How about the guy who directed ‘Vampire Cop’ and edited the Sonny Chiba/Rowdy Roddy Piper police buddy movie ‘Immortal Combat’?”
I hope someone got fired for that.
Joel Bender (director) / Joel Bender, Manette Rosen, Michael D. Sellers (screenplay)
CAST: Laura Prepon …. Karla Homolka
Misha Collins …. Paul Bernardo
Tess Harper …. Molly Czehowicz
Leonard Kelly-Young …. Dan Czehowicz
Cherilyn Hayres …. Tammy Homolka
Emilie Jacobs …. Debbie
Alex Boyd …. Nick