“The Hillside Strangler” is another in the recent series of grimy true crime films focusing on infamous serial killers, this one by the team of director Chuck Parello (responsible for the rather dull “Ed Gein”, as well as the lamentable “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer 2”) and writer Stephen Johnston (who scripted “Ed Gein”, as well as “Ted Bundy” and “Starkweather”). Given the two men’s considerable genre experience and the bonus of having a truly shocking, ready-made real life horror story to work with, it might be expected that the finished product would turn out to be their crowning achievement. Sadly, though, this is not the case.
The film begins with aging mother’s boy Kenneth Bianchi (former brat pack actor C. Thomas Howell, “The War of the Worlds”) heading to Los Angeles after his application to join his local police force is rejected. He moves in with his sleazy cousin Angelo (Nicholas Turturro, who genre fans may recognise from “Hellraiser: Inferno” as well as from his long stint on “NYPD Blue”), and the two decide to set themselves up as pimps. However, things quickly go wrong, and their anger and barely restrained hatred of women leads them to a degenerate spree of sexual violence and, eventually, murder.
Although it does enjoy the genuine atmosphere and feel of the best (or worst, depending on which side of the moral fence the viewer lurks) 1970s exploitation cinema, Parello’s decision not to impose any kind of moral judgment on the killers means that “The Hillside Strangler” has the feel of a rather po-faced document of the crimes, without any of the dreadful, ghoulish glee that made “Ted Bundy” so shamefully enjoyable. As a result, the film seems to struggle with its identity, proving to be neither a serious attempt at exploring the events and psyche of the murderers, nor a piece of out and out schlock.
One of the main reasons the film feels unbalanced is in the way it does not present a clear or complete picture of the crimes. Although we are shown the main characters’ development from psychosis ridden perverts to full fledged killers, Johnson’s script tends to leap about, focusing solely on the actual murders themselves, and never paying enough attention to the bigger picture. This is most apparent towards the end, which wraps things up a little too hurriedly to be satisfying.
It is also worth noting, for those who care, that the film does play a little with some of the facts of the case, leaving out several important character details which would have added a little more depth, or at least shed more light on the reasons for the duo’s homicidal development. This is quite a problem for the film as a whole, as it never appears to take the killers seriously enough, treating them as laughable buffoons one moment, and then suddenly throwing in graphic depictions of rape, murder and necrophilia the next.
All of this would perhaps have been more acceptable if more effort had been made to explore the two killers, as Parello makes only passing comments to their inner demons, clumsily labelling them and relying on the viewer to accept their actions. As such, the film is never wholly believable, and though well acted (especially by Howell), “The Hillside Strangler” is not convincing enough to truly chill the viewer.
Fortunately there is enough in the way of visceral content, and Parello doesn’t shy away from the graphic details of the killings, though he does tend to focus more on the brutal rape scenes and their aftermaths rather than show actual gore. As a result, there is a great deal of nudity in the film, most of which is played for titillation and which, given the hateful tone of the film, makes the viewer feel uncomfortably voyeuristic, leaving a distinctly bad taste in the mouth. Although such misogynism is by no means unexpected, Parello tends to rely upon it a little too much, and by showing scene after scene of unfortunate women being stripped, beaten and sodomised, he quickly numbs the viewer and leaves himself with very little else to say.
Perhaps it is due to the recent glut of similar efforts as much as anything else, but “The Hillside Strangler” offers nothing new. It has no genuine insights into the case of Bianchi and Angelo, and simply feels too familiar. And despite boasting a high quotient of the worst kinds of sleaze and hateful brutality, the film nevertheless lacks any real or lasting impact on the viewer.
Chuck Parello (director) / Chuck Parello, Stephen Johnston (screenplay)
CAST: C. Thomas Howell …. Kenneth Bianchi
Nicholas Turturro …. Angelo Buono
Allison Lange …. Claire Shelton
Marisol Padilla Sanchez …. Christina Chavez
Jennifer Tisdale …. Erin
Lin Shaye …. Jenny Buono