The Hillside Stranglings (2004)

OCTOBER 9, 2011


If Zodiac was a hit, I wonder if we would have gotten a new stream of serial killer films told largely from the cops’ point of view. Because in a lot of cases, such as the one behind The Hillside Stranglings (changed from Hillside Strangler, more on that later), the police investigation was far more interesting than the killings or killers. Not to make light of the tragedies, but with their MO being the same and most of the girls being runaways or prostitutes, there isn’t much to the victims’ stories, and the two killers were basically a couple of douchebags who started killing when they got bored with merely being second rate pimps.

However the police story was sort of fascinating. Because the bulk of the victims were transients (and thus not given much thought), the cops didn’t even connect the murders until late in the spree, even though most of them were found in the same Glendale area and all killed the same way. There was some sort of pissing contest going on between the LAPD and the Sheriff’s department at the time which didn’t help, and it wasn’t until one cop got assigned to a murder and his partner assigned to another that they started to realize the pattern. The resulting trial for one of them was also fairly interesting; taking nearly two years to convict him of the murders (the jury process alone was nearly four months – only a little less than the entirety of the OJ trial).

Sadly the movie ignores police activity of any sort beyond the anonymous cops who question strangler Ken Bianchi after a few of the murders, and the other anonymous ones who arrest him in Oregon a few months later. The trial is also skipped entirely; the film just offers the usual text wrap-up that tells us that they were sentenced to life and that co-strangler Angelo Buono died in prison in 2002. Instead, we just get a traditional (read: generic) serial killer movie, showing what led up to the first killing and providing a newcomer to the story with very little context for a lot of the events that it depicts.

Even major aspects of the story just sort of appear at random, such as Bianchi’s scheme of claiming he had cancer and needed chemo, which would explain his absences from work and home. Well, we’re never even really told what he DOES for a living or that he even had a real job, let alone that he was scamming his way out of attending it when he was supposed to. The cancer also gets dropped into casual conversation as if it was a recurring plot thread, making the mother’s “I definitely have cancer!” line from The Room look like great storytelling in comparison. It’s as if writer/director Chuck Parello was determined to include every bit of “trivia” about the cast in his 90 minute movie, even if it meant never setting it up. Again, if you knew everything about the case already, this sort of stuff would be fine – your memory could provide the context. But for someone who knew nothing (I wasn’t even aware that there were two killers until I read the back of the DVD), it makes the movie all but completely impenetrable.

It’s also very TV movie like at times; while Parello has no problem showing nudity, he seems somewhat prudish when it comes to the actual killings, keeping many of them off-screen. They also don’t mention that the men killed a few children (one victim was only 12), which I only mention because Parello seems more interested in showing the dysfunctional relationship between the two men (who were cousins). And that would be fine, but there’s not a lot there beyond the fact that Buono was a huge asshole 24 hours a day (whereas Bianchi seemed to be almost bipolar), so their scenes primarily involve Buono (Nicholas Turturro) yelling at Bianchi (C. Thomas Howell). Why skip over some of the more “outside the box” murders in favor of being repetitive in other aspects of the story? Or hell, even ignoring the murders – why not show more of the relationship between Bianchi and his girlfriend (the always welcome Allison Lange)? They seem to have barely met before they’re already living together, and her pregnancy is treated as randomly as everything else. It would have been interesting to show more of what she saw in him, but instead he’s a dick to her in nearly every one of their scenes together after their first date. The film also ignores the best random bit of trivia about the real case – the two men almost killed Peter Lorre’s daughter, but let her go when they realized who she was.

Parello does get one thing right, and that is the period setting. They don’t specify the exact date very much, but it’s clearly the 70s – the styles, the music, etc are all spot on. And even with all of the scenes in Hollywood, shot in 2004, I didn’t catch any glaring anachronisms (far cry from Freeway Killer, with its 1980 setting botched by frequent sightings of Starbucks and Priuses). Hell it’s even LIT like a 1970’s movie for the most part. It’s an area he also excelled at in Ed Gein, so perhaps it’s really writer Stephen Johnston who is to blame, as he wrote both films (though Parello gets a co-writing credit here). Johnston also wrote the weakest Bundy movie, so yeah, it’s probably his fault.

Either way, he doesn’t join Parello on the commentary, which might or might not be a shame. If his writing skills were as good as his commentary skills then maybe he wouldn’t have helped, but I can’t imagine anything or anyone making this track LESS of a chore. With no one to converse with, Parello mostly just narrates the movie while occasionally tossing in additional information (such as Ken’s birth father being a bit of a mystery as his mother was a prostitute – I don’t think they mention this in the movie) or making ridiculous claims like a rather generic murder scene being “one of the most terrifying ever depicted on film”. And lest you think he’s not the type to toot his own horn, the track ends with him plugging Gein and Henry 2 (which I still haven’t seen). Even if you loved this movie I can’t imagine anyone finding the track worth their time.

The other extras are better; a few deleted scenes provide some missing exposition from the film (such as why Bianchi’s girlfriend moved to Portland in the first place), and a lengthy interview with Howell explains how hard the role was for him and how it took a toll on him personally, saying he needed to spend a week with his parents after it was done in order to sort of decompress. Howell is actually quite good in the film (Turturro's seeming "Joe Pesci in Casino" impression, on the other hand, was rather grating), so it was nice to hear him talk, and also laughingly admit to some of his poor career choices, though none by name. Come on man, throw Hitcher II under the bus! The red-band trailer, posted below (and NSFW!) is also included.

Back to the retitling, this DVD is from Palisades Tartan, who is apparently re-releasing a bunch of old “just” Tartan movies with new titles/covers (the box art for this version depicts a killer who doesn’t even remotely resemble Howell or Turturro, standing over a girl in the woods – the entire movie takes place in Los Angeles suburbs). Now, this one isn’t too much of a stretch – they just changed it from Strangler to Stranglings. However, Carved has gone back to its original title of Slit Mouthed Woman, and Bad Blood has been changed to Blood Curse – a switch that actually confused me into sitting down and watching it for today’s HMAD entry only to realize after a few seconds that I had already seen it*. So be careful with their releases, as you might have already seen it (or even own it) under a different title. It’d be one thing if there was some sort of disclaimer on the back somewhere (like “previously released under the title _____”), but the only clue to the change is buried in the credit box at the bottom, which retains the original title, which is most likely just an oversight. Tartan did point the changes out on the press release, to be fair – but I think it’s a bit misleading for consumers. It was a damn shame when they went under a couple years ago; now that they’re back (under the new moniker Palisades Tartan) I hope they will be releasing new movies and not just re-releasing stuff from their back catalog.

What say you?

*Also, score one for my crusade against subtitles; both Bad Blood and Blood Curse are supposedly the translation from Coisi Rum (the actual translation of which is roughly “bad thing”). What if people were using obscure horror movies to learn a language, you subtitling monsters?!?


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