The Hillside Strangler

on September 24, 2004 by Mark Keizer
To Chicago residents, the term Hillside Strangler connotes the traffic-snarled interchange between I-290 and I-88. To everyone else, especially in California, the Hillside Strangler is synonymous with one of the most heinous and disturbing serial murder cases in U.S. history. Director Chuck Parello, who previously brought to the screen the life and crimes of Ed Gein, pads his low-rent resume with a straightforward retelling of Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono's killing spree. Featuring surprisingly good performances from C. Thomas Howell and Nicholas Turturro, it's hardly in the same league as the best true-crime biopics. Still, it's an interesting and occasionally unsettling movie that sheds moderate psychological light on its subjects.

During a four-month period in 1977-78, the Rochester-born Bianchi and his L.A.-based cousin Angelo Buono were responsible for the murders of women ranging in age from 12-28. Parello picks up the action in Rochester, where Bianchi (Howell) has just learned that his application to the local police force has been rejected. Distraught, his mother sends him to California, where he goes to live with Buono (Turturro), whom he hadn't seen in 20 years. Buono, using sheer force of will against the weaker Bianchi, introduces his cousin to the copious amounts of easy money and meaningless sex that L.A. has to offer. Before long, they start an escort service, luring naïve girls with the promise of modeling jobs. After buying a list of Johns from a prostitute, the pair is threatened and robbed by a rival pimp. Seeking revenge, they track down the tattling hooker and Bianchi, egged on by Buono, strangles her in the back seat of his car.

With their fires of hatred fully stoked, the duo enjoys a killing binge, occasionally taking a break when police presence gets too heavy. The murder scenes are pretty unsparing, if only because seeing women tortured is inherently disturbing. Luckily, Parello stops way short of exploitation and shows no more than what's necessary to get his point across (and insure an R rating). The narrative moves from murder to murder, digressing only when Bianchi hides his hobby from wife Claire (Allison Lange), who is so oblivious, she's willing to marry him and carry his baby.

To the surprise of no one who's read a newspaper since 1983, Bianchi and Buono were eventually caught and sentenced to life imprisonment. The film ends in very abrupt fashion and features only about 60 seconds of end-credit music, which betrays its straight-to-video future.

As a director, Parello shows no detachment from the material: He simply dives right in, refusing to comment on the character's actions. In fact, the police investigation is completely ignored, and we have barely a clue as to how the duo was caught. It's a good gambit that would have worked better with a more insightful script featuring professional-grade dialogue.

As Bianchi, Howell looks great. Wielding a villainous pencil-thin moustache and an evil half-smile, he's all smarm and charm. At times, he can't quite make Bianchi's murderous streak connect with his sensitive side, but it's a better performance than one would expect going in. As for Turturro, he gives the movie life, even if he seems to be channeling Joe Pesci. The former co-star of "NYPD Blue" also has more to work with since the Buono character is better fleshed out than Bianchi. With Buono, we see the wide-eyed joy he gets from ridding the world of low-class "whores" and, as a bonus, there's a terrific dinnertime scene between Buono and his mother (Lyn Shaye), who admits to regretting the day he was born. Other supporting performances are limited to girls who can cry on cue and don't mind being tied up for a C. Thomas Howell movie. Career-wise, no one really stands to benefit from the film, with the exception of Turturro, who shows he's ready for bigger cinematic opportunities. Starring C. Thomas Howell and Nicholas Turturro. Directed by Chuck Parello. Written by Stephen Johnston. Produced by Hamish McAlpine and Michael Muscal. A Tartan release. Drama. Rated R for psychopathic violence, strong sexuality, nudity, pervasive language, sexual dialogue and drug use. Running time: 97 min.

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