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Overall Rating

Awesome: 6.25%
Worth A Look: 12.5%
Average: 37.5%
Pretty Bad43.75%
Total Crap: 0%

2 reviews, 4 user ratings

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Hillside Strangler, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"Unrevealing but Buoyed by C. Thomas Howell"
2 stars

I wish I could report that Howell's strident efforts were matched by the quality of the film as a whole, but that's not the case, unfortunately.

C. Thomas Howell has always been a lightweight actor in the Rob Lowe vein: handsome, appealing, and sorely lacking in dramatic depth. Of course, this isn't necessarily detrimental when either he or Lowe appear in undemanding entertainments where dramatic depth and complexity aren't required. And being that they're largely unselfish actors untarnished by off-putting self-infatuation yet adorned with self-confidence, they have agreeable screen personas and presences. Still, they remain lightweights -- you never find yourself saying, "Only he could have played that part.", so it's not too surprising in their opting to take on a villainous role, because it allows them to not only to benefit from the energy and relish eagerly brought to the role in the attempt to prove they're more than what we perceive, but in our initially positive take on them simply because they're willing to be atypically cast as a showy, unpleasant character and are competent enough not to fall on their face from the effort. Lowe managed to cut a fairly enticing portrait as a suave, well-dressed sociopath opposite James Spader's prissy L.A. financial analyst in 1990's Bad Influence; far from being an electrifying turn, the charismatic Lowe's vapidity as an actor (exceptions: his slightly affecting work in Class and About Last Night...) fused well with the character's charisma and hollowed-out emotional core. While Spader's bountiful reserves of imagination and technique prevented Lowe from stealing the show in a much more showy role, Lowe more than managed to hold his own: it may have been akin to a needlefish trying to keep up with a shark, but it was an admirable accomplishment nevertheless. Howell, who was admittedly very effective as the heroic teenager in The Hitcher, tries something similar and even more risky in the docudrama The Hillside Strangler, and the results are about fifty/fifty.

As Kenneth Bianchi, a thirtysomething department-store security guard in late-'70s Rochester, New York, Howell looks spectacularly deglamorized. With a porn-star mustache, polyester suits, and an unhealthy complexion (and what looks like the beginnings of an accordion of a neck), Kenneth is that classic underachiever who yearns to stand out and be recognized. His undying quest to become a police officer has less to do with altruism -- after all, when we first see him, he's spying on a young lady in a dressing room from the air duct above; and after he confronts her in his office, we suspect he blackmailed her into giving him some cha-cha before letting her go -- than the prospect of standing out while in uniform and being respected. After being rejected by the Rochester PD, at the urging of his mother (whom he still lives with), he flies out to Los Angeles to stay with his cousin, Angelo Buono (Nicholas Turturro), and to seek out more in the way of opportunity there (even though he's immediately turned down by the local police there, too). He finds an ace in the testosterone-fueled Angelo, an exceedingly aggressive womanizer who's more than willing to share his women with him; he's so ecstatic over the no-strings-attached sex with these pretty, ready-for-action females that his self-confidence shoots off into the stratosphere. After a while, the two start an escort service, and are very successful for a while. That is, until they're robbed and beaten by a vicious pimp's henchmen for encroaching into his client list. To vent their frustration, Kenneth and Angelo kidnap and rape and kill a prostitute they hold responsible for their business' demise, and this is just the beginning of a spree of rape and murder of other prostitutes and non-prostitutes as well. The police suspect one culprit's responsible, when in fact there are two innately violent ones out there roaming the nighttime streets.

In a role many actors would shy away from like the bubonic plague, Howell gives a thoroughly interesting performance, and, in many respects, a daring one. With a lounge lizard's oily charm and a hipster's confidence, he plays Kenneth unapologetically and energetically -- you can sense him getting a euphoric high from the "joy of acting" -- yet with a vulnerability that prevents the character from becoming a one-dimensional stereotype. Howell lets us see how the gratification and sense of power derived from Kenneth's heinous actions easily drown out his conscience, as well as letting us see his conscience occasionally stir (like when his estranged wife threatens to take their child and herself to Oregon) but is soon smothered out again. It's an uninhibited, raw performance that you can't take your eyes off of, even when, given the graphic nature of Kenneth's misdeeds, you certainly want to. Unfortunately, Howell doesn't quite have the control and modulation to give Kenneth the organic clarity and variety needed; he almost succeeds, but the performance becomes a bit monotonous after a while, and you can't help but feel that a more resourceful actor would have filled in the gaps in making the character's downward spiral into a morally-irredeemable wasteland more lucid. The way it plays out, Kenneth becomes an evil cad just because there wouldn't be a film otherwise. (Then again, the far-from-incisive screenplay doesn't exactly do Howell any favors in providing all the necessary dramatic underpinnings, either.) Howell is sometimes too studied, too "busy", as if he didn't have enough confidence that the camera would "get" the performance if played more subtly. Hence, Kenneth has been made so perpetually weird that you can't see him functioning adeptly enough just to get through a regular day without imploding and smoke blowing out of his ears.

The Hillside Strangler is never boring and serves up enough violence, filthy language, and T&A to definitely sate the needs of cravers of those things. But, by and large, it's more concerned with wallowing in depravity than honestly examining it from both a psychological and sociological perspective. Kenneth's craving for media attention through his murderous spree is old-hat stuff that's been done to death in films both very good (The Mean Season) and rotten (Natural Born Killers), and director Chuck Parello and co-writer Stephen Johnston fall into the same trap of their flat 2000 Ed Gein: where the pains taken to reenact a series of true-life murders on-screen comes off less as an attempt to reveal than to exploit. How else to explain the prolonging of the murder sequences and the inclusion of so many of them, when the impression is succinctly made after the second one? (At least William Lustig's Maniac had an excuse: it was an indisputable slasher flick.) Why else would there be so little attention paid as to how Kenneth is able to afford a modest apartment in Hollywood when he was flat-broke the scene before, or how he not only managed to land a decent-paying office job shortly thereafter and keep it for a while in light of his previous work experience as a security guard? Why isn't the subplot involving Kenneth's fake stint as an accredited psychologist and his relationship with a sultry Hispanic patient who adores him and eventually kills for him not suitably contrasted with his cousin Angelo's severing his blood tie with him when things get rough? And is it really necessary for us to be told that Angelo wanted to molest his fourteen-year-old daughter because he felt she needed "breaking in" when we've already been made privy to his remorseless depravity over and over again? Howell may not be a great enough thespian to redeem The Hillside Strangler, but, unlike Parello and Johnston, at least his noble effort doesn't leave a repugnant stench behind.

Check out "The Mean Season" or "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" instead.

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originally posted: 11/05/04 03:49:09
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User Comments

1/09/09 Shaun Wallner Poorly Made! 2 stars
5/11/06 jonathon lebo gritty very gritty 4 stars
11/23/04 Sugarfoot This is why I keep saying Howell is underrated. 4 stars
10/19/04 Karen Kraft Excellent movie; very exciting 5 stars
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  22-Oct-2004 (R)
  DVD: 09-Nov-2004



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