Rampage: The Hillside Strangler Murders

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 06/15/04 12:32:20

"As If 'Nightstalker' Wasn't Bad Enough"
1 stars (Total Crap)

When a filmmaker, crew or publicist brag about their little independent film being shot in a mere 15 days, any Pavlovian audience will immediately murmur like a crowd from South Park. “Wow, 15 days. Nothing can be done in THAT amount of time.” However, their meaningless shock should be reserved until after they see the movie. Only then can you tell if the quickie shoot was something of a true miracle or just an amateur running around with no sense of filmmaking, storytelling or directorial strategy. Actually I take that last part back because I can guess what director Chris Fisher might have been up to. And I’ll stand by the theory that this is the first film made to induce projectile vomiting.

Imagine watching the first 15 minutes of Irreversible on a scrambled cable channel. That’s the Hillside Strangler experience in a nutshell. In love with optical effects and moving the camera around like a carnie giving you an extra hour on the Tilt-a-Whirl at full speed, even Oliver Stone and the founding fathers of Dogme 95 would tell Fisher to pull it back. His signature style is to place something in the center of the room and then whisk the camera around in a circle…over…and over…and over….and over again. We 360 more times in this flick then Sissy Spacek and William Katt in Carrie.

Set in the late 70s during the tail-end of the Hillside murders, Fisher tries to develop the California counter-culture by introducing our heroine, Samantha (Brittany Daniel) participating in (what will be one of many) “drug orgies” at the home she shares with her boyfriend (Bret Roberts, who looks as if he’s playing Jim Morrison a second time.) She’s called in by her oh-so-goodie-chum-pal-of-hers, Jillian The District Attorney (Lake Bell, giving new meaning to the term “stiff”) to interview a suspect they’ve picked up. Wait – this gal is a psychiatrist? Who’d-a-thunk-it? After all we should know that it’s common procedure for professionals to question a suspected, murdering rapist in a party outfit with no bra.

Kenneth Bianchi (Clifton Collins Jr.) doesn’t get to see Brittany Daniel in all her glory throughout the rest of the film though. Except when he stumbles into her home office and she talks to him as a topless photograph of hers hangs on the wall behind her. Bianchi we all know is one of the two perpetrators of the infamous murders, along with his cousin Angelo Buono (Tomas Arana) who gets a single scene to taunt the cops and steal Rocky Balboa’s nickname before being forgotten about.

Fisher’s concentration is one of entrapment; using a barely palatable fourth-grade adaptation of a Law-&-Order episode to play-out Bianchi’s capture. His nervous, seemingly innocent façade gives way to a more violent alter-ego that our brilliant composite psychiatrist only picks up on after the second outburst. She must have been daydreaming again about the ocean, which I’m sorry but we’re all aware is only reserved for movies with Jennifer Connelly.

The vastly underused Collins is putting up an admirable attempt to give a performance here, but Fisher’s camera tricks lose any of his nuance and his outline of a screenplay reduces him to Edward Norton/Primal Fear territory. Fisher’s way of misleading the audience into red herring territory with the shrink’s threesome partner(s) has all the flare of a retarded stoner friend tapping you on the shoulder and saying “Hey, look over there.” When you don’t and choose to just ask why he then goes, “Um, I don’t know.”

At no time is the script fashioned into a credible character study of either Bianchi or the psychiatrist. The cops are portrayed as angry morons unhappy with the braless wonder getting all the screen time with the chief suspect. The study of the crimes themselves are provided no weight and dissolves into one of the most ludicrous jargon-filled climactic explanations ever seen in a detective thriller. (Psycho had less babble in the final scene.) With all the subtlety of a play-by-play chalkboard, Brittany Daniel reveals to us via voiceover how she became aware of Bianchi’s mistruths as if she were a young Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher during their days of drunken group sex and domestic beatings.

There have to be more interesting stories to develop about real-life serial killers than the countless low-budget and TV films amassed since the tragedies (The Case of the Hillside Stranglers, Monster, take your pick). Yet, director Chris Fisher has managed to churn out two in under 18 months (the other being “Nightstalker” about Robert Ramirez) and both are sensory violations of the highest order with bad acting and even worse direction. One can only imagine Fisher was inspired by Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom at an early age and it so frightened him that he vowed never to use a tripod again. The Hillside Strangler is like the not-to version of Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam with a dose of castor oil and raw eggs on the motion sickness ride to cinematic hell. (Note: Another film called The Hillside Strangler is currently in production and stars none other than C. Thomas Howell as Bianchi. It will likely be better and how sad is that?)

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