The Hillside Stranglings (2004)
Director: Chuck Parello
Writers: Stephen Johnston and Chuck Parello
Starring: C. Thomas Howell, Nicholas Turturro and Allison Lange

The Plot: The Hillside Stranglings details the real life story of serial killing team Kenneth Bianchi (C. Thomas Howell) and Angelo Buono (Nicholas Turturro), who terrorized California between 1977-1999. Our story begins with Kenneth Bianch unable to fulfill his dream of becoming a police officer in his native home on the East coast. A lifelong mama’s boy, Bianchi takes up an offer to go spend some time with his lowlife cousin Angelo Buono. When these two hook up, they immediately start frequenting strip clubs and picking up prostitutes. Ultimately, these two devise a plan to start up their own prostitution business. Bianchi and Buono quickly take advantage of two young women whom they essentially hold hostage and force into their service. Looking for more clientele, they find a local hooker who hands over a list of “Johns” with their individual phone numbers. When the girls start to work these Johns however, they step on the toes of a gang of REAL pimps who threaten to kill Bianchi and Buono. These two, feeling double crossed, look to take out their hatred on any female that they run across. The two begin stalking the night and killing hookers on a near weekly basis, while the police try and catch up with their nefarious goals.

The Review
Serial killer films have become all the rage within the straight to video market place. Although I can’t tell whether people are generally flocking to see these movies, or if it is a trend that has caught on with filmmakers due to story rights being free, but generally the landscape has been cluttered with films that are “based on true events.” I do not have anything against this subject matter, as I find it deeply fascinating, but the problem generally comes from those who pollute the market with really poor knockoffs. Although I don’t ask that every one of these films have the artistic merit and brilliance of David Fincher’s Zodiac, the least a filmmaker can do is try their best. With filmmakers such as Ulli Lommel creating a near-endless stream of awful low budget films, its hard to imagine that many of these filmmakers are doing their very best work. While I will not argue and say that The Hillside Stranglings is the very best low budget serial killer film out there, it is a much more reputable production and deserves to be listed alongside other really interesting films that cover similar topics. Films such as Dahmer and Ed Gein both showed how one could create interesting landscapes that question more than just the most obvious aspects of a murder case, and I think The Hillside Stranger also does that. Albeit in a more gloriously exploitative fashion.

As previously mentioned, this is a film based upon true events. Despite what your first instincts may tell you, the film really does follow the real story of Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Guomo fairly close. Having familiarized myself with the case, I was actually surprised that the movie did a decent job in presenting all of the major events that were found in the real life story of these two cold-blooded killers. The few changes that are made throughout the movie are usually there to present a slightly less disturbing and bleak atmosphere. The film does not show every murder that Bianchi and Guomo committed, because if they did they would be forced to show that on occasion their victims were as young as 12 and 14 years old. Some events are also changed around to the point that character motivations no longer seem as clear as they did in the factual case (especially when it comes to their first victim), but these changes likely come down to budgetary reasoning or other unforeseen events. Despite these changes, the characters are represented in a way that certainly reflects the real people, and in that sense the film is all the more frightening because of this fact.

C. Thomas Howell is an actor who unfortunately couldn’t shake the stigma that the 1980’s left him with. A teen idol, he couldn’t progress into the 90’s and finally made a partial comeback in the 2000’s due to his starring in the long awaited sequel to The Hitcher. However, his star has faded to a degree since then, but he shows here that he is still willing to take on roles that require a harsh commitment as an actor. A daring title for nearly any actor, Howell transforms himself into an unrecognizable character that can only be described as a drama-queen sociopath. Although Howell can be accused of hamming it up for this role, he remains true to this portrayal of Kenneth Bianchi all the way through the movie. He plays the character with a strange sense of naivete, but due to his abnormal behavior he rarely ever has any sympathetic moments. His naivete is his charm, but the movie quickly takes us out of that charm and introduces us to the degrading and dark world of his sexual perversions. As crazy as it may sound, for a movie such as this one, Howell actually plays the character with layers. The naive appearance of Bianchi is what lulls the audience in and elicits some kind of emotional attachment for the character, but throughout the film Howell sheds this appearance of naivete and shows us what Bianchi really is: false. Everything about the character is a ruse. He is a conman with no true face and at every point in the film Howell shows the games that this man played, and he tries to stress the phoniness of Bianchi at every turn.

Surprisingly, The Hillside Stranglings pulls very few punches. Although you would expect a title such as this one to focus on violence, in actuality it instead delivers a very dark and morbid look at sexual obsession. Very similar in its daring look at compulsion, The Hillside Stranglings reminds me of the much more concise Paul Schrader film Auto Focus, which was a title that focused entirely on sexual compulsion. The Hillside Stranglings, however, mixes both the concept of sexual compulsion in with sexual violence and mysogony. We are shown two very hateful characters within the lead roles and throughout the film they make the movie into an incredibly uncomfortable experience due to this hatred and cruelty. Women are called every name in the book while they are being sexually, mentally, and physically abused. The resulting effect can be a bit sickening. This is a movie that actually manages to shock while informing its audience, and I can not say that I was prepared for that when popping the film into the DVD player. The level of sexual perversion that is reached throughout the movie makes this one stand out like a sore thumb. If you never thought you would see C. Thomas Howell involved in a double penetration shot, involving both a sweaty Italian man and a hooker, then you never planned on seeing The Hilllside Stranglings. For that matter, did you ever think you would see C. Thomas Howell involved in a scene involving necrophilia?

The Conclusion
Is this a great film? No, not in the least. Although I will admit that I liked it quite a bit, it still lacks in many major areas. The film is shot with the intensity of an afternoon special or a Lifetime movie event. It lacks a creative visual identity and that hurts the film’s impact. However, I do love the film for going to the extremes that it does and I love how dedicated the filmmakers were in telling the original story to the best of their ability. It may not be great, but its certainly worth checking out during the Halloween season. Available from Palisades Tartan, the DVD features a few special features but most noticeably it features a interview with star C. Thomas Howell. The DVD is a bit limited, but it is more than just a DVD with the original feature trailer. Although I’m giving it a three out of five, I would say this one came close to snatching up a four rating.