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The Hillside Strangler (2004)

They lived to watch you die.

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 98 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 18

Over a two year period in the late seventies, fifteen young women were raped and murdered (not always in that order) in a sadistic spate of serial killings in the Los Angeles suburbs. When the police finally made their arrest, it turned out that the so-called 'hillside strangler' was in fact two cousins working together as a lethal tag-team – and just as there were two hillside stranglers, this year there are two separate films called 'The Hillside Strangler' that dramatise (if not quite celebrate) their reign of terror – one directed by Chris Fisher, and the other by Chuck Parello. Parello is no stranger to the cinema of true crime: his feature debut was 'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part 2' (1998), and 'The Hillside Strangler' is the third in Tartan's trilogy of real serial killer psychodramas written by Stephen Johnston, the first of which – 'Ed Gein' (2000) – Parello had also directed.

True crime has always been a subgenre of questionable taste. For when it is not titillating its viewers with sufferings rooted uncomfortably in reality, or trampling over the memory of the recently deceased, it often elevates its murderous subjects to the status of cinematic supervillains. In 'The Hillside Strangler', however, Parello avoids at least the last of these pitfalls by refusing to grant his killers a single redeeming feature. Although one or both of the cousins is on screen for the entire film (apart from the bizarre-but-true coda concerning one of the cousin's even more unhinged acquaintances), instead of being portrayed as misunderstood heroes or victims of circumstance, they remain utterly repellent figures from start to finish.

Kenneth Bianchi (a barely recognisable C. Thomas Howell) is a perverted, snivelling loser and a manipulative liar who compensates for his own failure and stupidity through the pathetic sense of empowerment that murder brings him, while Angelo Buono (Nicholas Turturro, brother of John) is simply motivated by his own extreme blend of misogyny and sociopathic machismo. That well-worn cliché where a serial killer is confronted by his own face in a mirror is notably absent from this film, as Kenneth and Angelo have neither intelligence nor conscience enough ever to reflect upon what they do – and in the extraordinary scene where Angelo's mother Jenny (Lin Shaye) tells him to his face that she curses the very day he was born, far from sympathising with him for having so hateful a mother, one finds oneself, in context, sympathising with Jenny instead, and fully understanding her sentiment. Angelo is, after all, a son who had once tried to gas his own mother, and who raped his stepsister before handing her over to his own sons for further abuse (“she needed breaking in”, he explains).

Like a sort of diabolic cousin to 'Boogie Nights', 'The Hillside Strangler' is an unflinching dissection of the sleazy sex and broken dreams of the 1970s – and the film's sordid unpleasantness is itself a faithful evocation of the feel-bad vibe that dominated seventies cinema. Neither enriching nor exactly entertaining, but if you fancy a trawl through the darkest, dirtiest depths of the human soul, 'The Hillside Strangler' will get you there on the double.

It's Got: A serial killer who just wants to be a policeman; a scene in which Kenneth brings his cleancut girlfriend to meet his chauvinistic, pornomanic cousin that evokes the adult cinema scene from Scorseses seventies classic Taxi Driver; sleaze, violence and misogyny galore (but never celebrated or glorified).

It Needs: A good reason to exist (but that could be said of any true crime film).


This double serving of true crime evokes all the sexual sleaze and broken dreams of the seventies.