Dennis Rader, the so-called B.T.K. killer (“bind, torture, kill”), was sadly very real. A despicable madman whose outwardly normal life as family man, security official and president of his local church concealed a spate of murders committed over an astonishing thirty years. Hopes for an intelligent, sensitive account of his crimes are a little shaky with gorehound’s favourite, Kane Hodder in the title role and an opening that declares this “a fictional story based on a real character.” Sure enough our first glimpse of Rader sees him recite bad poetry then stomp a bound and gagged, bikini girl to death.
Writer-director Michael Feifer plunges us into an avant-garde collage of solarized visuals, still photographs and crime scene sketches, before settling into Rader’s sedate, yet strained home life with his wife (Amy Lyndon) and daughters. An unbelievably anal home security patrolman, the bulk of the movie follows Rader around as he patrols his Wisteria Lane-type community, selecting victims from women he goads into arguing back. He issues a parking ticket to a woman blocking her own driveway, scolds another for not trimming her lawn, and bludgeons a poor teenage girl who inquires about her missing dog. Later, Rader chats to a friendly neighbour and gives a child a ride home while the dying girl whimpers in the back of his van. During an assault on a call-girl (Odessa Rae) who earlier ripped him off, Rader hallucinates she is his daughter and, unable to finish her off, finally goes on the run from the cops.
The worst kind of serial killer movies are pretentious ones. Which is not to say insightful, artistically accomplished films have not been made about grisly, true stories: Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler (1968) and David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) for example. A dull, meandering effort, B.T.K. strives for psychological insight, but winds up merely documenting Rader’s crimes for posterity. His assaults upon the women are nasty, unpleasant and prolonged. While this would be disturbing, but tolerable in a fictional horror movie, a true story requires a degree of sensitivity. Like many films of this type, this neglects the emotional impact upon victims’ families and becomes the kind of movie a self-obsessed lunatic like Rader would imagine for himself. And that’s pretty disturbing.
With all those Friday the 13th instalments behind him, Hodder convinces as a brutal killer but hasn’t the acting chops to manage outward normalcy. He is too obviously malignant, which makes Rader’s snivelling, self-justification (“My body produces an abnormal amount of testosterone”) unintentionally comical. Following his tearful confession, an interesting conflict develops between wife and daughters (“No matter what he has done he is your father. You owe him”), but is fumbled by Feifer’s poor script and awkward performances from the supporting cast. And did Rader’s victims really get into prolonged debates with him whilst being tortured?