The hillside stranglings were a particularly brutal series of killings that occurred in Los Angeles between October 1977 and January 1979. Ten women – mostly prostitutes – were found raped and murdered; the killer turned out to be two men, cousins Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono. Chuck Parello's dramatisation of these events is the director's latest foray into serial killer territory, following 2000’s Ed Gein and 1998's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer 2 – Mask of Sanity.
Parello's Henry sequel was an inferior retread of John McNaughton's harrowing original, and The Hillside Strangler (actually one of two films carrying that title in 2004) is cut from the same cloth. Bianchi and Buono are played by C. Thomas Howell and Nicholas Turturro, and the film follows the familiar template of two already unhinged men driving each other to commit increasingly depraved crimes. The other film of which The Hillside Strangler is highly reminiscent is Paul Schrader's Auto Focus, both in the authentic seventies period detail and the fact that one-time Brat Pack wannabe Howell now uncannily resembles Willem Dafoe, especially with the sleazy 'tache and perm he sports here.
Howell portrays Bianchi as a socially inept thirty-something who still lives with his mother and works as a store detective, dreaming of one day joining the police. He moves to LA and hooks up with Angelo (Turturro), who he hasn't seen for two decades and is now a brutish, sex-addicted mechanic. The pair try to launch themselves as pimps, but when their operation is closed down by a rival gang, their anger boils over into an uncontrolled killing spree.
Parello ensures that everything is present and correct when it comes to graphic misogynistic violence – Bianchi and Buono's victims are stripped, tortured and suffocated in unflinching detail. The Hillside Strangler could never be accused of glamorising these crimes, but there's little dramatic structure to support them; Parello just moves ploddingly from one gruelling scene of abduction and murder to the next. Howell and Turturro (brother of John) deliver superb performances, but their characters are given little depth. The relationship Bianchi has with his girlfriend Claire (Allison Lange) is particularly badly handled – it's difficult to believe that this creepy, nervous man could woo such a fresh-faced beauty in the first place, let alone live with her and provide her with a baby. Elsewhere, there's one powerful scene between Buono and his mother (Lin Shea), burning with mutual hatred and dark secrets from their past, but it's the only time Angelo is seen to be anything other than a one-dimensional thug. The most fascinating aspect of the case – a woman in love with Bianchi attempted to prove his innocence by committing a copycat killing after he was caught – is touched on briefly, but it is awkward and tacked-on, as if Parello felt obliged to include it.
The Hillside Strangler proves – yet again – just how difficult it is to make a compelling serial killer movie from the perspective of the killer. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer remains the benchmark film of its type, but it's rare for a director of John McNaughton's skill to work in this genre – even the acclaimed Monster would have been a lot less highly regarded without Charlize Theron's Oscar-winning turn. Parello is certainly no McNaughton, and for all the hard work of his leading men, this is an ugly, artless bore.