I was living in California’s San Fernando Valley when the Hillside Strangler was at work and most active in October, November and December of 1977. (We didn’t know it was stranglers back then.) I was probably too young to be an at-risk victim (the youngest to die at the famed serial killer’s hands was 12) but I do remember their reign of terror, and the edgy fear of parents and young women all across the Southland. My friend down the street had a cousin (Lauren Wagner) who was counted among the victims, so I guess you could say I have a stronger connection to the subject matter in The Hillside Strangler DVD than most reviewers will.
But I still have to look at it objectively. The movie is reasonably factual (more so than 2000’s Ed Gein and 2002’s Ted Bundy, which are also from the same filmmakers) but is overly muddled in its storytelling style. Dumbed down and sexed up, The Hillside Strangler cashes in on the overtly lurid aspects of the murders while giving short shrift to the more interesting psychological aspects of the case.
In case you are vague on the details, The Hillside Stranglers, Angelo Buono (Nick Turturro) and Kenneth Bianchi (C. Thomas Howell), were two psychopathic cousins who teamed up to torture and murder several girls in the Los Angeles area. Some of them were hookers; some of them were nice, normal schoolgirls. Some were very young; others were older. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to their M.O. — causes of death usually involved strangling, but some of the women were gassed, suffocated, or injected with lethal substances. All were viciously raped. Bianchi was younger than Buono, and was markedly smarter and better-looking. Buono had a long history of overt misogyny, while Bianchi was a long-time liar and poseur. Throw each of their stellar personal qualities together, and they added up to brutal murder.
The movie is not very well-cast (Howell looks older than Turturro, for instance) but both of the actors do a good job with what must have been very difficult material (they have to act out some pretty graphic, humiliating scenes and have some rather edgy dialogue to deliver at times). It’s reasonably authentic in its presentation of the look and feel of the era, but it only shows the POV of the killers, never even trying to pull the focus out even a little. It’s a shame that some of the more interesting side-stories (Bianchi’s depraved girlfriend, for one) weren’t better-explored to add some more texture to the script.
For a surfacey serial killer flick concentrating on the more lurid aspects of the case, The Hillside Strangler does its job well. However, if you are interested in the psychology, police procedural, victims’ personal history, the background or legal trials of the killers… then you’ll be better off with a good book.
The DVD does not contain any additional release material.
Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson