Narrator: Jon Granik.
The appalling and true story of the Midwest mass murder of 33 teenage boys follows Tribune’s last syndie presentation, the flawed but well-intentioned “Fatal Shot: The Hank Gathers Story.” Lamely directed by Eric Till, whose actors often appear to wander about without understanding the real-life characters, “To Catch a Killer” rambles when it should rant. But crime will probably pay in the ratings.
Too long, two-parter examines the catching of the killer, who’s been brought into focus almost from the start. But chief figure is Des Plaines Lt. Joe Kozenczak (Michael Riley), who has a nice wife and son and who seems a regular all-round fellow except he’s inescapably dull. Hanging around this guy for four hours is a test.
Kozenczak focuses on divorced construction boss John Wayne Gacy (Brian Dennehy) as the burly older man and his unexplained companion, Ted Koslo (Martin Julien), pick up fresh-faced teenager Chris Gant (Nicholas Shields), who vanishes. Kozenczak, equating the missing boy to his own son, assigns officers right away; the chase is on–and on and on.
Gacy, it seems, has a record of sexual assault. Kozenczak gets into the Gacy house, but there’s no Chris; there is, however, a board with handcuffs on it. Gacy, a bigwig among political and civic groups, seems to have other activities in his life–grim, rotten ones.
Tracing the tracking down of Gacy should make a tense, suspenseful drama, but Till’s direction and co-exec producer Jud Kinberg’s teleplay stall the interest. Tension’s mild, actions predictable. A few castings help hand the drama some energy, but even they can’t rescue the flat dum-dee-dum-dum story.
Dennehy as the monstrous Gacy is a solid choice. Actor gives a pro perf, with one attempted seduction scene in Part II a tricky, scary bit of acting. Margot Kidder, pumping much-needed pizazz into the production, appears as a psychic laying out worrisome facts about where Chris’s body lies. (She mentions a board, and darned if there isn’t a flashback to Kozenczak finding that board in Gacy’s attic as though viewers couldn’t make the connection on their own.)
Riley’s lightweight Kozenczak lacks command and authority. Meg Foster plays a negative, one-dimensional city attorney. Scott Hylands, though, gives conviction to the role of a cop heading a wild bunch of investigators.
Judith Goodwin, playing Chris’ mom, Shawn Lawrence as his dad, Cyndy Preston as the boy’s g.f. and Nicholas Shields as the missing youth all lend the telefilm some credibility.
Spotlighting in the name of entertainment details about how– not why, but how–a man destroyed so many youths is another point, but TV has reached that level. Assaults of all kinds are now acceptable in the name of sweeps, both in the syndie mart and on the nets.
There are moments, as when a police dog stands at attention in respect to death, that “To Catch a Killer” closes in on universal truths; otherwise, it’s like eyeballing an open wound fester.
Rene Ohashi’s camerawork is so-so; lighting, presumably reflecting reality, is often only amateurish. Ralph Brunjes’s editing is OK, and Paul Zaza’s glum score makes its obvious points.