NBC plays its true-crime card with “The Hunt for the Unicorn Killer,” an engaging mini that boasts strong performances and a tight structure from director William A. Graham. Despite a rushed ending, this factual drama about activist-turned-fugitive Ira Einhorn offers up some genuine suspense and has all the components of a ratings-grabber (a madman, a homicide, a blond). Like the similarly themed 1984 mini “Fatal Vision” — Dan Wigutow exec produced both — sweeps viewers familiar with the case will certainly get their fix, while those just looking for a thrill will also be satisfied.
Based on Steven Levy’s book “The Unicorn’s Secret,” Bruce Graham’s teleplay details the events that surrounded the death of Holly Maddux (Naomi Watts), an attractive, spirited Texan who fell in love with Einhorn (Kevin Anderson) in the early ’70s. A Philadelphia radical who led peaceful protests, Einhorn (German for “one horn,” thus the title) was an influential community voice: He lectured at universities, befriended corporate honchos, wrote books and became linked to some of America’s wealthiest benefactors.
Narrative begins in 1968 at Bryn Mawr College and then fast-forwards to 1970, when Holly falls for the hippy-ish Einhorn. Soon they move in together and sustain a one-sided courtship: Holly accepts his penchant for unfaithfulness, and pleases him on demand.
In time, the relationship grows even more territorial; he drives a wedge between Holly and her conservative dad, Fred (Tom Skerritt); forces her to dance topless for money; and insists she get an abortion. In 1977, after making the decision to leave Einhorn, Holly returns to the apartment to collect her things and confronts him. Nobody hears from her again.
Part two circles the investigation, headed by private detective Robert Stevens (William G. Schilling). His team arrests Einhorn in 1977 after they discover Holly’s body stuffed in a trunk in his apartment. Out on bail, the accused killer weighs his options, flees the country in 1981 and is able to elude authorities for years while assistant D.A. Richard DiBenedetto (Martin Donovan) builds a case.
Convicted in absentia and sentenced to life in prison in 1993, Einhorn remained on the lamb until 1997, when he was finally captured in France with new girlfriend Anika Flodin (Carolyn Dunn). Refusing at first to extradite him, the French government reconsidered after Pennsylvania legislation was enacted to grant him a new trial; he is currently free on bond and is appealing the ruling.
Holly’s dad Fred has since committed suicide, leaving sister Meg (Kellie Overbey) to lead the family’s fight for justice.
As Einhorn, Anderson does a solid job of turning on the charm and terror simultaneously. Charismatic and entirely believable, the thesp, who starred in ABC’s controversial (and short-lived) series “Nothing Sacred,” knows how to portray a smooth-talker and a psychopath without lining either one with false fibers.
Other standout perfs include Watts, who gives Holly the right amount of innocence and sensuality, and Skerritt, who, like Karl Malden in “Vision,” brings a tough sensitivity to the truth-seeking father role.
Missing, however, is any sense of here-and-now, with the majority of the story focusing on the direct consequences of Einhorn’s disappearance in 1981 instead of recent developments.More coverage of the situation’s current state would have been suitable, especially since it has lately been revisited by several newsmags.
Tech credits are good, with Chris Boardman’s understated score and Ralf Bode’s lensing particularly effective.