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The Hillside Strangler

Taking a much more subversive approach than Chris Fisher's trash-arty "Hillside Strangler" (unveiled at Cinevegas in June), Chuck Parello's "The Hillside Strangler" plays as a blackly comic slice of mock '70s-style exploitation that flirts with the viewer before applying its chokehold: grab-and-run theatrical biz preceding robust DVD sales.

With:
With: C. Thomas Howell, Nicholas Turturro, Allison Lange, Lin Shaye, Molly Brenner, Aimee Brooks, Hal Cutler, Tricia Dickson, Keva Hargrove, Alexa Jago, Julia Lee, Zarah Little, Kent Masters King, Natasha Melnick, Sarah Ann Morris, Kevin Mukherji, Laura Mulrenan, Marisol Padilla Sanchez, Robbie Peron, Brandin Rackley, Ken Rosier, Jennifer Tisdale, Roz Witt, Cletus Young.

Two movies in as many months dealing with notorious Hollywood Hills murders may seem like, uh, overkill — but at least one is worth the wait. Taking a much more subversive approach than Chris Fisher’s trash-arty “Hillside Strangler” (unveiled at Cinevegas in June), Chuck Parello’s “The Hillside Strangler” plays as a blackly comic slice of mock ’70s-style exploitation that flirts with the viewer before applying its chokehold. Entry stylishly rings down the curtain on U.K. producer/distrib Hamish McAlpine’s trilogy on modern serial killers (“Ed Gein,” “Ted Bundy”), with grab-and-run theatrical biz preceding robust DVD sales and eventual triple-pack sell-through.

On the heels of summer fest dates in Europe, film gets a sneak preview at Los Angeles’ Egyptian Theater Oct. 4, followed by release Oct. 22 in Gotham and L.A. through McAlpine’s new Stateside arm of Tartan Films.

Though the gruesome slayings during 14 months in 1977-79 were initially dubbed the work of one man, they were actually the work of two — Kenneth A. Bianchi and Angelo Buono. Parello, co-scripting with series scribe Stephen Johnston, keeps the focus tight on the two, and he’s served by terrific perfs from C. Thomas Howell and, especially, Nicholas Turturro as the careening, crazed perps.

Fisher’s movie centered more on Bianchi’s interrogation by the authorities and invented a sexy female shrink as his questioner. Parello’s is closer to the facts, but isn’t concerned with psychological insights: like “Ed Gein” and “Bundy,” it’s a movie-movie, about how “ordinary” modern-day monsters can seem, and the hair’s breadth between sanity and madness.

From the start, pic sets up its generic stall — with deceptively casual lensing by John Pirozzi — as Bianchi (Howell), a security officer at a Rochester, N.Y., store is seen spying on a woman in a changing cubicle. Back home, Bianchi weeps on his mom’s lap when his application to join the local police department is rejected. Though he looks nothing like the real Bianchi, Howell’s playing is on the nail, seemingly modeled on a whole series of B-picture psychos, with a touch of John Waters exaggeration.

Mom sends her son to the West Coast (“L.A. is so much cooler than Rochester”) to stay with his cousin, Buono, a big-talking, cardboard-cutout Italian-American with a small auto-refit business. Turned down by Glendale’s police department, Bianchi sets up a phony counseling service with a fake Columbia U. psych degree. Among his clients is a weirdo writer, Christina Chavez (Marisol Padilla Sanchez), whose reappearance at pic’s close provides a darkly comic coda.

Meanwhile, thanks to Buono’s tutoring, Bianchi’s sex life is developing just fine, and when he meets the beautiful and trusting Claire Shelton (Allison Lange) — pic’s name for the real-life Kelli Boyd — she’s soon pregnant and cohabiting with him. Now on a giant sexual bender, B&B start up a hookers’ agency, and when that lands them in trouble with some brothers, the boys take their revenge out on a black prostie, Gabrielle (Kent Masters King), with Bianchi reaching a murderous sexual high in the back of a moving car.

Hereon, pic tightens the screws as the duo sets out on a spree of torture, rape and killing, all the more horrific for its violent playfulness. There’s no one clear moment where B&B are shown crossing over from weirdness to monsterdom, which adds to the real sense of unease in the second half as the audience is made complicit in their deadly fun and games.

Though pic has one tense sequence where the two are almost caught in the act, film spends almost no time on the police investigation. There’s no sense of the law closing in, no use of datelines for the murders, and few news inserts.

Turturro chews the scenery with glee and has one verbal set-to with Lin Shaye, as his alkie mom, that’s worth the price of admission alone. Howell makes Bianchi more of a sappy, childlike stooge, drawn by osmosis into the killings.

Period detail is fine, with a natural look on a budget, and editing is agreeably trim.

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The Hillside Strangler

Production: A Tartan Films release (in U.S./U.K.) of a Tartan USA, Vitagraph production. (International sales: Metro Tartan, London.) Produced by Hamish McAlpine, Michael Muscal. Executive producers, Michael Avery, Carol Siller, Alexa Jago. Co-executive producer, John Steinfield. Directed by Chuck Parello. Screenplay, Stephen Johnston, Parello.

Crew: Camera (color), John Pirozzi; editor, Paul Heiman; production designer, Gregg Gibbs; art director, Jennifer Joos; costume designer, Niklas J. Palm; sound (Dolby), Lawrence Fried; casting, Johanna Ray. Reviewed at Edinburgh Film Festival (Late Night Romps), Aug. 26, 2004. Running time: 97 MIN.

With: With: C. Thomas Howell, Nicholas Turturro, Allison Lange, Lin Shaye, Molly Brenner, Aimee Brooks, Hal Cutler, Tricia Dickson, Keva Hargrove, Alexa Jago, Julia Lee, Zarah Little, Kent Masters King, Natasha Melnick, Sarah Ann Morris, Kevin Mukherji, Laura Mulrenan, Marisol Padilla Sanchez, Robbie Peron, Brandin Rackley, Ken Rosier, Jennifer Tisdale, Roz Witt, Cletus Young.

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