The object of a current firestorm of controversy in Canada, “Karla” will soon be forgotten everywhere else, footnoted in the annals of psycho-killer movies as a creepy but botched work. While it attempts to adhere to the true-life, sensational Canadian murder case involving Karla Homolka and her husband Paul Bernardo, pic positions Karla as manipulated by Paul while failing to give equal consideration to her possible role as a co-mastermind. Canuck protests against the film on these grounds appear well founded, but have nonetheless served to boost Canadian B.O. since pic’s Jan. 20 bow and its future Yank theatrical prospects.
“Karla” has the rough, low-grade look of an early Roger Corman film, giving the tantalizing hope of an entertaining trash-a-thon. But that never emerges.
Script by Michael D. Sellers, Manette Beth Rosen and director Joel Bender adopts the hokey framework of incarcerated Karla (Laura Prepon) being interviewed by court-appointed Dr. Arndt (Patrick Bauchau) to determine if she’s eligible for parole. It’s Karla’s story, in essence, and although she may be the most unreliable of narrators, neither the script nor the alluring, likable Prepon encourages aud skepticism.
Such a stance places pic in a morally precarious position, as Karla tells of her seduction of handsome beau Paul (Misha Collins), with her sexually aggressive behavior that somehow slipped into nasty sex games led by Paul, involving Karla’s younger sis Tammy (Cherilyn Hayres), with whom Paul is obsessed.
Karla’s eventual murder conviction was based on Paul’s videotaping of a session in which Tammy was poisoned by Karla; druggy action here indicates a grayer area, however, in which Tammy’s death could have been accidental.
The downhill spiral into a nasty co-dependency — Paul’s hunger for raping and killing young women nurtured by Karla’s subservience and willingness to let him do whatever he wants, including repeatedly slugging her in the face — is much less enlightening and involving than it should be.
There’s a certain darkly suffocating quality to the chamber drama played out by these two sick souls, but the fact that the film is more willing to explicitly show Paul’s constant beatings of Karla than the worst aspects of the killings underlines who is to be seen as the victim here.
Yet, if there’s a dramatic case to be made for Karla not being partly responsible for the grisly crimes, the film never makes it, and a closing credit text stating evidence and testimony of Karla’s involvement and lack of remorse comes off as a particularly weak last-minute gambit to provide a balanced telling of the saga.
Prepon’s performance is, perhaps understandably, both extremely brave and notably confused: It’s rare for a thesp coming off a popular tube series (“That ’70s Show”) to play such an unremittingly dark character. But Prepon also seems not to know where to take her role after some early touches of bad-girl dramatics. Collins is more assured as a handsome beast, a dime-store version of Ted Bundy.
Bender’s direction is choppy and lacks style, while pic’s generally washed-out look tends to work against the creepy content rather than support it.
In a reverse of norms, production of the Canadian story was lensed entirely in Los Angeles with a largely Yank crew.