2019 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge: Day 27: The Case of the Hillside Stranglers (1989)

Day 27 Special Presentations: Made for TV movies from the ‘70s, classic era of the bronze screen

The writing is so fast n’ furious at B&S Movies for “Slasher Month” and the “Scarecrow Challenge” that Sam and I had a communication snafu and we both ended up writing reviews for this fantastic TV movie. He reviews it for “Day 28: A Loreless Yarn: One based on a true story.”  It’s a slasher. It’s a TV Movie. It’s based on a true story. And it’s a friggin’ Richard Crenna movie . . . all rolled into one!

Watch the VHS trailer.

My three-for-one review of Gene Roddenberry’s post-Star Trek series pilots Genesis II, Planet Earth, and Strange New World (1973 to 1975) would have been perfect for “Scarecrow Challenge Day 27,” but I reviewed them for B&S Movies’ “Post-Apocalypse Month” (see our September “Dustbin” roundups Part 1 and Part 2). If you’re a frequent visitor to B&S Movies, you know we’re always jonesin’ for a fix of the “Big Three” over-the-air U.S television network movies from the good ‘ol days before the VHS and cable television boom. B&S Movies’ love for the now network-eschewed format is obsessive to the point that it took three tribute weeks: “Lost TV Week,” “Week of Made for TV Movies,” and “Sons of Made for TV Movies Week,” to contain it.

I’ve chosen a movie for Day 27 that was on my shortlist for “Day 17 Evil in Broad Daylight” (I reviewed 1988’s In the Line of Duty: The F.B.I Murders with David Soul and Michael Gross as serial-killing bank robbers) that, in my opinion, is one of the finest TV movies ever made. And it stars Richard Crenna. And, as with the entire In the Line of Duties series, this was also made by NBC-TV, the undisputed kings of TV Movies. So, double bonus. Now, let’s get on with the show.

As with ex-Army Rangers Bill Matix and Mike Platt terrorizing the streets of Miami, Florida in 1986, with their eventual murder of two F.B.I agents, Angelo Buono (Dennis Farina of TV’s Law and Order) and Kenneth Bianchi (Billy Zane of The Titanic and The Phantom) were blatant, cruel, and just didn’t give a fuck as they cut a swath through Los Angeles between October 1977 to February 1978 with the murders of 10 women. It wasn’t until a disagreement between the two cousins that led Bianchi to go out on his own, that their spree began to unravel.

While I’ve watched this telefilm every time it pops up on TV, the same can’t be said for the two tried-to-be-grittier direct-to-video attempts trying to improve upon what the Richard Crenna-version did to perfection.

It was the tutelage of C. Thomas Howell (The Outsiders) and Nicholas Turturro (brother of John, the current on-the-air U.S TV series Chicago P.D) starring as Bianchi and Buono that led me to rent The Hillside Strangler (2004). Regardless of its claims of being “a more accurate portrayal,” the stellar quality of Crenna’s 1989 TV movie left me feeling this Howell-fronted version worked as a fiction piece plotted around two (dark) historical figures.

The second attempt was the even lower-budgeted Rampage: The Hillside Strangler Murders (2006). It starred the very competent and always deservingly working character actors Tomas Arana (The Dark Knight Rises) and Clifton Collins (Pacific Rim, HBO’s Westworld) as Buono and Bianchi. I’ve seen the DVDs tossed in the $5.00 bins at Walmart, and it’s never been on cable, as far as I can tell; so I’ve never seen it. However, based on its 4.2/10 IMDb rating, it sounds like Rampage’s use of the ‘ol killer-tells-his-story-in-flashback-to-a-prison-psychologist (female, natch) didn’t work out so well.

The scribe behind the Crenna-version: Steve Gethers, writing in television since the mid-‘50s for The Kraft Theatre and The DuPont (Network) variety shows, along with a Jackie Kennedy TV movie and LaVar Burton’s (Star Trek: TNG) Billy: Portrait of a Street Kid (1977) amid his long list of credits.

Gethers intelligently took the high road from the flinching reality depicted in true crime novelist Darcy’ O Brien’s best-selling non-fiction document of the case, Two of a Kind: The Hillside Stranglers (1985), and decided to go for the psychological and not the shocking. It is Gethers character-subjective approach to the material that allows us to see inside the minds of the killers instead of being objectively-bludgeoned to numbness watching their deeds—and that makes Buono and Bianchi ‘s deeds all that more shocking. And it’s accomplished without any blood or actual murder or rape shown.

Also replacing the bloodshed: In addition to seeing into the minds of the killers, we see the affect the killers not only have on the families of the victims, but the personal affect it has on Crenna’s Sgt. Bob Grogan (and that’s a personal touch you don’t see in the big-studio cop vs. serial killer romps Cobra and D-Tox). And that’s what this 1989 telefilm version has that the 2004 and the 2006 direct-to-videos do not: Showing us the “humanity” of those affected by the “inhumanity” of others is what heightens the fear and dread.

Do you need more Richard Crenna TV movies? In addition to his work as Sgt. Bob Grogan, he portrayed Frank Janek in a series of films: Double Take (1985), Internal Affairs (1988), Murder in Black and White (1990), Murder Times Seven (1990), Terror on Track 9 (1992), The Forget Me Not Murders (1994), and Janek: The Silent Betrayal (1994). You can watch The Case of the Hillside Stranglers, which looks like they’re the post-VHS DVD rips issued by MGM, on You Tube HERE and HERE.

Don’t be duped. It’s a completely different movie. Oh, why, Maria? Why?

About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S Movies.

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