Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Alphabet Killer (Intrinsic Value Films, New Films International, Wideye Creative Films, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a Lifetime movie from the backfiles, The Alphabet Killer, which I recorded last March around the same time as Lifetime aired Romeo Killer: The Chris Porco Story — which they were promoting incessantly during the showing of The Alphabet Killer, pushing the fact that the real Chris Porco had filed suit to block the screening of that film and had actually won in district court before an appeals court ruled that this was precisely the sort of prior-restraint censorship the First Amendment was designed to prevent, and the ban was lifted so they could show the film. The Alphabet Killer was also based on a true story — the mysterious murders of three pre-pubescent girls in and around Rochester, New York in the early 1970’s — which got the nicknames “the alphabet murders” and “the double-initial murders” because not only were the victims young girls whose first and last names began with the same letter, their bodies were dumped in towns whose names began with the same letter as the victims’ names. According to the usual online sources, the Rochester “alphabet murders” have never been solved, though a later series of four “alphabet murders” in California has been solved — the convicted killer was a man named Joseph Naso who moved from upstate New York to California in the mid-1970’s — which leads some people to suspect that the Rochester murders may have been committed by Naso as well. Then again, Naso’s victims were adult prostitutes instead of little girls, and it’s rare for a serial killer to change his victim profile that radically. Besides, as some online sources pointed out, both Naso and the Rochester killer could have copied the gimmick from Agatha Christie’s suspense novel The ABC Murders.

But The Alphabet Killer is hardly your standard-issue Lifetime true-crime drama — indeed, it’s at least as enjoyable if you don’t know it’s at least nominally based on actual crimes — instead it’s a psychological horror-thriller whose central character is not the killer but the lead police detective on the case, Megan Paige (an absolutely first-rate performance by Eliza Dushku), who when the film begins is living with fellow cop Kenneth Shine (Cary Elwes) when the two pull the case of the first “alphabet murder.” (Incidentally, the real first victim was 10 years old but the actress playing her here, Bailey Garno, is 15.) Megan, it turns out, has a long history of mental illness but has never been diagnosed before; it’s been responsible for many of her successes as a homicide detective because it’s enabled her to get into the head space of the criminal she was looking for and thereby figure out who he or she was. But when she starts investigating this killing she finds the victim’s ghost literally haunting her, and ultimately within two acts she’s so frustrated by her inability either to crack the case or to sleep that she attempts suicide by slashing her wrists. Ken rescues her but she ends up in a mental hospital being treated by Dr. Ellis Parks (Carl Lumbly, who for some reason is made up to look less like an African-American human than a character from Planet of the Apes), and though she’s allowed to return to the police force she’s only given a desk job in the records department and isn’t permitted to have a gun. Nonetheless, when additional “alphabet” killings start occurring, she starts investigating them whether she’s officially allowed to or not — thereby creating problems with Ken, who’s no longer her boyfriend but is still on the force and is, in fact, her superior officer. Eventually police think they have the Alphabet Killer trapped in an attic, where she’s holding Elizabeth Eckers (Sarah Anderson) and her father hostage — only not only is Eckers a sexually mature adult, she’s always been called “Beth” and therefore doesn’t fit the double-initial pattern. In a scene writer Tom Malloy probably copied, consciously or unconsciously, from the end of Rebel Without a Cause Megan goes up the stairs to the attic and talks the suspect into giving up his gun, only when the man appears at the attic window two of the officers staking out the building fire their guns and blow him away.

The Rochester police consider the alphabet cases closed, but of course Megan knows better; she discovers that all the girls attended the same church, and her suspicion falls first on a priest there, Father McQuarrie (Rocco Sisto), though we’ve already been given an intimation that the real killer is Richard Ledge (Timothy Hutton), a member of the therapy group Megan is attending. Yes, there’s the minor little detail that Ledge is in a wheelchair when he attends the meetings, and the killer was obviously someone who could walk, but as anyone who’s seen virtually any 1930’s movie involving a wheelchair could have guessed, he really is the killer; he’s simply faked being disabled and needing the chair. (Virtually all movie characters you saw in wheelchairs before 1938 didn’t actually need them; the breakthrough finally came when Lionel Barrymore’s chronic arthritis got so bad he needed a wheelchair in real life, so MGM started casting him as people who needed wheelchairs.) He abducts Megan and takes her to the Genesee River, intending to inject her with propofol, throw her into the river and let the water and the currents do their work — but instead she manages to escape, get to her gun (which she’s not supposed to be carrying at all) — or was it his gun? Director Rob Schmidt’s staging of the final scene was a bit ambiguous ­— and blast away at him so he falls into the river. His body is never recovered, and the police have already closed the case, so Megan goes back to her desk job and, as the closing credits inform us, “In 2006, police exhumed a fireman’s body and posthumously cleared him as a suspect. To date, the Alphabet Killer has not been found.” (So this is another story, like Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Roget and James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, that gives us a fictitious solution to a famous unsolved real-life crime.)

What makes this one special is the relentlessly Gothic visual style of Rob Schmidt’s direction, the obsessiveness of Tom Malloy’s script, and above all the magnificent acting of Eliza Dushku as Megan: she perfectly captures the inner conflict between the controlled cop and the madwoman, and is at her best moments when she’s trying to appear calm and collected and inside is seething with trauma and fear. There’s one remarkable scene in which she gives a passionate kiss to one of her fellow (male) officers — and when he asks her afterwards, “Did you mean that?,” she says, “Probably not,” leaving him disappointed because it’s clear the answer he was hoping for was yes. That gimmick of the villain faking disability is so old it’s groan-inducing, but otherwise The Alphabet Killer is well above the Lifetime norm (it apparently was filmed for Showtime pay-cable and then released to Lifetime in an edited version with typical deletions like the “God-“ from “Goddamn”), a genuinely moving film with a first-rate performance by the female lead. This should have been a star-making role for Dushku (indeed, one could readily imagine it being a series!), but somehow she’s got stuck hovering at the edge of the “A”-list even though she’s been in feature films with such “A”-listers as Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio!