The Hillside Strangler (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Unlike the critics, we both thought this film had some effectiveness. We hated it in spite of that, or perhaps because of that.


Scoop's notes in white:

I think I can best describe the film by quoting from the official site. The marketers chose to place some quotations from reviews on the page, which is characteristic of official sites, except that these quotations are not the typical official choices:

"No amount of ironic posturing can excuse the exploitative and misogynistic way the camera lingers over a procession of naked and lifeless bodies."

And that quote comes from the ultra right wing New York Post, which is not normally known for sensitivity to misogyny and other such feminist issues. The point, however, is not the source of the quote, nor even the content, but the fact that the marketers are proud of it. They think it represents a sentiment that will help to sell their product. The purveyors of these videos have chosen to cite a review that says - in essence - this movie sucks, but is filled with naked bodies. That gives you a very clear idea of the marketing strategy and the target market.

If you rent this account of the brutal Hillside Stranglings in the late 1970s, you should not expect to gain any insight into the characters of the two men who committed the crimes, nor should you expect to learn what made them what they were. You should expect to see a lurid, detailed recreation of the pleasure that they derived from killing their victims, and some graphic pictorialization of the crimes, including explicit nudity, some unpleasant violence, and two creepy guys exulting in the feeling of power they attained from brutalizing and killing women.

The official site also links to the summary page at Metacritic, which estimates that the average review converts to about 18/100, a score roughly in the Gigli range. The Metacritic page linked from the movie's official site includes the following quotes:

  • "A good horse kick, or a fistful of Valium, may help you get through this relentlessly sadistic exercise with your soul more or less intact."
  • "Relentlessly unpleasant film."
  • "Irresponsible, exploitative trash."
  • "Here's one for the Sick Voyeurs Club."


... and you should see the bad reviews!

(Rim shot)

The reviewers are right about the exploitative nature of the project, as proven by the very fact that the marketers are so proud of those bad reviews that they quote them and link to them. This is a pure exploitation film, 1970s style, right down to the glamorization of the crimes. The real guys killed a variety of females, the most famous victims having been two little girls from a Catholic grammar school, aged 14 and 12. There were two other minors on the list. In the movie, the two men are seen killing really sexy prostitutes and pretty girls with great bodies - in other words, women who look great tied up naked.

Q. Does that mean the movie doesn't work?

A. Not at all. It's an exploitation movie, but it does work on some level. You can fairly put this film in the same group as "I Spit on Your Grave": a tawdry, slimy movie that elicits strong responses from viewers.

The actors in this film are far better than the principals in "I Spit on Your Grave". The lead performances by Nick Turturro and "Soul Man" Howell are frightening and powerful, Turturro brutal and absent of remorse, Howell slimy and dishonest in every way. By the time the film is half over, seeing these guys will twist your face into the same involuntary expression it makes when you see a rotten banana. By the time the film is completely over, you will feel the urge for a shower. I had to watch a bit of comedy to "cleanse the palate" and get this film out of my head.

That means it has a certain elemental power. People were horrified by this film, and it is absolutely a putrid example of exploitation, but it is my contention that the score could not be less than C- by our system of evaluation, for two reasons.


  • There are two nude corpses, one face up (full frontal nudity), the other face down. One is Lisa Lee, but I don't know which one.
  • Kylie Rachel - breasts
  • Jessica Allegro - breasts and butt in a thong
  • Brandin Rackley - everything.
  • Natasha Melnick - breasts

DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen anamorphic.

  • director's commentary

  • deleted scenes

  • additional trailers

(1) Despite a small budget, it is not a choppy or amateurish film. It flows quite smoothly.

(2) The Hillside Strangler evokes powerful reactions, and bad movies do not cause people to become so emotionally involved. An exploitation film which can provoke such outrage must, ipso facto, be doing what the director intended it to do.

This film was designed to shock, to place the viewer inside of the killers' mind-sets, and to make the viewer feel guilty and ashamed for being turned on by watching really hot women get tied up, just as the killers did. It succeeds on all counts. It is a slimy and nasty film, but not one that leaves audiences indifferent. I hated it. I wish I had never seen it. But I can't deny its effectiveness.

Notes on C. Thomas Howell:

He did a good job in this film. It may be the best acting of his career. But he does not look healthy.

Howell was playing Kenneth Bianchi, who was a strapping guy in his mid 20s when the Hillside Strangler murders occurred. The real Bianchi was bulkier and younger than Howell, yet the actor seemed to have aged and lost weight for the role. He looked skeletal and 50ish. The physical change doesn't seem to have been necessary for the part. On the contrary, why would Howell age himself and lose weight to play a real person who was younger and heavier than he? Makes no sense to me.

These pictures illustrate:

C. Thomas Howell

The real Kenneth Bianchi

The first two pictures of Howell are from the film. The last one is an interview from the special features. The small size of the captures is deceptive, because it hides the signs of age. Click on the third one to get a close-up look at what I mean.

The first picture of Bianchi shows him before the time of the stranglings, but the last two show approximately what he looked like at the time of the crimes.

Perhaps Howell is ill, or perhaps he changed his appearance for another role he was working on at the same time. I don't know.

Howell's inappropriate appearance notwithstanding, he nailed the part. It may not have looked like the real Bianchi, but it certainly seemed to capture the essence of a deeply troubled man. I don't know whether that troubled man was the same kind of troubled man as Kenneth Bianchi, but the portrayal seemed spot-on in the context of the film.

Tuna's notes in yellow:

This is a biopic of two serial killers in L.A., Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, who were known collectively in the singular as "the Hillside Strangler."  It comes from writer/director Chuck Parello, the designated filmmaker for serial killers, who also brought us Ed Gein and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part 2. It is Parello's style to remain pretty close to the real incidents, while lightening the story somewhat with black humor, and injecting some ideas as to what made the characters become serial killers. The analysis is minimal. He relies on the enormity of the events to provide the punch in his films.

My take on this one is basically the same on his other two serial killer efforts. These films are a reasonable historical reenactment, but as they are relating a history I remember well, there is little educational value for me. In short, I just don't find them at all engaging. Victims are introduced then promptly dispatched without allowing me time to develop any emotional attachment. Parello might solve that problem with a narrative style more like airplane disaster films, where we meet the victims and learn about them long before the killers do.

Hillside is a seedy trip into rape, murder, and very nasty treatment of women. There is nothing technically wrong with the film, and it was a fair portrayal of the facts, but one must wonder what, if anything, this journey accomplishes for viewers. The film must have merit for those who are fascinated by this particular form of deviance. 

The Critics Vote ...

  • There is one major review online. BBC gave it the lowest possible score, 1/5

The People Vote ...

  • It was released in one theater for two weeks, and grossed about $3,500. Apart from that, it was a STV.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, Scoop says, "This must be at least a C-, although I thoroughly despised it, and most reviewers agreed. It is an ugly subject, and the killers' thought process is ugly, but the film recreates all that ugliness effectively. I understand why critics despised it, but although it may be a despicable movie, it is not at all an ineffective one. (See my explanation above.)" Tuna says, "Defining the genre as 'serial killer biopic', it is a C+. My only question is, 'is this a good reason to make, or to watch a film?'"

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