Anchor Bay // 2008 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // January 12th, 2009
The crimes that terrified a nation.
In the early 1970s, Rochester, New York, was plagued by a serial killer who preyed on young girls whose first and last initials matched (like first victim Carmen Colon). After killing them, he would dump them in a nearby town whose first letter matched those of the girls' initials (Carmen was dumped in Churchville). Although the police had numerous suspects (including Kenneth Bianchi, who would eventually be involved in the Hillside Strangler murders in California), the murders were never solved. With such a compelling premise, it was inevitable that a movie would approach the material. Enter Rob Schmidt, the director of Wrong Turn, who updates the material for contemporary audiences while throwing a supernatural angle into the mix. What emerges is a low-budget supernatural thriller which fails to offer any significant thrills or chills.
A young girl, Carla Castillo, is murdered and her body is dumped in the Rochester suburb of Churchville. Detective Megan Paige (Eliza Dushku, Wrong Turn) doesn't think the three C's are an accident and becomes intensely involved in the case. In fact, she becomes so involved in the case that she starts to hallucinate, and little Carla's ghost comes to haunt her. Because the case is going nowhere, Megan eventually succumbs to the hallucinations and attempts suicide. Luckily she's rescued before she dies, but she is diagnosed with adult onset schizophrenia. The film then fast-forwards two years, and Megan has made a full recovery thanks to therapy and drugs. She's assigned to "rubber gun squad" to do paperwork since the city can't fire her (or put her on active duty). Not long after she rejoins the force, another young girl is murdered, and she also has two matching initials. Megan is again haunted by the ghosts of the victims, and she has to solve the murders before she loses her mind again.
I wanted to like The Alphabet Killer. I like all the actors involved, especially Dushku and Cary Elwes; I've spent some time in Rochester, so I know the area a little bit; and I enjoy serial killer films, and this is an especially interesting idea for a serial killer. However, the film is hampered from minute one by a lackluster script that doesn't offer anything new to the genre and can only ape the most essential serial killer elements. Here are just a few of the film's problems:
* The killer. The real-life killings don't have a definitive killer, so the production was free to go buck-wild as far as suspects are concerned. But, this creates a couple of problems. First, because this film doesn't try (like Zodiac for instance) to offer a recreation of the original crime, there's very little investment in creating the character of the killer. We learn very little about his motivation, procedure, or anything like that. Second, the killer is ridiculously obvious. I usually get too wrapped up in thrillers to even try to guess who the killer is, but it was pathetically easy in The Alphabet Killer that I knew in the first half hour who was going to be guilty. That's not a horrible thing, except the rest of the film is only really interesting if you don't know who the killer is.
* The supernatural versus the schizophrenic. The film can't decide if Megan is "really" seeing ghosts, or if she's just suffering the effects of schizophrenia. Instead, the film has it both ways, which feels like a cheap copout. Instead of saying something interesting about supernatural phenomena or mental illness, the film tries to milk sympathy for Megan because she sees ghosts and she's crazy despite the fact that the two seem unrelated. It's a stupid tactic for generating interest in the character. The film would have been much better served making Megan's visions actual paranormal phenomena, which is passed off as schizophrenia. That would have been trite, but infinitely more effective than the limp characterization the film uses now.
* The ghosts. While we're on the subject of the supernatural, let me take a moment to say how stupid the ghosts are. Schmidt and Co. have decided to give a desaturated look that reeks of The Ring to the young girls in their ghost forms. Seriously, they all have that limp, watery hair, the slightly disfigured faces, and black-and-white tones of Japanese horror. It doesn't feel like a cool homage or interesting cross-pollination, but more like a lazy filmmaking technique.
Considering that all the supernatural and thriller elements of this supernatural thriller seem to fail, the film isn't left with much to go on.
Perhaps my comments above are a little harsh. The Alphabet Killer isn't a horrible movie, the kind you'll hate yourself for watching. Instead, it's the kind of film you're likely to find on late-night cable, get sucked into, and be disappointed by at the end.
In the film's favor, for a low-budget film the cast (and their performances) are surprisingly solid. I don't know what kind of secrets Rob Schmidt has on people like Michael Ironside, Cary Elwes, Timothy Hutton, and Eliza Dushku, but their performances in this film are better than it deserves. In fact, there's a moment in the film that almost makes the entire movie worth sitting through, and that's Martin Donovan as Jim, the father of the second murder victim. His performance as a grieving father is the stuff that awards are made of.
The film's presentation is solid for the film's budget level. The video transfer is generally clean, although it struggles a bit in some of the darker scenes. The audio does a fine job balancing music and dialogue. For extras we get two different commentaries, one by the writer Tom Malloy, and one by the producer Isen Robbins and director Rob Schmidt. Both tracks mention the film's low budget, but were somewhat difficult to listen to, since everyone seems to be much prouder of this film than I would have thought. There's also a short making-of featurette, and an alternate scene.
I didn't hate The Alphabet Killer, but I have trouble recommending it to anyone but the most diehard fans of the actors involved. It's not particularly scary or thrilling, or even very interesting, even if all the actors are easy to watch. The DVD from Anchor Bay is a solid technical effort, offering a few worthy extras, but it should be generally avoided.
The Alphabet Killer is guilty of killing any thrills that might be generated from a morbid slice of Rochester history.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Two Commentaries
* Alternate Scene