Troma // 2004 // 89 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // February 18th, 2011
"An intimate portrait of a serial killer hosted by James Ellroy."
When the histories are written centuries from now, the period from 1888 to about 1991 (bookended by Jack the Ripper and the rise of Hannibal Lector) will likely be known not only as most of the twentieth century, but as the age of serial killers, at least in America. Although all kinds of murderers and madmen have held the spotlight over the last hundred or so years, there's something compelling about serial killers in particular that makes them more often the object of books and movies, both factual and fictional. To that growing list we can add Bazaar Bizarre, a documentary on a small-time serial killer (Bob Berdella). However, unlike most documentaries on serial killers (like those that run as part of hourlong television shows), Bazaar Bizarre brings low-budget horror aesthetics to the typical re-creations of Berdella's crimes. The result is an interesting, if uneven, serial killer documentary.
Bob Berdella is pretty small potatoes compared to the great serial killers, but I will say that his story has a bunch of flair. Bob worked as a chef and also operated Bob's Bizarre Bazaar (an occult-oriented store full of macabre trinkets), and when young kids were in trouble, they were sometimes sent to live with Bob for rehabilitation. Most people thought of him as a pretentious jerk, but no one suspected what he really was. That is, until a man wearing only a dog collar escaped from the second floor of Bob's house and ran screaming to the police. After investigation, it was apparent that Bob had kidnapped and sexually tortured at least six men, keeping detailed logs of his crimes.
First, the negative. Bazaar Bizarre takes its cue from pretty much every hourlong investigative-style show. That means we get reenactments, interviews with victims, reporters, and police officers, and the occasional piece of archival footage. The main problem is that Bazaar Bizarre runs 89 minutes, which is about twice as long as the usual hourlong program once commercials have been counted. Although Berdella's story is interesting, and the material handled fairly well, it's still too long. Part of the reason it's too long is the excessive use of reenactments. Some of them are good (which I'll get to in a moment), but a number of them could and should have been trimmed for time. Then, there are the musical interludes, which again seem added strictly to meet feature-length. The songs aren't particularly good, the performances uninspiring, and the connection to Berdella tenuous at best.
However, Bazaar Bizarre does have a couple of things going for it that other serial killer documentaries don't:
* James Ellroy. He has no explicit connection to the Bob Berdella case, and is instead here only to provide color commentary. That means he appears every 10 minutes or so and offers some insight into the mind of the "sexual psychotic." Although he's not a professional psychiatrist or criminal expert, Ellroy has spent his career writing about shady characters and the law enforcement officers who deal with them, so he has a unique view on the Berdella case. In some ways he's more compelling than Berdella, and I wish the documentary was just Ellroy talking about serial killers.
* Reenactments. I've already said that there are too many reenactments in this film, and I stand by that, but the film deserves points for going for the jugular with most of the ones it presents. This is a family friendly site, so I won't go into too much detail, but suffice it to say that the reenactments belong more in a low-budget horror film than on something like A&E. The film essentially opens with a man wearing only a collar staggering down a residential street, and we certainly see the full monty. I admire the film for being as forthright with the torture as it is, even if it makes everything harder to watch.
On DVD, Bazaar Bizarre looks like the low-budget production it is. The video looks sourced from consumer-level equipment, which means detail isn't particularly strong, and the compression has definitely left its mark as well. It's certainly watchable, but don't expect slick visuals. The stereo audio keeps the participants clearly audible, and the musical interludes sound surprisingly strong. Extras include a "postmortem" talk with the cast and crew as well as a handful of deleted scenes. Troma includes its usual "Tromatic extras," but if you've seen one Troma DVD, you've seen them all.
Bazaar Bizarre takes an admirable stab at breaking out of the suffocating conventions of the serial killer documentary. However, for everything that works (the James Ellroy commentary), there's at least one thing that doesn't (like the musical interludes). The film will appeal more to the Faces of Death crowd than those who like to watch how a murder mystery is solved in a cable TV program.
Only because it goes where few other serial killer films will, Bazaar Bizarre is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes