Judge Tom Becker was taken aback by how big a loser Parker Lewis turned out to be.
Nine nurses…one survivor…
Ah, the '60s…a time of enormous social and political upheaval. The '60s gave us the civil rights movement and the women's movement, hippies and free love, an unpopular war replacing the Cold War, and some of the most enduring names in the lexicon of home-grown sociopaths and psychopaths: Charles Manson, Texas clock tower sniper Charles Whitman, and Richard Speck, who, one July night in 1966, abused and killed eight student nurses in Illinois. In today's crowded atrocity market, Speck and his crimes might be merely gruesome blips on the media radar; 40-some years ago, he was big news. Does Chicago Massacre make a case for why Speck warrants his place in the sociopathic-killer canon?
Facts of the Case
Richard Speck (Corin Nemec, Parker Lewis Can't Lose) is a barely literate, acne-scarred loser, a drifter who starts out in Dallas and finds his way to Chicago. He meets a young woman, a student nurse, and mentions that he knows where she lives, in a nearby dorm with other student nurses. She pays this little mind until he shows up unannounced at the dorm one night. Then, all hell breaks loose.
Sociopaths are as American as apple pie. They pique our morbid curiosity, and we romanticize them at the same time that we vilify them. They often help define the times: Manson, the crazed hippie; Charlie Starkweather, the disaffected rebel without a cause; Ted Bundy, the good-looking Mr. Goodbar.
Then there's Richard Speck: the bogeyman. His crimes were so horrific and senseless, particularly shocking in 1966, that the mere mention of his name still gives people the shudders. Corin Nemec's characterization is definitely creepy, and his severe acne scars and mumbling drawl are eerie physical manifestations of the ugliness inside the man; he's light years away from Parker Lewis. But Nemec doesn't own this one the way Brian Dennehy "owned" John Wayne Gacy in 1992's To Catch a Killer. Maybe this comparison isn't entirely fair; Nemec is no Dennehy (one of the great character actors), and Speck was no Gacy, who was a far more eccentric character. Still, Nemec's portrayal is surface, lots of tics and mutterings. In the commentary, Nemec and writer/director Michael Feifer talk about how often Nemec improvised scenes, using the script as a guide, but they say very little that connects to Speck as a real person.
This is a problem with the film overall: The writer never seems to find a "hook" for telling Speck's story. The murders are documented, and there's some back story about Speck, but we really don't get to know him. It's possible, even probable, that Richard Speck was just a hollow man, not interesting enough to have a drink with, much less to invest 90 minutes of your life visiting. But that's the difference between routine killer story and gripping drama. Would In Cold Blood be considered a classic if Capote had focused on the facile Dick Hickcock rather than plumbing the pathetic poetic soul of Perry Smith? Nemec does what he can but, in the end, it's an incomplete picture of a man who, we suspect, never fully developed as a human being. However, in the final minutes, the film gives us something of a surprise. I'm not going to spoil it, but I will say this: Had the tone and content of this scene had more influence on Feifer and Nemec, we might have had a much more interesting, unique, and dynamic film. Listening to the jokey, frat-boy-on-a-dare commentary on this scene made me wish that this story had been told by a more courageous team.
There is so much missed opportunity here. Speck's killings took place in 1966 Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley's Chicago, two years before the notorious Democratic National Convention. One character mentions that the police can't give too much attention to tracking down Speck because of everything else that is going on in the city (race riots, for instance), yet we see none of this; nor do we see what effect the killings had on anyone except for one dedicated police detective. The failure to really explore the time and place works against the film in another significant way. In 2007, it's a little difficult to understand why a group of healthy young women would sit passively while this goon takes them one at a time be slaughtered. Yes, we know that this is a true story and these events really happened. If you are at all familiar with the case and the era, you might draw some conclusions: you will understand what a different world it was, that women were just starting to come into their own as far as being on equal footing with men and were still naïve and protected. Such a crime was so unheard of that these young women had no reference point and couldn't accept it even as it was happening. Perhaps a few scenes of the nurses before the crime would have given us some context and allowed us to get to know them a little. Alas, Feifer doesn't go there, and they become as interchangeable as victims in a fictional slasher film. Instead, we get some police procedural that really goes nowhere, a largely unnecessary trial segment, and lots of Nemec: slurring, stumbling, drawling, baying at the moon, and so on.
The murder scenes are broken up into small bits and interspersed throughout the film; however, their placement seems random. They are gruesome, upsetting scenes, not overly graphic (we see knives plunging but not connecting, or the ends of a piece of cloth that is being tightened around an off-screen throat). By the halfway point, we have seen so many of these pieces that their impact is lessened, and these scenes become the slasher equivalent of musical interludes.
The main extra is a commentary track with writer/director Feifer and star Nemec. They are both very enthused about this project, and they speak with the kind of held-over adrenaline rush of people who put a lot of themselves into low-frills, low-budget productions (the direct-to-video Massacre was shot in 10 days with a $4,500 camera, then edited in Final Cut Pro). Like the film, the commentary doesn't offer much insight into Speck or the social conditions of the time; it's a few anecdotes and a lot of complimenting each other and the rest of the cast and crew. Also included are two deleted scenes (that would have added nothing to the film except another three minutes), stills, and trailers for other Lionsgate offerings. The picture looks fine, like a reasonably well-shot DTV feature, and I found no noticeable difference between the audio options.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Those who like this sort of thing will certainly find things to like here, and as direct-to-video features go, this isn't half bad. Nemec's portrayal is sincere, and the other characters (mainly victims and law enforcement) decently played. Given the lurid subject matter, the crimes are recreated with a great deal of restraint. The women who play the student nurses are not glamorous, but attractive in a realistic way. The violence is not eroticized or exploitative, but it is still disturbing.
Chicago Massacre: Richard Speck doesn't give us a fleshed-out account of Speck, one that puts him and his crimes in context with the times. We also don't get Speck as the basis for a fictional villain, which could have produced a Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer for this millennium. Instead, Feifer tells his story straight, and his restraint, while admirable, dilutes what could have been a more powerful experience. With a $26.98 MSRP, it is hard to recommend this for anything other than a rental for fans of the DTV slasher genre.
Speck was guilty of heinous crimes in '66. In '07, this disc is guilty of being a middling true-crime flick. The court acknowledges Michael Feifer's resourcefulness and Corin Nemec's willingness to play nasty (to a point), but it's just not enough to let them go scot-free.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Michael Feifer and Corin Nemec
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