Berdella (2009)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2010-07-19 08:06

Written by: Bill Taft
Directed by: Paul South and Bill Taft
Starring: Seth Correa, Steve Williams, and Denise Carroll

Reviewed by: Brett G.

ďIĎm going to try something new out on you!Ē

Thereís been plenty of real-life serial killers and psychopaths who have gone on to either inspire or be the subject of many motion pictures: Ed Gein, Henry Lee Lucas, Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and even the anonymous Texarkana Phantom Killer. Some of these men have even achieved a bizarre, cult celebrity status, no doubt due to their exploits on the silver screen. Kansas City serial killer Bob Berdella and his mid-80s reign of terror arenít nearly as well known, but the Northeast Film Group has set out to change that with the release of the aptly-titled Berdella.

Though Bob Berdellaís name isnít as recognizable as the aforementioned madmen, his crimes are no less heinous. Between 1984 and 1987, he raped, tortured, and murdered at least six men in Kansas City. The film chronicles these crimes and Berdellaís other exploits during that time period, including his operation of ďBobís Bizarre Bazaar,Ē a small novelty shop that peddled strange and occult wares. We also see Berdella running a boardinghouse that housed a vast array of vagrants, particularly drug abusers who would become victims.

Berdella operates out of the same mode as something like Maniac or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Itís a really low-fi affair that doesnít attempt to glamorize or stylize the events that unfold. Instead, the camera captures the rawness of it all, and there seems to be a layer of grit and sleaze pervading every shot. Berdella doesnít quite feel like a documentary, nor does it play out like one, but South and Taftís approach seems to always remind us that this all based off of real events. This approach is the filmís biggest strength because the chilling idea behind it all is powerful enough to carry the film. Thereís no need to make it an overly cinematic experience because the subject matter doesnít really demand it. Even the filmís low, pulsing, and pounding score feels a bit incidental, yet still effective as it broods in the background.

That said, such an approach also reveals the filmís biggest weakness: thereís no true narrative through line that keeps the whole thing moving in any discernible direction. Instead, Berdella feels like a series of vignettes and exercises in violence that arenít really connected. There are other recurring characters in the film besides the title character, but they have very little impact. Instead, weíre pretty much left with Berdella and his victims, and thereís not even too much of an attempt to understand Berdella himself. There are hints here and there about what makes him tick--thereís a reference to his mother and some religious connotations--but by the end of the film, heís just a really weird, sick guy. Heís somewhat interesting in his depravity, but Iím not so sure heís a compelling figure. I think it would have been interesting to really dig into the psychology behind the man, but instead we get the unfiltered schlock, from Berdellaís drug abuse to his sexual proclivities (hanging out at gay bars, anally raping victims, and even masturbating to pictures of his victims).

This is not to discredit the job that Seth Correa does in bringing the killer to life, however. Heís easily the star of the piece, and even though the character itself is pretty thin, Correa is able to layer him a bit. Like so many films of this ilk, itís the duality of the character and situation that works so well. Itís hard to believe that a cold-blooded psychopath was resting underneath the unassuming mid-western demeanor that Berdella exhibited in public, and Correaís portrayal captures this well. Likewise, the idea that this guy could be your next-door neighbor is also chilling; I particularly like how Berdellaís nastier side always seems to emerge at night because the low-lit photography really captures the ugliness of the cityís underbelly. The ďBobís Bizarre BazaarĒ set piece is also interesting because it also lends itself to some depraved moments, such as Berdella selling the skull of one of his victims.

Violence-wise, itís a pretty nasty film, though much of it is implied. We see Berdella hack up his victims in a variety of ways, whether itís with a meat-cleaver or a power drill. Like the rest of the film, itís pretty raw stuff, and it really isnít too over-the-top; instead, it just seems like the film is being faithful to the real-life events. Ultimately, thatís pretty much how the film as a whole plays out because it doesnít seem to be interested in doing anything beyond showing how depraved this guy really was. After seeing the film, itís hard to argue against that, so I would say Berdella succeeds in that respect. It has many of the expected flaws from a film of this nature--acting is pretty poor with the exception of Correa, and it reveals its budget at times--but at 80 minutes long, it manages to capture the bare essentials that the true crime story has to offer.

The film is playing at several film festivals in and around the Kansas City area, but viewers across the country can pick up the DVD from Northeast Filmís website. The screener provided to me promises a pretty nice presentation--the transfer is anamorphic widescreen and seems to accurately capture the low-fi, DV look of the film accurately enough., and the soundtrack is also adequate. Special features include deleted scenes, a Berdella biography and timeline, a trailer, still photos, and posters for the film. I would say that anyone with a morbid interest in serial killers would find this fascinating, while others with a more passing interest will probably take a morbid interest in the proceedings, especially those who enjoy true crime films. Itís certainly not entertaining at any rate--but it isnít meant to be. Rent it!

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