“Would you agree that those crimes were wantonly vile or inhuman?”
Just what is people’s fascination with serial killers? Even I’ll admit I’ve read a few true crime books, and, like many writers, I went through that phase were I got all interested in the Jack the Ripper murders. And yet, I still can’t say definitely say why these disturbed slaughterers are so prevalent in the media and in pop culture. Is it the fear that this could happen in our own cities and towns, or are we just indulging our dark sides? Whatever the reason, there’s no denying a market for books and films about these serial slayers. So, director Benjamin Meade (Das Bus) and writer James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential) have co-produced Bazaar Bizarre, a documentary about the story of one such methodical killer.
It was the day before Easter in 1988, somewhere in the suburbs of Kansas City, when a naked, bloody man jumped from a second floor window of a seemingly normal home, and was found running down the street to escape the horrors inside. This incident revealed to the neighborhood and the world that the homeowner, Robert A. “Bob” Berdella, was in fact a serial killer, having abducted, tortured, raped and murdered six men inside his home.
This documentary tells Berdella’s story through modern day interviews, archival footage, and gruesome recreations of what went on inside that house. The tone of the film varies. It’s mostly serious, as you’d expect it to be. But, at times, the creators go a little overboard with the sensationalism, either by turning these real-life incidents into something from a slasher movie, or even by adding some dark humor.
As you’d expect from the subject matter, a lot of what’s shown and discussed is shocking and flinch-worthy. The filmmakers certainly aren’t leaving anything to the imagination. When recreating Berdella’s killings, there’s blood and guts galore, not to mention full frontal male nudity and unnatural rape. Unfortunately, a lot of these scenes rely on bright red B-movie blood and rubbery severed limbs, making them look like something out of a Troma movie, rather than truly shocking.
But just when the movie starts to get too cheesy for its own good, the interviews and archive footage prove to be the genuinely dark and creepy parts of the film. The only man to have survived Berdella’s attacks is interviewed in silhouette, and his first person account of his six-day ordeal and subsequent escape makes for gripping viewing. Ellroy—who executive produced the film, but didn’t write it—is interviewed as well, showing obvious disdain for Berdella and for serial killers in general. Other interviewees are police and reporters who investigated the case, as well as a few acquaintances of Berdella’s, who were clueless to his “hobby.” I always find it interesting in documentaries when the interviewees, recorded separately, unknowingly disagree with one another, as they do here. There are several conflicting theories about how Berdella might have disposed of the bodies of those he killed, and whether there were any more killings than the six he confessed to. After 15 years, investigators and curiosity seekers are still looking for answers and insight about these crimes.
The creators also wisely give Berdella himself a chance to air his side of the story, thanks to a filmed interview recorded after he was jailed. That being said, Berdella’s take on the issue is about as logically backward as you could imagine. He criticizes the media for making him look like a monster, and he puts the blame on the local police, alleging that the killings would never have happened if the police hadn’t been so lazy. When the interviewer asks him about the detailed, methodical records he kept of his killings, Berdella says his records were just some scribbled notes hidden under his mattress. He cites this as an example of how the media blew his story out of proportion. Aww, poor little serial killer.
Just as these interviews get interesting, the filmmakers throw another surprise at viewers. Remember how I said the movie has a varied tone? There’s no better example of this than the musical numbers. That’s right, this is a serial killer documentary with musical numbers. At four times during the movie, we get performances by the Demon Dogs, a band created by Bill Gladden, the film’s composer. Although the music’s not bad, the jokey lyrics relate the Berdella case, giving the movie a sudden jolt of dark comedy. On the bonus features, director Benjamin Meade makes a good case for the songs, saying they offer the audience some time to breathe after hearing the gut-wrenching details of the killings, but he also admits that the songs are the film’s “love it or hate it” feature, and will likely divide viewers.
Video on Bazaar Bizarre tends to somewhat flat and hazy, no doubt because of the film’s low budget nature. Audio is adequate, with no immediate flaws, although an improved track would have benefited those Demon Dog tunes. The deleted scenes are really more like outtakes, offering a glimpse of some horseplay that went on behind the scenes. There’s also a deleted musical number, in case you couldn’t get enough. The “Postmortem” featurette is a group discussion with Meade and several others from the production, as they look back on the movie. Although, brief, it covers a lot of ground, and answers a few questions raised when watching the film itself. There’s also the trailer, a still gallery, and bios of Meade and Ellroy.
Bazaar Bizarre is more of a curiosity piece than it is a intellectual documentary experience. It walks the line between campy splatter horror and goose bump-inducing true crime. Because it won’t appeal to all tastes, you’ll want to rent this one before blind-buying it.