The story of serial killer Dennis Rader, otherwise known as Bill Thomas Killman, is a chilling one. A seemingly religious family man who worked as Compliance Officer in his home city of Wichita, he hid a brutal second life stalking and strangling women. Although the killings began in 1974, it took police until 2005 to catch him, and only then after a long hiatus of activity where it appeared the trail had gone cold.
Written and directed by Michael Feifer, this describes itself as “a fictional story based on a real character”, BTK being extremely real indeed. Kane Hodder, of Jason Vorhees fame, plays Rader, with Amy Lyndon as his unsuspecting wife and John Burke as the detective who finally ends up listening to his confessions. The plot, ultimately, is not much more than a string of murders and some vaguely-described back-story.
Back in 2005 I saw an extraordinary television documentary about the BTK case. Having not initially paid a great deal of attention, I found myself being drawn in by the dates of the testimonies, which were getting increasingly close to the present day. Seeing the tagline of “February 2005”, I realised, to my horror, something that doesn’t usually come with serial killer programmes: they hadn’t caught him. With two minutes of the show left to go, there was a hastily-edited prologue saying that during the final production a suspect had finally been brought in for questioning and charged with the murders. The sense of relief, over something which had happened thousands of miles away, was remarkable. In fact, the really remarkable thing was that Rader had been due to kill again, citing October 2005 as his planned time. The police had literally saved someone’s life with weeks to spare.
This film, sadly, isn’t chilling at all. Hodder’s character is certainly very much based on the real thing, the script even containing some exact words from Rader’s real confessions and his general day-to-day activities being pretty much as described in his profiles. What’s lacking is any kind of subtlety. He goes around in a van, finds women on their own, says a few choice words and then kills them. The real story is far more tense – the victims would be stalked intensively for weeks, with copious notes being written and Rader knowing their every last move before picking his moment to strike. The murders could be extremely drawn-out, with family members sometimes ‘getting in the way’ and having to be dealt with in the same way as the intended target.
Here, Rader tends to go for young women; in reality, the oldest victim was in her sixties. Here, Rader kills a policeman; in reality, his only contact with the police was his many letters with cryptic messages and poetry describing the killings. Here, the murders seem slightly spontaneous, with one particular death clearly thrown in for the gore-fiends; the truth is, Rader had a solid modus operandi from which he himself said he could not deviate. It’s all very dumbed-down.
The acting quality also varies widely. Hodder does a decent job, having presumably perfected the icy stare over many years of this kind of thing, but nobody else will be taking home any Oscars and the detectives are simply terrible. The film is overly long and fails to build any kind of tension – any ‘shock’ moments can be seen coming a mile off.
The worst part are the attempts at psychological analysis, which are cringeworthy at best and somewhat offensive at worst. It’s all too close to the reality to overlook that aspect, and seems to simply be ‘using’ the BTK scenario to mask an otherwise uninspiring movie. In the ‘behind the scenes’ documentary, which focuses almost exclusively on making fake blood and how to stage someone being shot in a gory way, Feifer addresses Rader and almost thanks him for having committed the murders to provide him with material for a film. It confirms what you will already be suspecting, which is that this was a mundane serial-killer script which needed something more and robbed it from reality. Not a great move.
There are some clichéd, dull additions of the writer’s own: a large part of the plot involves Rader asking a prostitute to engage in bondage with him and then going back for revenge when she refuses. As previously mentioned, someone is killed in a very un-BTK-like way which completely breaks any pattern that might have been established. And there’s this bit at the end, with his wife and daughters…well, I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions, but it’s both unlikely and unbelievable. It all needed to be brought to a close far earlier.
If you’re after a thorough chronicle of the BTK story, you’d be better off watching The World’s Most Elusive Serial Killer. While the temporal aspect of it that had me hooked has now passed by, it’s still a well-made account and worth an hour of your time. If you’re after a decent horror film, you won’t find that here, either. The lack of extras and the lack of focus on the reality clearly show a team who don’t care about their source material – there was a great opportunity to include some interesting stuff which presumably wasn’t taken because they never bothered to look at it themselves.
BTK this ain’t. There are three fairly similar letters that do describe this very well and they are B.A.D..