The incredible and strange world of 1970s true-crime inspired exploitation outsider cinema.
The idea that someone might shoot a low-budget movie based on a true crime case in order to help catch the killer seems the stuff of fantasy – or at least some desperate justification from a producer pulled up for his lack of taste in exploiting a criminal case while the killer is still at large. Yet that seems to have been a genuine idea behind The Zodiac Killer, an extraordinary slice of outsider filmmaking that actually set out to catch the Zodiac when it was shown in San Francisco. Given that the Zodiac had shown himself to be a touch attention-hungry and egotistical (writing letters to the press, demanding people wear Zodiac button badges), it was a reasonable assumption that he wouldn’t be able to resist catching a film about himself, and a convoluted system involving a written contest to win a motorcycle in the theatre lobby was set up in the hope of flushing him out. Clearly, it didn’t succeed, even if there is a strong chance that director Tom Hanson actually did run into the Zodiac at the screening; to this day, it remains one of the great unsolved serial killer cases, and one of the most intriguing.
Hanson’s film is a bizarre collision of factual reconstructions, creative licence and wild speculation that briefly sets us up with a red herring (a wig-wearing ladies man with an estranged family and temper issues) before quickly revealing – spoiler alert! – The Zodiac to be a postal worker who is a nice guy on the surface, but a deranged killer underneath. There’s little effort made to really flesh out his character; we discover that he has a dad in the looney bin, but beyond that – and a brief moment that uses the Zodiac’s own words to suggest that he is some sort of occultist killing to gather souls – there’s little character development, as the film jumps from assorted killings (most of which are not officially part of the Zodiac’s real-life murder spree) to ponderous police procedural action. It’s all done with a sort of visual and editing approach that only occasionally resembles normal filmmaking, and perhaps inevitably, it doesn’t really go anywhere narratively. The performances are either wooden or wildly eccentric, and the structure is all over the place. Yet despite this – or possibly because of it – this is fascinating stuff, a weird, shouty and constantly hysterical film that is a thoroughly unique experience to watch – sometimes it gets dull, but for the most part, there’s something oddly compulsive about it. As I’ve argued before, the oddball, zero-budget horror films of the 1970s are essential simply because so many of them are entirely removed from the normality of cinema, and The Zodiac Killer is a fine example of this – a film so entirely strange as to become almost dreamlike.
Yet The Zodiac Killer is positively mainstream compared to Another Son of Sam, a film so obscure that it would be unfair to say that it was forgotten – it’s a film that vanished so entirely after release that few people even knew it existed to begin with. It appears as an extra on The Zodiac Killer blu-ray but is possibly the more interesting of the two, if only because it was such an unknown film – The Zodiac Killer had at least been released on VHS and its odd involvement in the Zodiac case always ensured that it at least occupied a footnote in true crime history. Another Son of Sam is also a true crime-inspired film made with what some might consider indecent haste in 1977 as the Son of Sam case was very fresh in the memory and alleged killer David Berkowitz was still awaiting trial. But while the Zodiac movie at least attempted to tell the story of the actual crimes, albeit with some artistic license, the title of this film is pure exploitation because as it turns out, it has nothing to do with the Son of Sam case. It’s not even set in New York. Instead, it’s a regional film shot in Charlotte, North Carolina, and it’s as weird a viewing experience as you could ever hope to see.
The plot – if I can call it that – has an escaped mental patient called Harvey who kills a few people and then breaks into a student dorm – handily, for the thrifty filmmakers, one mostly empty for spring break. The police, headed by hunky speedboat-driving Claude Seltzer, are in pursuit – though they seem a touch relaxed about things, even though the mad killer has offed Seltzer’s doctor girlfriend in his escape.
The plot meanders between the police hunt, the killer’s antics and assorted going-nowhere subplots about a girl who may have stolen $500 from school to pay off a mysterious debt, an escaped mouse and a SWAT team who are called in to mostly stand around. Harvey takes a couple of girls hostage and the film starts to unravel, any sense of the storylines coming together or the narrative building to any sort of climax seeming to be abandoned as things meander aimlessly. Eventually, it reaches a conclusion of sorts, but lots of threads are left dangling.
We don’t really see Harvey, beyond regular close-ups of his mad looking eyes – everything else involving him is shot from his point of view. This is an interesting idea, given that this isn’t a whodunnit – there is no sensible reason for keeping his identity hidden, so it must have been an artistic decision. The same must be true of the frequent freeze-frames – sometimes even as the dialogue continues – and sudden, pointless slow-motion moments.
Basically, nothing here is normal. The film opens with a roll-call of serial killers (including a claim that Jack the Ripper had fourteen victims, which might actually be as accurate a number as the official five victims – but that’s a discussion for another day) that suggests it might be trying to be a serious study of the mind of a murderer, but then Harvey seems to be forgotten for large chunks of the action. The acting is stilted and weird, with a lot of dialogue clearly looped over shots of the characters walking along not talking. The stolen money subplot and hints of rivalries between the girls fizzle out, and characters pop up and then vanish seemingly at random. And there’s a lengthy musical performance by hairy-chested Tom Jones-a-like Johnny Charro, who treats us to an especially saccharine number. Johnny Charro isn’t a character, by the way – he’s a real singer, still out there today doing the cabaret rooms. Sadly, the disc distributors failed to track him down for an interview but I very much recommend looking him up and possibly booking him for your wedding, birthday party or similar function.
The pleasures of off-centre outsider genre cinema are, admittedly, an acquired taste – if you like your movies big-budget, slick and star-studded, then films like this might well feel like a bad trip. For me, there is something genuinely intriguing about movies that don’t follow even the basic rules of filmmaking – I don’t simply mean badly made films, but those that are actually technically efficient in their own way but disregard conventional narrative structure to create some sort of hallucinogenic fever dream experience. Modern cinema is depressingly conformist – even the most outré of movies will generally look like everything else in construction. These 1970s oddities, made way outside the conventions of regular film production, often feel closer to experimental art films than commercial cinema even if that sense of experimentation is as much accidental as deliberate and there is something genuinely exciting about that when seen today.
Help support The Reprobate: