Reviewed by Erik W. Van Der Wolf
Starring Seth Correa, Steve Williams, Denise Carroll
Directed by William Taft and Paul South
It’s been said here time and again — just because you have very little money to make your film does not excuse you from writing a good script. Penning a compelling, well structured story populated with well rounded characters does not cost you one dime. It only requires time spent developing a strong framework, getting to know the world you are creating and the characters within that world, and focusing on tone and theme. And that’s all done long before you ever type the words “Fade In”.
And with Berdella writer/director William Taft and co-director Paul South have done exactly that: created an effective character driven film that ultimately transcends budget limitations and succeeds where most independent horror films fail.
Based on the crimes of Bob Berdella, the real life serial killer who butchered several young men in the basement of his seemingly quiet suburban home in Kansas City, Missouri, in the 1980s, Berdella is a portrait piece that not only chronicles the grisly acts which took place inside his manufactured hell but also explores aspects of his daily life and the underworld of drugs and gay sex clubs he inhabited.
Bob Berdella’s story is not unlike those of Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy; all three men were homosexuals living in a time when to be such subjected you to much ridicule and scorn (much more so than today), and thus, they were forced into the shadows to seek an outlet for their desires. But when those desires met with mental illness and a sense of powerlessness in the world, the end result was a compulsion to have total control over their lovers, even if it meant killing them. The ability to possess a life, have its fate in their hands and do whatever they wanted with it, was an act of complete and utter dominance they felt unable to achieve anywhere else in their lives.
Screenwriter William Taft explores Berdella’s universe and how he used and abused the trust forged among the segregated group of which he was a part to feed his compulsion – the promise of sex and/or free narcotics being the method by which victims were lured into his web, never to see the outside world again.
Taft and South wisely steer clear of the many pitfalls that often plague films seeking to venture into this territory. The film never dwells on Berdella’s acts of violence, choosing instead to show them as a matter-of-fact account of what transpired. They also never attempt to touch on the “why’s” of Berdella’s psychological state. Origins tend to demystify and neuter. We don’t need to know why Berdella kills. It’s far more frightening to not understand what’s going on behind those eyes. To not know just how deep is the abyss that lies within. And Seth Correa as “Bob Berdella” does a damn fine job of making you believe the abyss does indeed exist. It’s an understated performance, and while he avoids anything resembling scenery chewing, he still finds a way to let you know the lid could come flying off the pressure cooker at any moment. He stirs a sense of unease without overplaying his hand and shows a wide range as he bounces back and forth between the “Bob” that everyone trusts, the “Bob” young men feel safe going home with, and the “Bob” that quietly unleashes his inner demons to wreak havoc on his unsuspecting victims.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the rest of the cast. Supporting performances are a mixed bag ranging from okay to just plain bad. While they don’t ruin the movie, they do take you out of it from time to time, which is a shame.
As for first time directors William Taft and Paul South, they show a fairly solid understanding of the craft, and while the visuals suffer here and there from budget constraints and lighting issues, their shot composition is solid and they never try to impress with camera work that draws attention to itself. There are no “Look at us! We’re directing a movie!” moments. Instead they show complete confidence in their script and simply let it play. The lack of in-your-face violence also illustrates they clearly understand that less is indeed more. What could have been a by-the-numbers torture horror flick is turned into something much more in their hands, and it’s clear they were striving for something closer to Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer rather than Captivity or the wide array of torture horror flicks that populate the bottom rack of video store shelves. There’s substance here. Taft and South clearly wanted to make a film about something, and it shows.
Berdella is far from perfect and definitely looks like a low budget film in just about every aspect, but that didn’t stop Taft and South from delivering something worth watching. All in all Berdella is a solid effort from a couple of first-time filmmakers.
3 1/2 out of 5
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