One of these days, someone is going to make a great movie—like Zodiac great—about Dennis Rader, the mild-mannered compliance worker and churchgoer who terrorized a Midwestern community for thirty years under the guise of serial killer “B.T.K.” Michael Feifer’s B.T.K. is not that film. Sadly, you can tell from its very first moments, when we’re issued the following disclaimer: “The following is a Fictional Story based on a Real Character.” What, because the real story isn’t compelling enough? Not scary enough? Or (more likely) because it’s not worth the trouble to get it right?
I’ve got a particular and personal interest in the Rader case—I was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas, and grew up during his dormant years. The case was unsolved but never forgotten; the fact that this boogeyman had never been caught kept interest alive and people on edge, particularly when he resurfaced and resumed communication with police and media in 2004. After he popped back up, the city was terrified—alarm sales went up, women were afraid to be home alone, and everyone knew somebody who had a story about how they were sure, just sure, that they had barely escaped the long-hibernating killer.
The story of how the Wichita police finally, at long last, got Rader to make a mistake and reveal himself is just plain thrilling—seek out the excellent book Bind Torture Kill, by a quartet of Wichita journalists, and tell me I’m wrong. Their narrative is a true page-turner, and its elements of suspense, mystery, and real terror would make for a great film. But it keeps getting screwed up. The closest anyone has come to telling it properly was the quickie made-for-TV account, The Hunt for the BTK Killer, which boasts a couple of good performances but does too much compression of characters and streamlining of action. But that film is certainly better than the cheapo, repugnant 2005 effort BTK Killer (also released on DVD by Lionsgate), which heavily fictionalized Rader’s crimes, as if they weren’t horrifying enough on their own.
Feifer’s B.T.K. is certainly better (and better-made) than that film, but that isn’t saying much. His central conceit is that Rader was killing right up until his arrest, which is borne out by no facts: the bulk of the BTK murders were committed in the 1970s, the final one in 1991. This is purely guesswork, but I would imagine the recreation of his 1970s crimes were beyond the film’s meager budget (hell, they can’t even afford police cars—when the cops are coming for Rader, we see his wife standing on the porch while sirens and screeching wheels are heard, but not seen). But there’s that disclaimer, so who cares if it’s wildly inaccurate? Or completely implausible? Feifer’s script has Rader stalking and killing women he has harassed and cited as a Park City compliance officer—women who have complained about him to their friends and his superiors. Say what you will about Rader’s stupid mistakes before his capture, but he would have never been sloppy enough to kill someone who could be traced back to him that easily.
The same could be said of the film’s opening sequence, where he calls out for an escort from a hotel in Missouri (pure fiction). Aside, again, from the paper trail that would lead any rookie cop to his door, transforming Rader to just another hooker-killing psycho drains him of exactly what made him terrifying: the randomness of his at-home attacks. The casting of stuntman-turned-horror-icon Kane Hodder is another misstep; part of what was so creepy about Rader was his doughy, schmuck-next-door appearance, so the casting of a big, muscle-bound brute with a bulging, scary neck undercuts all of that (miscast though he is, Hodder does turn in a fairly decent performance—the only one in the film).
Feifer’s changes might not matter if the story had been altered into something scarier. But it’s not scary, not at all; it’s merely depressing, and discussion of its many problems threatens to become an inventory. Countless scenes end arbitrarily, fading out seemingly just because they’ve run out of dialogue. A sequence in which Rader’s attempted abduction of a young woman (into the back of his city van, no less) is interrupted by a convenient visit from friendly “Pastor Joe” is so amateurishly staged, it is drained of all suspense—you’re embarrassed for the director. Another scene, in which he interrupts a young couple at home while the girl’s parents are out of town (“Ricky, you broke my mom’s vase!”) actually manages to turn the sick, complex killer into another boring slayer of horny teens (like Jason, whom Hodder has played on multiple occasions). The story goes so far afield in its third act that they actually have Rader try to kill a cop (I think—the scene is so clumsily blocked and cut that it’s hard to tell). And its final, “twist” ending is pure bullshit nonsense.
But special note must be made of the performances that surround Hodder’s competent work, from the Dragnet-style cops to the hoary townfolk to the worst of the worst, the actresses who play his wife and daughters. They’re horrible throughout the film, but particularly late in the picture, after the police have revealed Rader’s true identity; I can tell you, without hyperbole, that this is one of the worst scenes you’ll ever see in any movie, as the women start screaming hoary Lifetime-movie clichés at each other, screeching and blubbering all the while. “Married to a man thirty years, and come to find out he’s a serial killer!” blubbers wife “Sharon” (name changed). “No matter what he has done, he’s still your father. You owe him!” she commands her daughters. “He always treated us disrespectfully!” one objects. “In fact, I never liked him! He never supported me! He never once helped me with my homework! And he never once asked me about my life!” It takes a special kind of bad screenwriting to turn the fascinating story of a real-life monster into an episode of Dr. Phil. It’s sad, but not unexpected by that point in this singularly unexceptional film.
Since writer/director/producer Feifer insisted on fictionalizing a terrifying true story, the question must then be asked: Does this new story work on its own? The clear answer is no, it does not. Aside from Hodder’s cult of fans, viewers will only buy or rent B.T.K. because it is based on a true story—but it’s not. In some ways, that exploitation (using the name of B.T.K. without bothering to tell the real, chilling story of his crimes) is an even crasser form of profiteering than making a horror film about him in the first place.
"B.T.K." is available on DVD Tuesday, May 12.