Movies · Reviews

Review: ‘The Alphabet Killer’ Is A Dyslexic Thriller

Ten year-old Carla Castillo is found raped and murdered in Churchville, NY, a suburb outside of Rochester, and Det. Megan Paige (Eliza Dushku) thinks it’s the work of a serial killer.
By  · Published on January 6th, 2009

Ten year-old Carla Castillo is found raped and murdered in Churchville, NY, a suburb outside of Rochester, and Det. Megan Paige (Eliza Dushku) thinks it’s the work of a serial killer.  The investigation goes nowhere fast, and her obsession to find the killer soon leads to a nervous breakdown complete with hallucinations that may (or may not) include silent visits from the deadgirl.  Paige’s behavior not only gets her taken off the case,  but she also loses her relationship with fellow detective Kenneth Shine (Cary Elwes).  Two years later, after being diagnosed and treated for schizophrenia, she rejoins the police department as a records clerk.  Soon two more dead girls turn up, and like the first, they both have double initials that match the first letter of the town where their bodies are found.  Paige finds herself back on the case, but as her obsession returns so do the hallucinations, involuntary muscle contortions, visions of dead girls, red herrings, poor acting, crazy leaps of logic, inconsistencies, implausible actions…

And that’s really too bad, because I’m a fan of the Dushku.  She was the best thing to come out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t watch Tru Calling for a weekly fix of the girl.  Her movie career has more lows than highs, but one of her best was 2003’s Wrong Turn.  It didn’t break any new ground in the world of cannibalistic thrillers, but director Rob Schmidt crafted an effective and gory horror film and Dushku excelled at playing the spunky heroine.  The two join forces again for The Alphabet Killer, but their latest collaboration offers little more than 100 minutes of  bland serial killer/J-horror mash-up (adding nothing to either genre in the process).

The opening tries to hook you early by claiming to be “Based on a true story” but the facts (and the film itself) discredit that notion almost immediately.  As Paige looks down at the first dead girl’s body, the child’s eyes open to reveal pitch black.  Of course, only she sees it, and we come to realize it’s either because she’s mentally unstable, or she’s in touch with the dead who’ve chosen her to avenge their suffering.  I vote for the fucking nuts diagnosis myself, as these visions tell her nothing that isn’t already obvious or couldn’t be discovered with some solid police work.  The real Alphabet Killer did murder three girls in Rochester in the early seventies, but he was never caught.  (One interesting theory posits that Kenneth Bianchi committed the crimes but then left for Los Angeles to become one half of The Hillside Stranglers.)

The Alphabet Killer‘s cast is one of it’s biggest strengths, and by “one of” I of course mean “only.”  Recognizable genre faces like Elwes (Kiss the Girls), Michael Ironside (Scanners), Bill Moseley (Army of Darkness), Timothy Hutton (The Dark Half), and Tom Noonan (Manhunter) all appear in limited roles ranging from two to ten minutes each.  Could one of them be the killer?  (Fans of Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters will answer that one pretty quick.)

That strength quickly becomes a weakness though when it comes to Dushku.  She just can’t sell the schizophrenia and it’s accompanying symptoms, and her ever increasing amount of twitches and spasms quickly become highly annoying and distracting.  She’s no Monk.  Did I want the killer to murder Det. Paige?  No.  Did I want him to “cure” her various jerks and ticks via a quick squeeze of the neck?  Maybe.  I’ll give the movie credit for attempting to present a questionable protagonist that may or may not be trustworthy, but the illness gets in the way of both credibility and interest.

Special effects in the film come in two varieties… the poor digital kind (including ghostly children that flicker like the dead in the abysmal Pulse sequels), and solid practical effects that highlight the girls’ crusty and decomposed flesh.  Speaking of the preteen dead, the movie tries really hard to play them both ways.  Are they hallucinations or are they ghosts?  If they’re true apparitions then they’re the rudest, most unhelpful, undead little fuckers since the director’s cut of Casper.  If they’re in her head then she’s even nuttier than Cole Abaius’ dreams.  Director Schmidt and writer Tom Malloy want to keep both options open but never commit to either.  Uncertainty isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but here it just comes across as sloppy.

The Alphabet Killer ends with an obvious tease towards a sequel that I hope will never come.  Paige is not an interesting or worthwhile heroine, the killer is utterly lacking in charisma or character, and your time is better spent watching the DTV sequel to Wrong Turn.  Or Joss Whedon’s upcoming “Dollhouse.”

The Alphabet Killer releases today on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment.  Check out the trailer below.

The Upside:Filmmakers successfully captured the bleak grey of a Rochester, NY winter (I know this because I’m from Rochester, and no, I’m not the killer); creepy practical effects for ghostly children; DVD cover artwork is pretty cool; a brief flash of Dushku’s generous boobs.

The Downside:Terribly annoying and unlikable protagonist; “Based on a true story” is horribly misleading; poor digital effects for ghostly children; relatively easy to guess killer; absurd revelation of killer’s identity; movie can’t decide if it’s a serial killer thriller or a J-horror remake; Dushku and Elwes as a couple? really?; tacky ending voice over; Dushku’s boob flash is super brief and occurs in neither an erotic nor a sexy context.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.