Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Zodiac Killer: The Film that Tried to Catch a Killer

It was sort of like the play within Hamlet devised to make the king betray himself. In 1971, the Bay Area was like Whitechapel circa 1888. Fear of a serial killer stalking the streets had good people hiding in their homes. Restauranteur Tom Hanson had the novel idea of using a quickie exploitation film to trick the Zodiac into revealing himself. It sounds crazy, because it was, but the killer’s preoccupation with his media coverage was well-established by that point. Hanson is certain he met the Zodiac face-to-face during the film’s initial one-week run in San Francisco, but he could never prove it (at least not yet). The behind-the-scenes story is truly stranger than fiction, but the film itself is mostly a weird artifact of exploitation cinema. Freshly restored by the American Genre Film Archive (AGFA), Hanson’s The Zodiac Killer (trailer here) releases today on BluRay.

Perversely, the first half-hour of Zodiac 1971 seems intentionally designed to foster sympathy for the Zodiac, by making the residents of San Francisco appear so repugnant, we wouldn’t mind watching them get bumped off. However, around about the second act, we learn Jerry, the vegetarian, rabbit-keeping postal carrier is in fact the Zodiac, who kills for both satanic and Freudian reasons. He is a little upset when Grover, the misogynistic, dope-addicted deadbeat dad with an appallingly bad toupee takes credit for the Zodiac murders. This rather pushes him even further off the edge.

By any rational aesthetic standard, Hanson’s Zodiac is a rough go. It is sort of like watching America’s Most Wanted re-enactments directed by Harold P. Warren, of Manos: The Hands of Fate fame. Yet, it terms of historical significance, it deserves to be preserved on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. Frankly, it is hard to separate the film from its origins and context. Indeed, it is impossible to watch each head-shakingly awkward scene and not wonder what the Zodiac thought of it.

Considering the severity of Hanson’s budget constraints and the on-the-fly nature of the production, Hal Reed (probably best known for The Doberman Gang) and Bob Jones are better than you might expect, as Jerry the Zodiac and Grover the creep, respectively. This is definitely on the low end of the exploitation scale, yet it has a sinister energy you can’t quantify, but viewers will immediately pick up on. In terms of tone, it is sort of like three-parts Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast (mostly sans the gore) and one-part Charles Pierce’s original The Town that Dreaded Sundown.

Ray Cantrell & Manny Cardoza’s screenplay is often fanciful, but the most terrifying thing about the film is how much was true, particularly the fact the Zodiac remains at large. This might be the rare film that would be better as the subject of someone else’s film rather than as a viewing experience to savor and repeat. Still, you have to give Hanson credit. He hatched an utterly insane scheme that maybe came mind-blowingly close to succeeding. Perhaps he should take the film on tour. The San Francisco police never closed the case and the FBI is still taking regular tips. Regardless, Hanson’s The Zodiac Killer is a unique piece of cultural history, so it is nice to have it preserved and available on BluRay, from AGFA and Something Weird.