Film Review – The Deliberate Stranger
There is one movie in my life that has messed me up beyond all others, and it is The Deliberate Stanger, a 1986 two-part television miniseries about serial killer Ted Bundy. At the time it first aired, I was just about to graduate high school—about the same age as many of Ted Bundy’s victims—and lived in the Pacific Northwest, which meant hearing about serial killers all the time because we seem to breed them here. Everybody I knew watched this miniseries, and we were all totally creeped out by it. (Nobody seems to make very many good miniseries anymore. Which is unfortunate; it’s a good way to tell a longer story. The last one I really enjoyed was Storm of the Century, and I am looking forward to Bag of Bones coming out in December.)
I had a chance to see this miniseries again when it aired on cable, and it had the same chilling effect on me: for years I have been completely freaked out by serial killers. For no real reason, it turns out; in spite of the large amount of books, movies, and television miniseries out about them, they are not really that plentiful. (If you are a serial killer and that statement makes you want to target me, please don’t.) The media likes to hype up a lot of dangers that aren’t really statistically significant, creating fear where fear maybe doesn’t need to exist—although some of the blame rests with me, because I willingly consume that media. Anyway, I have spent a lot of my adult life being overly paranoid about serial killers because of this movie and the fact that I live in Washington State. (Not an invitation to target me, please.) The Deliberate Stranger has been recently made available through the Warner Brothers archives as a print-on-demand DVD-R, so I thought it was time to give it another watch and see if it deserved the near-mythic status I had given it.
The story starts out with Ted Bundy (Mark Harmon) having already killed a few girls and on his way to killing more. He is a handsome law student with a beautiful girlfriend and connections to both politics and the press. In his off hours, he likes to abuse and kill young women. (This movie is very vague about the details of what else goes on before and after he kills. This was network television, after all.) He takes off to Utah to attend law school and ends up killing there and in Colorado. He gets caught, escapes, gets caught again, escapes again, heads to Florida, kills some more women, gets caught again, gets put on death row, and eventually gets the electric chair, although the movie was made before he died so they don’t show that part. The film follows his actions and those of the detectives who hunt him, including the ever-awesome M. Emmet Walsh. From what I understand, the film is pretty factual, although a lot of the names were changed.
So, did this miniseries scare me as much as it used to? Well, no. And I think that says more about me than it does this movie. There is very little visible violence here, although it does increase a little as the film goes on. The scariness comes not from how Ted Bundy’s actions are shown, but that he committed them in the first place. I have definitely become more desensitized as I have gotten older and been more exposed to not only visual violence, but to the idea of violence as an everyday occurrence. I recently rewatched John Carpenter’s Halloween, which is another movie that used to freak me the hell out, and I wasn’t scared then either. So, on one hand I feel like I have had a cathartic experience and am able to leave that fear behind (although I doubt it is going to be that easy) and on the other hand, I feel like I have lost something important by not being as disturbed by movie violence anymore.
I will say this, though, The Deliberate Stranger is a really good movie. In spite of the fact that it clocks in at 188 minutes, I never once reached for my computer or got bored. In fact, I watched it in one sitting and enjoyed every minute of it. It would have been a compelling story even if it had not been based in fact, but knowing it was about a real person made the story even more disturbing. The filmmakers do not go into Bundy’s head; they just show his actions and the effects of those actions on the people around him, and Mark Harmon is excellent as the law student with something to hide. Like Michael Meyers in Halloween, there is nothing under his mask but an empty, relentless killing machine. His portrayal is effective because no motivation or excuse is given for his behavior, and he never softens Bundy up so the viewer can relate to him. It took about a million episodes of NCIS for me to see Mark Harmon as anything other than a cold-blooded killer, and it’s going to take several more for me to get back to that place.
Availability: I imagine that most video stores will not have this, although I rented it from Scarecrow Video in Seattle. It is also available for purchase from Amazon.com and the Warner Brothers website.
Final Grade: A-