Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce
One thing every woman knows, from childhood, is not to watch movies about serial killers when you are home alone. It’s as basic as “don’t talk to strangers” and “don’t wear socks with sandals,” but it’s hard to manage when October wanes, spookiness abounds, your husband has gone to visit his parents for the weekend… and Lifetime airs Alphabet Killer, which the DVR cable guide announces stars Eliza Dushku, Carey Elwes, Timothy Hutton, and Michael Ironside. Had I read in advance of this film’s dismal box office showing and even worse reviews, I might have passed it over for Haunted Hotels or a Psych rerun, but I was nevertheless drawn in by that intriguing combination of genre favorites.
Although critics and viewers panned the film on its tiny (No, really–all of two theaters, according to Wikipedia) theatrical release in 2008, it’s actually entirely watchable, if you come at it as if it’s a made-for-TV movie (which is what I thought. Eventually the bleeped-out curse words gave it away, but by then I was committed). The story is more or less loosely based on a true crime from 1970s Rochester, NY, when three young girls with “double initial” names (i.e. Melissa Maestro, a character in the film) were murdered, their bodies dumped in local towns also starting with the same letter. I say “more or less,” because the details of the crimes are very similar to the real case, but the story is set in the present day, and all of the characters and circumstances of the plot are entirely invented.
The film follows unstable homicide detective Megan Price (Dushku) as she works the case, all the while losing her grip on reality, due to adult-onset schizophrenia. Elwes plays her superior officer and fiance, in a casting move that really ought to be creepy (especially in a movie about a pedophile), and yet somehow works. We don’t mind Elwes and Dushku together, thanks to Dushku playing a bona fide adult with no trace of the teenaged characters that made her famous. Hutton appears in a nice role as the head of Price’s mental health support group, and the only character who seems to consistently believe in her. Ironside’s role is small, as the stock, uncooperative small-town sheriff, but he’s always fun to watch. Overall, the film (at least the edited-for-TV version) shies away from gore and horror, instead relying on psychological suspense and an incredibly moody setting. While the identity of the killer is somewhat predictable, in the tradition of films like Clint Eastwood’s Bloodwork, it still plays out well, treading the tricky path between Price’s efforts to solve the mystery, and her efforts to hold onto her sanity.
If the film succeeds, which I think it does, it’s mostly because of the cast. I wouldn’t seek out the film, necessarily, but if you have a gap to fill in your Carey Elwes marathon, it’s worth a view. Luckily Netflix has Alphabet Killer available as streaming video, should you find yourself alone on a late October evening with nothing spooky to watch.