During the early 1970s, a serial killer terrorized
the city and surrounding suburbs of Rochester,
New York by raping and killing innocent pre-teen girls. His
calling card: Initials.
The killer targeted
girls with matching
first and last initials;
murdered them and
dumped their bodies
in a town whose name
also began with that same letter.
All three girls shared a low-income Catholic background
and reportedly had difficulties in school, leading police
to believe the murders to have been mediated by a counselor who
spent time with the children. After Maenza’s death in 1973, the murders
abruptly stopped, yet the investigation pressed on. Hundreds of suspects
were questioned, leaving an unfortunately low number of leads. After 35
years, the “Double Initial Murderer” still walks free.
This frightening and emotionally powerful case has been brought
into a new light with the release of a film entitled The Alphabet Killer.
Based loosely on the murders, the movie documents the killings of three
young girls who each have matching first and last initials. Director Rob
Schmidt stays true to many aspects of the case, including shooting on
location in Rochester, New York.
However, Schmidt stresses that his film is indeed fiction; only certain
plot elements are based on reality. In an interview with MPNnow,
the director states that he “wanted to maintain a distance from the actual
murders out of respect for the families involved.” As a result, all the
main characters are fictional. The names of the victims have also been
changed, but the double initials remain.
The film opens with a frightening scene of the first victim’s abduction,
and launches immediately into the story of Megan Paige. Paige, played by
Eliza Dushku (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Wrong Turn), is an investigator from
the Rochester Police Department who succumbs to adult-onset schizophrenia,
breaking down mentally after being haunted by the victims of
the brutal killer. In an interview with 13WHAM News, Dushku stated,
“I had to, at times, be in a dark place, and I’ve never really played a character
like that...the horror surrounding the case and the story just drove
this woman over the edge.” Over the edge is correct — her character is
hospitalized more than once for her schizophrenic hallucinations and
Dushku makes a living alongside many top-name actors including Cary
Elwes (The Princess Bride), Timothy Hutton (Secret Window), and Michael
Ironside (Top Gun). Elwes plays Captain Kenneth Shine, Paige’s fiancé,
in the film. However, after Paige’s first bout of hallucinations and her attempted
suicide, the two split. After her hospital release, it is Shine that
allows Paige to continue working at the station as a bookkeeper.
Her obsession with the murder of young Carla Castillo does not desist,
and she continues having visions of the deceased child asking for
her help in tracking down her murderer. When Wendy Walsh, another
young girl, is found raped and murdered in Webster, Paige pleads Captain
Shine to let her back on the case. Reluctantly, he agrees. Convinced
the two cases are related, Paige’s efforts to track down the killer double,
as do her hallucinations. When the killer strikes a third time, by taking
the life of Melissa Maestro, Paige reaches her breaking point and hunts
down the killer herself in a thrilling concluding scene shot at High Falls.
Appearing throughout the course of the film in progressing stages of
decay, the spirits of the little girls are quite disturbing, but unfortunately,
just missed the mark of frightening. Rather than interacting with Paige,
they seem content to simply stare at her through empty eye sockets.
Dushku’s acting ability noticeably improves as the film moves forward,
which feels almost awkward. Perhaps this is no fault of her own,
as the writing of the first half of the film seems to hold itself back,
lacking in the suspense and eeriness with which the second half triumphs.
The later scenes of The Alphabet Killer are where the film truly shines,
both technically and emotionally, by showcasing the acting of
Academy Award winner Timothy Hutton through excellent camera work
by Schmidt and his crew.
Technically, The Alphabet Killer is very well done. Aside from some awkward
attempts at classic horror film angles, Schmidt’s cinematographer,
Joe DeSalvo, directs a well-executed camera. The use of tripods are absent
for the most part in The Alphabet Killer, and the crew seems to trade them
in for a “shaky cam” style that gives the audience an illusion of being
present at the scene. This is largely successful, though at times, a steadier
framing would have been preferable. During a therapy session with the
shot revolving around Paige as she recites a monologue, for example,
the jumpiness of the camera made for a sloppy shot.
With critical scenes taking place at High Falls, Richmond’s Café,
New Yorker’s Pancake & Grill, St. Michael’s Catholic Church, and even
inside an abandoned Kodak building, The Alphabet Killer captures the image
and feel of Rochester. To those residing in and around the city of
Rochester, it is easy to identify the locations where the film was shot,
thus bringing the film to a whole new dimension.
It is not often that local films find success; even fewer are quality
productions. The Alphabet Killer breaks the mold of so many failed local
attempts before it, bringing in Hollywood acting and the chill of being
based on a true story to create a suspenseful and atmospheric thriller.
Add in elements of classic horror movies such as The Ring, and you’ve got
a gripping psychological thriller that keeps you guessing until the final
scene (and then some).
The film made its two-week debut in Pittsford with mixed reviews.
Opinions after a platform release in Los Angeles and New York City will
determine the fate of the film. The Alphabet Killer will be released on DVD
in January nationwide.