Directors have wowed us with stories about killers such as Aileen Wuornos, David Berkowitz, and the murderous duo at Columbine. Why didn’t Hollywood make a Bernardo movie we’d be willing to watch?
By Andy Lamey
Everyone wants a piece of Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo. In the years since the husband-and-wife team raped and murdered three teenage girls in and around St. Catharines, Ontario, they have become Canada’s most publicized serial killers. The infamous couple has inspired countless newspaper column inches, a half-dozen true-crime books, even a non-fiction novel. Now, however, we have entered a new era. As of this fall, Homolka and Bernardo are taking their place alongside Aileen Wuornos (Monster) and David Berkowitz (Summer of Sam) as the stuff of glittering Hollywood celluloid.
Karla, a 100-minute feature film, is the offspring of Los Angeles filmmaker Michael Sellers, who co-wrote and produced. Leading up to the movie’s release, Sellers has battled publication bans, distribution woes, objection from corporate sponsors at the Montreal Film Festival, and accusations that he is a sensationalist cashing in on human misery. As I write, how widely Karla will be screened in Canada this fall remains uncertain.
But while Summer of Sam depicts the paranoid effect a serial killer has on an entire city and Monster shows how a brutal life as a prostitute eventually drives a woman to murder, Karla has a far narrower focus. Rather than place its protagonist against a wider social backdrop, Homolka’s story is framed in purely psychological terms. The film essentially delves into the mind of a killer to ask, What character flaw allowed her to kill? But whether the mind of Karla Homolka is really all that fascinating – or whether making a movie about anyone, even a serial killer, only winds up turning him or her into a celebrity – is beside the point. Sellers’s inside-the-killer’s-psyche approach is deeply unsatisfying for an altogether different reason: Far more than a gory true-crime story, the Bernardo-Homolka case involves gross breaches of justice that are still taking place north of the border. And so, if we must have a movie about “the Barbie and Ken of mayhem and murder,” is it too much to ask that they not leave this out, the one aspect of the case that still cries out for exposure?
In 1990 Bernardo and Homolka raped and accidentally killed Homolka’s fifteen-year-old sister Tammy. In 1991 they raped, tortured, and deliberately killed Leslie Mahaffy, age fourteen. The next year, they did the same thing to Kristen French, fifteen. Before and during this period, Bernardo individually raped at least fourteen other girls and women. These events are the reasons anyone cares about Bernardo and Homolka in the first place. Yet most examinations of Homolka and Bernardo’s case that focus on the killings or the killers themselves quickly run into problems.
The first is that it’s difficult to find any larger lesson in the appalling events of this case that is true without being obvious. Some observers have suggested how remarkable it is that a woman participated in such bloody deeds. But as Patricia Pearson points out in her book When She Was Bad: How and Why Women Get Away with Murder, male-female killing teams are as old as homicide itself. As far as ethics go, few things are as straightforwardly heinous as rape and murder, the rape and murder of children above all. For a filmmaker, the challenge is to somehow shape this unpromising material into a movie that rises above the level of films that deliver a pat and predictable message, such as Bamboozled (racism is bad or The Basketball Diaries (stay away from heroin).
If there may not be very much to say on an analytic level about the killings of Bernardo and Homolka, the gory details of what happened nonetheless exhibit a certain pull. (No doubt, it’s the same impulse that draws people to horror movies.) As a consequence, the major “discovery” many accounts of the case wind up offering is an excruciatingly vivid description of how the girls were tortured and died. The lurid 1995 book Lethal Marriage, for example, by Toronto Star reporter Nick Pron, includes gratuitous transcripts of videos Bernardo and Homolka made as they violated Mahaffy and French. Even Stephen Williams’ 1996 hardcover, Invisible Darkness, the best of the Bernardo books – for reasons we will get to shortly – is compromised in the same way. Williams discusses the murders’ aftermath, but he recounts the killings themselves in such needlessly graphic and soul-destroying detail that, as with Pron – and on screen, in such films as the hyper-violent Natural Born Killers – one comes away feeling soiled.
As anyone who sees Karla will realize, the film has been pre-judged by critics who feared it would be an exploitive slasher flick. In fairness, its filmmakers have exercised restraint in the amount of violence they depict. (Laura Prepon, the television star of That ’70s Show, also gives a passable performance as Karla.) But the main reason the film is an artistic failure is because it fails to overcome the thundering problem of obviousness. Its narrative conceit is to have Homolka recount the story of her marriage and the murders to a prison psychiatrist. Through a series of flashbacks, we witness Homolka and Bernardo committing their unspeakable crimes. Yet there is almost no lead-up to the murders and even less character development. Instead, the story of the killings is told in a way that recalls the adage that, while a chronicle tells you what happened, a history tells you why it happened. Karla, for its part, doesn’t make history.
For all the attention it devotes to Homolka, Karla offers little, if any, insight into why she was such a willing accomplice to Bernardo, who usually instigated their crimes. “I didn’t give you my virginity. I gave you Tammy’s,” Homolka says at one point in the film, “I love you enough to do that . . . because you’re my king.” Perhaps Homolka is too shallow a personality to reward analysis or exploration of any more depth than this. But as it is, all we come away with is a reminder that Homolka and Bernardo were deeply disturbed individuals capable of terrible wrongdoing.
What might a compelling Homolka film look like? I suspect it wouldn’t linger over the actual killings, but begin with the police investigation. Before Bernardo and Homolka were arrested, police from across Ontario formed the Green Ribbon Task Force, which was assigned to find Mahaffy and French’s killers. From the beginning, relations between the task force and reporters were tense, even more so than in most high-profile murder investigations. The Task Force shut the media out completely and didn’t return phone calls.
No doubt this was meant to protect the privacy of the victims’ families. Inadvertently, however, the police created a situation in which the fourth estate had nothing to lose. The result was a media free-for-all as the papers, especially the Toronto Sun and the Star, went into tabloid overdrive. As Carey Smith, a detective in Halton Region, observed in 1994, “Excluding the press created a domino effect. The media tried to investigate on its own, and a lot of misinformation got published that didn’t help anyone . . . . One paper would leak that it had information that another didn’t, and the other paper would push the story, even though it was completely false. They began to write whatever they wanted – wild, unaccredited stories – knowing that it wouldn’t be challenged or refuted by the task force.”
A talented filmmaker could easily sniff out a novel way of approaching the story of Bernardo and Homolka, dramatizing, for instance, the Cold War between cops and reporters, to show how the case typifies murder investigations in the media age. Throw in a few drunken and out-of-control reporters – and add to the mix a few self-important truth seekers from outlets south of the border as varied as the Washington Post and A Current Affair, who ignored the publication ban on evidence from Homolka’s 1993 trial prior to Bernardo’s two years later – and you have the perfect minor characters to flesh out the hysteria.
The debate around the coverage of Homolka’s trial is worth revisiting because it takes us into territory where the answers are less than obvious. On the one hand, the publication ban was in many ways counterproductive: After the U.S. media showed up, they proceeded to break the ban with abandon – it was unenforceable south of the border – and such stories run by the American media were easily obtainable in Canada. On the other hand, it’s not clear that the solution is to simply abolish publication bans outright, as some critics suggested at the time. One banned detail, for example, was the name of one of Bernardo’s rape victims, now known as Jane Doe. Is it so wrong to protect her privacy? As the controversy around Karla itself illustrates, telling a story based on traumatic events that are still fresh in public memory is a fraught enterprise. A nuanced exploration of the Bernardo case would recognize that the issue of what to publicize and in what way is itself a key part of the story.
What every great story needs most of all, however, is a great protagonist. And here we must turn back to Stephen Williams, in whom the Bernardo-Homolka story finds its Hamlet. Williams is something of a male Christie Blatchford: a prickly curmudgeon who writes about crime from the point of view of a bar-stool moralist, dispensing back-o-me-hand ethical judgments to the many nefarious characters who cross his path. Over the years Williams has attracted his share of criticism for his involvement in the Bernardo case. In particular, he has been condemned for selling to HBO a short clip from the video the killers took while assaulting Tammy Homolka, which was widely seen as exploitive. Nevertheless, there are two great advantages to using Williams as a way into the story of Bernardo and Homolka.
First, Williams is the kind of journalist-character that sets such films as All the President’s Men and The Insider on fire: a dogged reporter who puts everything on the line to expose an institutional wrongdoing. In Invisible Darkness, Williams forcibly demonstrates what we’ve always sensed, that Homolka’s plea bargain, which resulted in a twelve-year sentence, was a miscarriage of justice. She was just as guilty as Bernardo, who will never leave prison. In addition, he shows that the police investigation into the case was criminally incompetent. To take just one example, Williams recounts in detail how crucial DNA evidence that would have identified Bernardo as a serial rapist sat untested on a laboratory shelf for over two years. If the sample had been tested earlier, some of Bernardo’s victims might still be alive. This is the stuff great movies are made of.
And unlike Karla, Williams is easy to sympathize with; for all his bombastic charm – and sometimes perplexing decisions – he’s been hard done by. In 2003, the Ontario Attorney General’s Office hit Williams with ninety-seven criminal charges for having seemingly broken the publication ban. The authorities cited material Williams briefly posted on a Web site as well as what he wrote in Invisible Darkness and another book about the case – even though ban-breaking details are easily available on the Web (including, ironically, on one site run by the Attorney General itself).
So why has the Attorney General really gone after Williams? This is one of the most troubling aspects of the Bernardo case’s long fallout. Williams’ prosecution was co-ordinated by officials whom he criticized by name in Invisible Darkness. Murray Segal, for example, one of the architects of Homolka’s plea bargain, is now Ontario’s deputy attorney general. As Williams’ lawyer Edward Greenspan said in court, the prosecution of Stephen Williams was an exercise in “administrative vengeance.”
If the great appeal of Monster was that it humanized Aileen Wuornos enough so that, while we never excuse her crimes, we at least come to understand the pressures that drove her to commit them, there is no similar way in which Karla Homolka can be portrayed as an underdog. Not only were she and Bernardo reasonably well off, but she could have walked away at any time. Williams, by contrast, is a genuine victim of a gross abuse of power: Even though the charges against him were nonsense, one of them stuck in the end, making him, quite possibly, the first journalist in Canada to be convicted of a crime for something he wrote.
Some of the best movies come at their subjects sideways: Think of the way Gus van Sant’s Elephant panned over a day in the life of Columbine-like schoolkids while the motives of their teenage murderers sprouted in the shadows; or Taxi Driver by Martin Scorcese, who uses a war vet, the singularly unhinged Travis Bickle, to comment on the fallout of Vietnam and Korea in America. Why couldn’t there be a movie about a writer who sets out to cover Homolka’s trial, only to become a central part of the story himself? You can see it now: a beleaguered Williams is handcuffed and taken to jail after the police raid his farmhouse, guns blazing, a sinister attorney general cackling in the background that Williams’ writing days are over. Or perhaps we see a more defiant Williams, the embattled writer who refuses to give in even as he is driven to near-bankruptcy by court costs. Either way, it would be a much-needed reminder that the Bernardo story has villains beyond the actual killers.
The fate of Stephen Williams, as well as the intense emotions set off by the arrival of Karla itself, shows that we are still wrestling with the legacy of Bernardo and Homolka. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” Faulkner once said. Maybe someday, the story of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka will be told by someone who understands what Faulkner meant.