JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Karla (Director: Joel Bender) - January 19, 2006


1.5 1.5
99 min.

Victims outshine their captors

With Karla Homolka’s release last July, the rescinding of her court-ordered restrictions in December and her apparent application for a passport recently, there was huge interest in the media screening held in Toronto, January 16.

As the lights went down, the room became oddly quiet. Several dozen professional voyeurs, JWR included, were about to be presented with director Joel Bender’s and co-writers Michael Sellers’, and Manette Beth Rosen’s transcript-based version of this true story of lust, rape and murder.

The opening montage is a scrapbook of Karla, Bernardo and their Rottweiler, Buddy. The couple happily mugs for the camera even as composer Tim Jones paints an eerie soundscape of angelic children’s voices—a Requiem before its time.

The script’s conceit pits Karla against the psychiatrist reviewing her case during an automatic parole review in 2000. Dr. Arnold (Patrick Bauchau) looks appropriately Freudian but appears to be as enamoured with his beautiful subject (That 70’s Show’s Laura Prepon, whose flawless complexion and skin belie the beatings and stitches that her lover inflicted for countless indiscretions, real or imagined) tries to pry into Karla’s mental state then pass judgment on it. The idea works on paper but fails in the delivery. The questions sound more like those of a lawyer than one who, through gentle probes, coaxes his subject to reveal herself. Credibility is lost with the specious act of giving the killer a box of her favourite chocolates. Still, their interaction effortlessly allows the scene to flit back and forth as the gruesome pair meet, marry and maim.

Bernardo (Misha Collins’ good looks ring true, but his descent into madness falls two rungs short) and his buddy’s pickup of eighteen-year-old Karla and her pal in a Toronto hotel comes across like a “we’ve got to get this in quick before the real action starts” sequence that has them pining for each other with barely a close-up to confirm their sex. The dialogue (as it does at least once in every act) can’t avoid the cheap line. “You bring out the animal in me,” chortles the Scarborough predator as he makes the first move. But before you can say “slip down those panties,” the quartet of horny young adults reconvene in a bedroom where Bernardo and his newest conquest prepare to fuck while their friends sit agog. Inadvertently, this moment resonates with the real-life dilemma of “to watch or not to watch” that has swirled around the production since its release date was announced.

With so much sex and violence that must be depicted if the story is to be told, Bender opts to let the viewer’s imagination fill in many of the blanks. As always, the violence outstrips the copulation in its unsettling effect, particularly the girls (Cherilyn Hayes as Tammy Homolka, Kirsten Swieconeck as Tina McCarthy, Sarah Foret as Kaitlyn Ross—the last two names were changed to avoid further grief, no doubt). Just as during the trial, their fate ignites the horror, anger and instinct for revenge that lurks in varying degrees in us all. Ironically, one of the film’s few redeeming qualities is the performances of the victims. Huddling in abject terror, their demise is much more credible than the monsters that molested, mauled then mutilated their fellow human beings. Curiously, after the death of her sister, Karla’s physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her “true love” seems darkly satisfying and may produce cheers rather than sympathy in some crowds.

Beyond the hunters and their prey, the remaining characters and situations share the consistency of cardboard. Karla’s friends Molly and Dan Czehowicz (Tess Harper, Leonard Kelly-Young) seem as impotent as Bernardo is insatiable in their attempted rescue of the bruised and battered bride. They respond to her call for help, dutifully appear, then stand and mutter “come with us” even as one summons from “my King” (cuing another appearance of the ever-present, never-sullied, metaphorical Teddy Bear) pulls her back into purgatory with one “Princess, wait.” This oversimplification of a truly awful moment strips away another layer of believability.

Canada’s border guards are shown to be as simple-minded as the terrorist-lite sawhorse that separates the elephant from the mouse. (This should come as no surprise: none of the senior production team or principal cast have ever set foot in Niagara—the entire film was shot in Los Angeles.) The local police come across a touch more competent, but only snap into action when the mild-mannered stereotype is abruptly shattered once a DNA match to a Scarborough rape victim seals the cigarette smuggler/between-jobs-accountant’s fate.

The set dressers also fail to reinforce the truth. Chuckles all around when the Toronto Sun is depicted as a broadsheet with a Globe and Mail font as it makes a silent plot point. The out-of-the-box pleated school skirt (like Karla’s visage) unwittingly makes the victim appear to be the imposter. If the truth is meant to be told, then the reality of human and “costume” decay must also be factored in. Hands and faces get appropriately dirty when hacking a corpse to death and burying it, other scenes in “true-story cinema” must do likewise.

Throughout Karla, the film-within-the-film notion is effectively used to add both a variety of images and serve as the major threat of keeping Karla on the leash. But Bernardo declaiming “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” to an incredulous friend dumbs down another moment of potential real-life drama when one outside the inner circle realizes the horror that must lurk in the family videos.

No matter. Soon, Karla is feeling better. She finally leaves Bernardo, confesses to the authorities, then revels in the positive outcome of the only question to her client/privilege devotee, “If I help, can you get me immunity?”

Then there’s one fascinating moment when, after a night of dancing and public bathroom sex, the camera lingers on a male nipple the morning after. With no face in the shot, could she have succumbed again to the devil she knows? If only the chest hairs had been shaved, the mystery would have been real.

That intrigue aside, the rest, as we know, is history. JWR

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