When Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka were arrested in 1993 for the abduction, sexual assault, and murder of two Ontario teenagers, local and provincial news media had already been covering aspects of the police's suspicions that Bernardo was the notorious Scarborough Rapist. Even more sensational were the murders of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy, whose school portraits and home videos were endlessly replayed on newscasts, forever imprinting the friendly visages of two normal teens as symbols of long, drawn out sexual torture.
A court ban prohibited specific details from being reported within Canada, and that merely created a whirlwind of misinformation speculation and murmurs morphing into rumored facts of even more gruesome torment inflicted on the teens that spawned weird methods by Canadians to read or see secret details from foreign press outlets.
In spite of the ban which included blocking TV broadcasts of news reports from the U.S. people could still watch or hear details from shows like A Current Affair using the rabbit ears on their TV sets, or receive faxed scans from issues of the New York Times. (In a nascent internet era, information was still restricted to traditional radio, TV, and print outlets. Had the case occurred today, a total news ban would've been impossible to enforce.)
Even with the ban in place, once the case began, the saga of the two teens became a serialized sex crime novel, with allowable evidence and facts reported in daily chapters, tempered with the outrage, disgust, and moral arguments of various writers and columnists. The Toronto Sun's coverage was particularly reliable in keeping the public's interest active, while newscasts continued to replay stills and video footage not only of the dead teens, but of the pretty couple who committed the nasty deeds.
(There were some oddball items, like reporters being followed home by thieves who quickly absconded with high-end ENG gear, but every night the evening news included live feeds from the courthouse steps in Toronto.)
A few writers tried to circumvent or challenge the news ban, and one quirk of note was a book on the case which included a kind of coupon that buyers could use after the court case to receive the reams of pages that were blacked out in the hardcover edition. Bottom line: Toronto had never experienced a crime case like this, with rabid protestors and gawkers lining the court entrance, and hollering profanity at the cars carrying the accused.
Local network news treated viewers like idiots by constantly repeating stills, videos, and family names of the dead teens, and while the process helped pad singular news segments beyond the few usable sentences of material from a day's testimony, it also trained the spotlight on the families who had already been prodded by reporters for comments; it's unlikely they ever expected the images of their daughters would've been used in daily news montages with such consistent insensibility. The news media probably figured keeping the faces of victims up-front humanized their reports, but the whole process simply re-traumatized the families in the privacy of their homes, and undoubtedly gave them unwanted recognition among total strangers on the street.
Police interrogation tapes showing an unremorseful Homolka were later broadcast by the CBC; Homolka's looming release date and criticisms over her 12-year sentence kept her name and those of the teens in the news for years; and Homolka's TV interview, taped hours after her release from prison in 2005, re-aligned the focus away from Bernardo, and inevitably marshaled the media to pester the families for more public comments.
Of the two killers, Homolka remains the most intriguing half because of her claimed position as being a victim of Bernardo's violence, domination, and forced participation in filling his egotistical and violent sex needs.
The need to temper, if not monitor, the media's obsession with Bernardo, Homolka, and the dead teens is perhaps the key reason why the legal firm retained by the families were concerned about Karla, and any film chronicling the killers. (The families' lawyer, Tim Danson, did see the film before its Canadian release at a special screening, and noted some factual errors and scenes that were later addressed by the filmmakers.)
Although scheduled to premiere at the 2005 Montreal World Film festival, Karla was ultimately pulled from the lineup, and though the film did receive a brief theatrical run, as of this writing, it has no home video distribution in Canada.
According to a report from CTV News, the film's producer, Michael Sellers, said the film was never intented for a formal Canadian release, though it's a bit too coincidental that Karla was originally slated to hit screens (under its original title Deadly) just as Homolka was set to be released from prison after serving her full 12 year term.
Is Karla junk? Not really. It's basically a low budget cable TV movie that follows a painfully overdone flashback format: Karla Homolka meets with a court-appointed psychiatrist (Patrick Bauchau, wasted yet again) who must determine if she's eligible for parole. Their discussions address her first encounter with Paul Bernardo, their courtship & marriage, his admitting that his weeknight outings were purely to find and assault rape targets, and the eventual efforts to lure/rape/murder two Ontario teens.
In terms of casting, Laura Prepon doesn't have much material to draw from, but then Homolka remains a murky persona even today; the contemporary news reports regarded her as a manipulative creature who shaded facts in order to position herself as a victim of spousal abuse and save herself from a life sentence like Bernardo, whereas the police interviews excerpted in the aforementioned CBC program showed a disinterested, juvenile mind who either subjugated the horrors as a coping mechanism, or really wasn't a bright bulb in the chandelier and could comfortably engage in a conversation about clothes with Kristen French when her husband wasn't raping the teen.
That duality isn't present in the film nor in Prepon's characterization: Homolka is depicted as a battered wife who stays with her husband because she clings to moments that recall the man she fell for infatuation and adoration, but never really love. The offering' of youngest her sister Tammy to Bernardo during a Christmas celebration was clearly a power test in which Homolka proved to be the perfect partner in crime when Tammy died from a drug overdose that night, the truth never passed from their lips.
Bernardo's ego was well-documented after his arrest and during the court case: at one point he changed his name to Paul Teale (phonetically named after the arrogant, murderous character in the 1988 film Criminal Law, but misspelled from the original Thiel), and case extracts revealed he liked to penetrate while a leather strap was lashed around his victim (and wife's) neck a scene replicated in the film's final reel when Homolka is punished for an aborted attempt to leave him.
In a mini-series format, more astute writers have used the extra running time to dramatize events and explore the characters, and attempt some reconciliation between the facts and the killer's own self-crafted persona: among the best examples are Helter Skelter (a brilliant docu-drama on Charles Manson), and To Catch a Killer (which exceptionally dramatized the monstrous John Wayne Gacy through simple, chilling scenes that preceded the torture and murder of young men and boys never shown by the filmmakers). Each killer respectively maintained a persona of a free-living hippy, and a local businessmen who supported the community through volunteer work.
In the case of Karla, the 99 min. docu-drama becomes a showcase for the sensational, with short dramatic bits used to solder a rudimentary narrative. The characters are shallow, if not flat, and the structure disingenuous to crafting an gripping tale. Like Karla, the TV movie Calendar Girl, Cop, Killer? The Bambi Bembenek Story (1992) uses a the flashback gimmick this time it's a reporter, borrowed/stolen from Citizen Kane whose interviews elicit recollections and propel the drama; the rival mini-series Woman on the Run: The Lawrencia Bembenek Story also flips between time modes, but manages to hit every dramatic mark in each of its two parts.
Karla's screenwriters do an adequate job in threading together the basics, but they were also aware that their film would generate serious attention, if not anger, in Canada, so Leslie Mahaffy became Tina McCarthy, and Kristen French became Kaitlyn Ross moves either meant to avoid a legal battle with the families, or efforts to soften the spotlight on the teens' families.
Just as interesting is the decision to push the families far into the margins: the Ross parents appear on TV in an appeal to the daughter's abductor basically crying parental stereotypes whereas the McCarthy family is entirely absent (thereby making it easier to avoid addressing the cruelly ironic reason the first teen was unable to enter the family house: her mother locked the door as punishment for staying out so late).
The film's look is suitably low-tech: the lighting design isn't elaborate, and supports the unglamorous visuals that harshen key scenes: Bernardo's sexual and physical assault on Homolka near the end; and the brutality inflicted upon McCarthy and Ross, with brief bits of actual and inferred nudity.
The screenwriters also made use of specific words spoken by McCarthy/Mahaffy and Ross/French that were reported in the papers when the videotapes were played in court pleas and defensive anger from the respective teens that make the scenes ugly, not sensational. Those inclusions humanize the film's victims from mindless torture-porn like Hostel and the Saw films - but it's still ugly stuff to watch.
For viewers outside of Ontario, or at least those unfamiliar with the Bernardo/Homolka trials, the scenes are disturbing; but those who watched the media circus exploit each fact into an obscene prime time mini-series in Ontario will find Karla possesses a stronger resonance; that's probably a key reason as to why the families' lawyer rose to their defense and felt a proactive stance was necessary.
From a local perspective, it's tough to write-off Karla as just another exploitation film. Even after 13 years, the memories of the abductions, the discovery of the bodies, and the media frenzy is still pretty vivid. That said, Karla is neither meritorious or socially conscious filmmaking, but it unintentionally reminds one of the local media and their selfish, grotesque struggles to keep viewers tuned in to their stations during the original publication ban by replaying home videos of the murderer and their victims. The media's conduct and their exploitation of the families was and remains the greater offense.
Monterey Video's DVD contains a number of deleted scenes, and with few exceptions a longer version of Bernardo's cellar assault on Homolka, and the dumping of cement-entombed body parts into a lake it's all weak stuff. Director Joel Bender provides an intro to each scene, and one can see an extra scene with Tony (aka Anthony John) Denison (doing a day's work as a bland investigating detective), and Tess Harper as Homolka's friend (a character who suffers from an apparent continuity blur, as she's initially established as the co-owner of the home the killers rent, but is then murkily inferred to be Homolka's mother in three scenes: a late night phone call from Homolka prior to her leaving/returning to Bernardo; a wedding reception; and in the courtroom, seated behind Homolka).
Bender's intros are hissy and poorly recorded, as are the words that accompany co-producer/co-writer Manette Rosen's post-trial featurettes over stills of the real couple, and animated black grease-pencil marks from a pseudo-workprint.
The film transfer is clean, but the stereo mix is pretty straightforward, and much of the music score by Shawn K. Clement (a composer with a heavy background in reality TV) and Tim Jones (Wicked Little Things) fails to add needed subtext and can't transcend the film's aforementioned limitations. They too recognized Karla was an undistinguished production, designed solely as an R-rated rental at the local store, with a bold warning stamped on the sleeve and DVD that exploitively reads "Brutal Psychotic Violence Including Murder, Rape & Spousal Abuse, Disturbing Sexual Content & Strong Language" - hardly a soft sell.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan