Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Stephen Kay
Written by: Tom Towler & Donald Martin
(based on the book NIGHTMARE IN WICHITA: THE HUNT FOR THE BTK STRANGLER by Robert Beattie)
Starring: Robert Forster, Gregg Henry, Michael Michele, Maury Chaykin & Mimi Kuzyk
From 1974 to 1991, Dennis Rader (known as the BTK Killer, Bind Torture Kill) terrorized the small community of Wichita, Kansas. With 10 victims under his belt, Rader wasn’t arrested until February 2005 thanks to a stunning turn of events and sheer dumb luck. The legal proceedings for the infamous BTK Killer concluded in June 2005. There were three months between Rader’s trial date and the premiere of this made-for-TV movie. When I see stuff like this I’m reminded of the scene from SE7EN in which Brad Pitt tells the psychotic John Doe, “You’re just a movie of the week!” Besides winding up in prison for life, Dennis Rader ultimately became fodder for a TV movie of the week and 2005’s HUNT FOR THE BTK KILLER is that movie. How does it hold up as an accurate and well-made portrayal of Rader’s capture? Honestly, this is a bit of a mixed bag.
The capture of the BTK Killer is ultimately a story of dumb luck and one officer who didn’t have many clues to monster’s identity. What triggered BTK’s “return” was a writer announcing a new book about the BTK cold case. After seeing that upcoming chronicle of his story, Rader’s mask of sanity slips as he obsesses over his old crimes and begins planning new ones. Thanks to BTK’s overwhelming ego, the police receive some evidence to suggest that this feared serial killer is still alive and well. Detective Jason Magida sets up a plan to bait BTK into making a revealing mistake. What follows is a game of cat-and-mouse which results in the capture of Rader, who is now rotting in jail today. Being told from a court scene in the opening, HUNT FOR BTK is mainly made of flashbacks detailing reenactments of Magida’s search for Rader.
Though it sets itself up in the most clichéd manner possible, this movie could have arguably been better if it were told in a chronological narrative instead of flashbacks accompanied with bad narration. Right away, things become totally apparent that this was a made-for-TV effort. Not made for HBO or Showtime (where the content restrictions are more open), but basic cable or (more likely) network television. In spite of the R rating that the film totes on its DVD release, things were cut back to keep it at a safe level. I don’t need or want to see Rader’s graphic crimes on-screen, but there are noticeable points where Robert Forster’s hardened cop says things like “I don’t know if we’re going to catch this frickin’ guy.” If you can’t swear in your movie, don’t add cheap substitute faux curse words. Just write the dialogue without any space for profanity to be had. At least, that way it’s less distracting. Forster isn’t compelling in the role of Detective Magida as the real reason (the film showcases this in a backhanded way) that Rader managed to get arrested was through a stupid mistake on his part and luck on the cop’s side. The film doesn’t exactly sport the most compelling true story behind it and the production values are very cheap.
HUNT FOR BTK sinks all possible suspense with a manipulative soundtrack. The same few pieces of music are played over and over. To the film’s credit, one piece of music is decent, but we have to sit through it six times before the film is over. This movie tries way too hard to force emotions down the viewer’s throat during certain scenes. One moment that felt especially unnecessary was Dennis Rader was hitting on a waitress in a diner. The soundtrack lets us know to be scared of Rader, but we already know he’s a serial killer. Even if you weren’t aware of that, the opening scene shows you that he’s a psycho. Therefore, we don’t need a cheesy bit of music to clue us in on Rader’s sinister intentions towards this young woman. It’s fairly obvious because he’s a serial killer!
The sole saving grace to this otherwise mediocre TV movie is Gregg Henry’s portrayal of Dennis Rader. I kind of wish more scenes featured Henry, because he was excellent in the part. He managed to capture the deeply psychotic side brimming beneath the fake surface of this lunatic, while also showing the façade that so many people bought into (Rader was a boy scout leader and a church leader). However, the aspect that Henry absolutely nailed is the asshole side of Rader, whom many say was constantly abusing his small position of power as a local dogcatcher. There’s a particular encounter with him and a pissed off neighbor that pretty much played out just like it was originally described. Gregg Henry is the only shining talent in HUNT FOR BTK.
HUNT FOR BTK is a shallow, simple, and cheaply made TV movie of the week. Honestly, I’m kind of glad it turned out that way, because egomaniac serial killer Dennis Rader (who delighted in every bit of attention he got after being arrested) doesn’t deserve a good movie made about him. The cop’s closing voiceover about never giving up in the face of danger is especially insulting to the viewer’s intelligence, because reality (and the film) showed that he didn’t exactly do anything remarkable to catch Rader. The only reasons to watch THE HUNT FOR THE BTK KILLER are for Gregg Henry’s performance or if you’ve just read up on the case and want to see a middle-of-the-road TV movie based on the material.