Studio: Breaking Glass Pictures
Director: Joshua Zeman
Writer: Joshua Zeman
Producer: Greg Palmer, Rachel Mills, George Plamondon, Betsy Schechter
Stars: Joshua Zeman, Rachel Mills, Stephen Winick, James Presley, Joel Best, Bill Ellis
Filmmaker Joshua Zeman and researcher Rachel Mills investigate the possible real-life origins of four well-known urban legends.
Director Joshua Zeman’s previous documentary “Cropsey” (review here) drew an intriguing parallel between a fictitious boogeyman and a real-life child predator lurking in the shadows of New York’s Staten Island. The story was interesting, as was the presentation, but the overall film was hampered somewhat by piling on every speculative theory and thread under the sun instead of delving deep into a definitive exposé on the case. Zeman’s follow-up horror fiction meets horrific fact feature suffers from an inverse problem of having too little overall substance for its segments to register a truly haunting impression.
The concept behind “Killer Legends” is strong. For those fascinated by the histories of various urban legends, the idea of journeying along as Zeman and researcher Rachel Mills examine possible inspirations behind four well-known folktales has the potential to be both informative and chilling. Unfortunately for them, as well as for the audience, something they discover about these “killer legends” is that there isn’t always too much of a story to tell.
Each of the segments in “Killer Legends” covers about 20 minutes worth of ground. You might think that isn’t enough time to bore into the bones of a tall tale, although what actually happens is the movie struggles to come up with 20 minutes of meaty material to fill each chapter.
Following a brief recap of “Cropsey,” the film starts with a look at the “Moonlight Murders” of Texarkana’s “The Phantom Killer” from 1946. Linked to the legend of a hook-handed maniac stalking Lovers’ Lane couples necking near the woods, the crimes of The Phantom also became the inspiration for Charles B. Pierce’s 1976 cult classic “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.”
Nearly seventy years later, there simply isn’t any new information to give the “Moonlight Murders” a fresh angle. Zeman and Mills fill the segment with shots of them recounting the story while standing in nondescript fields and reading out loud from microfiche in the library. Later, they go searching for the exact tree where victim Betty Jo Booker’s body was discovered. I’m left to wonder, what value does looking for a tree add to the movie, other than providing a scene where the filmmakers wave flashlights in the dark for a mildly moody moment?
A quick glance at snopes.com will tell anyone that there has never been a confirmed case of tampered Halloween candy injuring a trick-or-treater. Actual instances of poisoned treats are so rare as to be commonly considered unverifiable. That doesn’t stop the second chapter of “Killer Legends” from examining the myth though.
The spotlight quickly shines on the 1974 death of Timothy Marc O’Bryan from a cyanide-laced Pixie Stix. Since no other neighborhood children were harmed, no house was discovered to have been giving out that brand of candy, and Timothy’s father Ronald was found to have purchased both cyanide and an insurance policy on his children, the true culprit is revealed quickly. What is left over is less of an urban legend exploration and more of a watered-down mini-episode of “Dateline.”
Interview subject Stephen Winick almost immediately takes the wind out of the third segment’s sails by rationally pointing out how irrational babysitting-related fears are. While covering the story of the babysitter and the man upstairs, Winick observes that the only difference between a teenager home alone and a babysitter by herself in her employer’s house is location. Babysitting doesn’t put anyone at any increased risk of danger, yet the thought that it does persists.
Mills confirms her difficulty in finding a true story that would connect a babysitter tragedy to an intruder calling from inside a home. She and Zeman settle on the unsolved murder of Janett Christman in Missouri in 1950. As with the “Moonlight Murders,” well over half a century has passed since the crime, which makes eyewitnesses scarce and clear details scarcer. Christman’s horrible death is certainly tragic, but it is so speciously connected to the urban legend that it has about as much to do with the movie’s theme as any other random murder of a teenage girl home alone.
“Killer Legends” wraps up weakly with a look at killer clowns. From Stephen King’s Pennywise to John Wayne Gacy’s Pogo, clowns have scarred the psyches of enough people that there is actually a word for clown-related fears: coulrophobia. Trying to find an urban legend in there somewhere, Zeman and Mills drive to Chicago where they look into reports of kidnappers dressed as clowns attempting to lure children into their vans.
I would wager a billion dollars that twisted pedophiles the world over have pulled that ruse numerous times throughout history, so I don’t follow how this is considered a sinister myth, or even a specific story like the previous three. I’m not sure “Killer Legends” knows what to do about it either, which is why the “Why so serious?” segment flounders by following an interviewee in a clown van as he dishes on Chicago’s clown history. The piece then ends on a thin connection to Aurora movie theater shooter James Holmes, loosely tied as somehow related to a fear of clowns because Holmes dyed his hair orange and told police he was “The Joker.”
“Killer Legends” has terrific intentions. The Phantom Killer of Texarkana in particular is one true story I have always wanted to know more about and I appreciate Zeman and Mills making a committed effort to drawing out details on the origins behind these stories. At the same time, I now see why no one has previously tackled full investigative documentaries on these subjects.
Although never fully engrossing, “Killer Legends” covers ground that is compelling in a broad sense, and at best inspires performing personal research once the movie is over to learn more about the cases discussed. Yet the material is ultimately so narrow that I can’t help but feel as though “Killer Legends” is like four half-episodes of “48 Hours Mysteries” strung together for a feature-length film.
Review Score: 60