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The Zodiac Killer (1971)

Say what you will about any other aspect of 1971’s The Zodiac Killer, but the film itself is the first of its kind—and to my knowledge, the only one ever made—whose raison d’être was to catch an active serial killer.

The titular serial killer in question terrorized the Northern California region in the late 1960’s with seven confirmed victims (two of which survived), and became a media sensation when he began taunting the police with phone calls and sending cryptic letters to journalists (where he claimed to have killed 37 people). David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) is the definitive retelling of this story, and an American masterpiece, but that film doesn’t hold a candle to The Zodiac Killer’s off-the-wall goofiness and shear ambition of purpose.

Enter: Tom Hanson.

Hanson was, for lack of a better expression, a rather shady businessman, who owned a bunch of Pizza Man franchise stores in Southern California. In the early 1970’s, his modest business empire began to crumble, and he owed money to people all over town. On the documentary made for the AGFA blu ray release, he said about the situation: “If I’m going down, I think I’ll knock out a picture or two on the way down—which I did.”

Indeed, he did. According to Hanson on the commentary track, he wasn’t interested in film at all and didn’t even like it. It was purely a business venture with one objective: gain as much notoriety as possible (and in return, profitable returns) by making an exploitation movie that would catch the Zodiac killer; the principle behind the idea being that the Zodiac killer had such an inflated ego that he couldn’t resist showing up to the San Francisco premiere.

Thus, The Zodiac Killer was made cheaply and quickly in an effort to get the movie out while the killer was still active in the Bay Area. On a budget of $13,000, Hanson and crew worked fast to accumulate 90 minutes of usable film by setting up in various L.A. locations (without permits, mind you), shooting one take, and heading to the next location.

You can probably guess this sort of amateurish, guerilla-style filmmaking didn’t lead to impressive results. And you’d be slightly wrong. Sure, the film contains terrible acting, atrocious dialogue, and no coverage shots whatsoever. But surprisingly enough, Hanson had some innate technical craft when it came to shooting and editing together the murder and action sequences. If you’ve seen Fincher’s Zodiac, the haunting Lake Berryessa murder scene most likely sticks with you to this day. It’s one of the most effective scenes ever filmed. However, I think the same scene portrayed in Hanson’s film is equally effective and creepy. Not to mention, you get the hilarious line from the killer: “I’m gonna have to stab you people.”

The actual structure of the film is also equal parts stupid and creative. The first half hour serves as a fun, little exercise in misdirection as we follow two suspicious gentlemen around San Francisco in their daily lives—the point clearly being that one of them is the Zodiac killer. Scenes oscillate between a misogynist, insecure truck driver and a misogynist, down-on-his-luck mailman (with an even more misogynist neighbor) who tells caged bunny rabbits in his basement, “If people were as good natured as you, we wouldn’t have any trouble in this world.”

Wanna take a guess who the killer is?

As soon as the identity of the killer is revealed, the film turns into a really fun movie with kill scene after kill scene, each one more hilariously bonkers than the last. I actually think this is a truly interesting grindhouse film, and with the beautiful AGFA transfer taking the 16mm print and blowing it up to 35mm, the slight grainy feel really adds to the experience. All in all, The Zodiac Killer is definitely more effective than it has any right being.

So did the masterplan work? Did Tom Hanson catch the Zodiac killer? Well, no, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. He did hold his premiere in San Francisco, where he somehow got Kawasaki to donate a motorcycle for him to raffle off. To win, each ticketholder filled out a raffle card that said “I think the Zodiac kills because…” Lo and behold, they had someone inside the raffle box examining each card to see if any of the handwriting matched the letters sent to the San Francisco Chronicle. If this person found something of significance, he was to push a button to alert the people that were…well, outside the box.

This plan did not work at all (go figure), though that’s not the end of the story. While the movie was still playing, Hanson was in the restroom, when a creepy guy who Hanson claimed looked exactly like the sketch on the wanted poster, said to him at the urinal, “Y, know, real blood doesn’t come out like that.” (Source: Temple of Schlock)

Terrified, Hanson ran out of the restroom, rallied his goons, and they waited for this guy to come out of the screening room after the movie had finished. Hanson pointed him out, and they grabbed him, taking him to the office, where they interrogated him. Hanson says the man was weirdly calm about the whole thing, never overreacting to the fact he was being illegally detained by the movie’s producers. He was eventually set free with an apology.

Because Hanson then had his name, phone number, and address, he stalked him for years, certain this was the Zodiac killer. He called the man repeatedly, even once offering a prize that he'd “won” at the premiere. Hanson sent over some guys to the suspected man’s house with a package, but then took it back, claiming it was the wrong gift—all just a ruse to get his fingerprints. Which, yeah, didn’t work. To my knowledge, nothing ever came of this obsession, and Hanson has never revealed the identity of the man.

The Zodiac Killer was obviously designed to agitate an active serial killer. The misrepresentation of events, bogus facts, and trite motive all appear specifically engineered to make a narcissistic madman flip out. And despite Hanson’s claims about the man in the restroom, we have no idea if the Zodiac killer showed up at the premiere or not, lending this whole affair a nice real-life, unresolved creep factor.

Final item of note: The AGFA blu ray comes with a bonus film, Another Son of Sam. I haven’t watched it, but it looks absolutely bonkers ass-rific.

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