Even though it’s plagued by bumpy storytelling and weakened by an unsuccessful attempt at probing the protagonist’s complex psychology, there’s much to admire about The Todd Killings. Writer-director Barry Shear based his script upon the exploits of Charles Schmid, a real-life criminal who developed a following of high-school students in mid-’60s Arizona and enlisted their aid while covering up murders. Discarding many weird details from the real case and inserting a few new wrinkles, Schear morphed Schmid into the fictional character Skipper Todd, played with great conviction by Robert F. Lyons. Handsome and muscular, he uses his sexual power over adolescent women to make them do outrageous things, meanwhile luring adolescent boys into his thrall by offering favors from compliant females. Wearing his groovy go-go clothes and zipping around town in dune buggy, he comes across like a demonic rock star, so Shear’s movie achieves its greatest efficacy by dramatizing the way a sociopath aggregates followers. The movie also benefits from marvelous cinematography and vivid supporting performances.
Things get off to an intriguing but slightly confusing start with an intercut sequence, the most dynamic element of which involves Skipper and his cronies burying a body in a riverbed and then fleeing the scene. Thereafter, most of the movie unfolds in a linear fashion, presenting Skipper’s bizarre lifestyle through the eyes of his latest acolyte, Billy Roy (Richard Thomas). Recently returned from military service, the naïve and shy Billy Roy marvels at Skipper’s ability to control women, even though Skipper devotes much of his energy to breaking down the resistance of Roberta (Belinda Montgomery), a high-school beauty reluctant to surrender to virginity. Shear intertwines these events with flash-forwards to Skipper’s interrogation by police, because it emerges that one of Skipper’s cronies gave him up to authorities after the guilt of witnessing murders became intolerable. (As for the killings, they’re handled with the expected levels of brutality, though Shear aims for psychological terror instead of gore.) Perhaps the film’s most provocative trope is Skipper’s unusual relationship with his mother (Barbara Bel Geddes); because she operates a convalescent home for seniors, her lifestyle epitomizes the stagnation against which Skipper rebels.
Had Shear retained the real names of those involved with Schmid’s crime spree and truly penetrated the protagonist’s psyche, The Todd Killings could have become a true-crime classic. The acting is consistently good, and that photography—by Harold E. Stine—builds on the familiar Conrad L. Hall technique of using blurred foregrounds and deep focus to surround actors in metaphorically rich atmosphere. Nearly every artistic and technical aspect of The Todd Killings is exemplary, so the real shortfall happens in the realm of storytelling. Nonetheless, the best elements of The Todd Killings are terrific, and the movie’s assortment of hip ’60s fashion and household objects is wild to behold.
The Todd Killings: FUNKY