The Alphabet Killer


Warning: Complete Spoilers

by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

"Based on a true story"

I don't know if the phrase "based on a true story" is the biggest bullshit line in the English language because it would have to compete with some powerhouse contenders like "I'll call you," "I won't come in your mouth," and "The check's in the mail." I do suspect that it is the most frequently used bullshit line in movie advertisements. Why? Because it works. Follow the money. If the original version of "The Amityville Horror" had been released as a straight horror film with no publicity campaign to link the film to real events, it would have achieved no success at the box office. It basically had nothing going for it except the widely accepted belief that all the supernatural events portrayed on film really happened. That belief spurred enough curiosity that people had to see those things and talk about them. That's just one example, but the concept is universal. If you can convince people that they are watching impossible or unusual events that really happened, your film is going to do far better.

The Alphabet Killer is based on a series of murders that occurred in Rochester, New York in the 1970s. The three victims were all pre-pubescent girls from poor Catholic families. All three had problems in school. All of them had matching first and last initials, and all of their bodies were found in a town with that same initial: Carmen Colon in Churchville, Wanda Walkowicz in Webster, Michelle Maenza in Macedon. There was a fourth victim normally associated with the case because her name was Michelle McMurray, but the fourth murder did not really fit the pattern. She was only seven years old, much younger than the others, and her body was found in Rochester, not in an "M" town like nearby Macedon or Mendon. After 30-odd years, the Rochester police have recently come to believe that they have solved the fourth murder, the one that did not fit the pattern. The other three remain unsolved, and there is nothing at this time to link the McMurray suspect to the other three slayings.

This film is based on the case in this respect: the major details of the murders are identical. They all involved girls with double initials, and they all took place in the Rochester area. Those are the only similarities between the real events and the film, and they are not integral to the drama because the murders basically occur before the film begins or off-camera. The film is about the police investigation, not the murders, and it bears absolutely no resemblance to the real investigation. It is a completely fictional story "based on a true story." Not only is it fictional, but it is a complete stretch, even for those people with the most flexible sense of credulity.

The murders are being investigated by a policewomen with mental problems: delusions, visions, hallucinations, obsessions - you name it. She is exceptionally gifted at police work for some of the same reasons that make her mentally unstable. First, she sees things that other people cannot. Second, she becomes so obsessed with unanswered questions that she can't rest until she can find a plausible solution. This brilliant combination of insight and determination makes her brilliant, but unstable, and the instability makes her useless because her fellow officers can never tell whether her ideas about a case are different from theirs because she's being brainy, or because she's being loony. Her very existence defines the cliché about a fine line between genius and insanity.

Complete spoilers ahead:

The movie holds together for about 80 minutes thanks to a reasonably convincing lead performance by Eliza Dushku and just enough intrigue generated by the confusion between her delusions and her conclusions. (Like her fellow officers, we don't know if she's being insightful or paranoid.) Then it all falls apart with a truly off-the-wall solution. (Remember the real-life crimes are still unsolved today, 35 years after the fact.) Wouldn't you know it, but it turns out the way these things always do in films. When the female detective is being pursued by both police and medical authorities because of her emotional and dangerously violent outbursts, she has only one confidante she can rely on, a lonely paraplegic she met in the loony bin. She goes to his house because nobody can really trace her to him, so she can theoretically hide out there forever.

Only one tiny problem. He's the killer!

Yup, that's right. Of all the hundreds of thousands of people in the Rochester area, it just so happens that her one and only friend, who has not previously been connected to the crimes in any way, is the killer. The script points get even worse. What could be worse than that? Well, I'll tell you. The crimes were committed by a powerful man with the full use of his legs, and the officer's friend is in a wheelchair. How could that be? Easy. He's faking the condition. He's been using a fake wheelchair for years. At the critical moment when she figures it out, he leaps from the wheelchair to overpower her!

Well, you have to admit it was a surprise ending. The illogical is always surprising.

There was one line in there that was absolutely hilarious, although I'm not sure it was meant to be. After all, this is a grim story about a serial rapist/murderer of young girls, so there's not a lot of room for levity. But there is a scene just before the guy leaps from his wheelchair when the detective finds evidence that the paraplegic knew all three victims. She asks, "Why didn't you tell me you knew all of the victims?" He replies with something like, "Well, I guess because you would then have known ... (dramatic pause) ... that I'M THE KILLER." (Leaps from wheelchair.)

I swear it was really an interesting movie before the script tried to solve the unsolved murders, but that crazy stuff just blew away any chance it had to maintain some credibility. And it was especially irritating to see all that nonsense because this film is "based on a true story," and many details are identical to the real story, so we're assuming that everything must be real ... right?

Not so much.

The denouement did have one good idea, in fact very good, but it got stepped on by the dramatic wheelchair leap. The crazy cop first  met the crazy killer in the loony bin after the first murder. He really liked her and saw her as a kindred soul. They bonded. He listened to her theory about the alphabet connection. Turns out she was wrong. It was one of her delusions rather than one of her insights. He had never given any thought to the fact that the first victim had the same first and last initials, and he had absolutely no idea that he had dumped her body in an area considered part of Churchville. But he liked the female detective and felt bad that everyone else thought her alphabet theory was crazy, so he resolved to make it sane - by killing all of his future victims according to her theory, thus making it obviously correct! In essence, if not for the detective's crackpot theory, those other two girls would still be alive.


Interesting idea. It's far-fetched and completely unrelated to the real case upon which the film is putatively based, but genuinely interesting and thought-provoking.

There are enough good little nuggets like that to make this film watchable, and a topless scene from Dushku, her first, is easy on the eyes, but overall I got the impression that it was a so-so film with a terrific one lurking within, unable to escape. 

One last nitpick. I'm from Rochester. Rochesterians speak with a distinctive accent, and not one person in the cast sounded like a real Rochesterian. Cary Elwes, bless his English heart, tried to sound like a New Yorker, but nobody thought to tell the lad that people in Rochester, New York sound nothing like people from New York City. (Rochesterians actually sound most similar to people from Minneapolis. The most famous person with a genuine Rochester accent is Robert Forster.)


* widescreen (2.35)







There are no major graded reviews online, but the reviews from the NYT and the Village Voice are linked from the IMDb page.











5.9 IMDB summary (of 10)














Box Office Mojo. It received a theatrical run consisting of a whopping two theaters.











  • Eliza Dushku exposed her breasts as she dressed to leave the hospital.












Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


Barely adequate genre film that had the potential to be much better.