EIU Memories: Shannon McNamara’s Murder and the Trial of Anthony Mertz

On the evening of Monday, June 11, 2001, Eastern Illinois University’s campus was deserted. The temperature was in the high 70s and falling. Most of EIU’s 10,531 students had returned home for the summer, but several hundred remained behind for summer classes, or to relax in the town they had come to love. I was back home in suburban Prospect Heights, relaxing after a long day working for the local park district. I would enter my sophomore year in August.

In a second floor apartment on 4th Street in Charleston, just a few blocks from campus, a small group of friends drank and socialized. The apartment door and windows were open, allowing a pleasant summer breeze to circulate among the party. Laughter, music, and light from the open door sounded inviting to anyone who happened to pass by on the sidewalk below. It was a nightly ritual to unwind from spending hours in stuffy classrooms or at tedious, temporary summer jobs.

The next morning, in a three-story apartment building near the corner of 4th Street and Taylor Avenue, 21-year-old Shannon McNamara’s roommate discovered her strangled and brutalized body on their living room floor. Shannon, from Rolling Meadows, Illinois, was a physical education major and sorority sister of the Zeta Alpha chapter of Alpha Phi.

Continue reading “EIU Memories: Shannon McNamara’s Murder and the Trial of Anthony Mertz”
Advertisements

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Zac Efron steals the show as serial killer Ted Bundy, and that’s the problem.

Written by Michael Werwie and directed by Joe Berlinger, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019) is based on the memoir The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall. While ostensibly about Ted Bundy’s relationship with his longtime girlfriend, whose call to the police eventually led to his capture, the film focuses too much on Bundy’s dark charisma and courtroom antics.

The film opens at a bar in Seattle in 1969, where single mother Elizabeth Kendall (Lily Collins) meets handsome Theodore “Ted” Bundy (Zac Efron) for the first time, and the audience is mercifully spared the usual nods to 1960s counter-culture. Ted gets along well with her daughter, Molly, and seems to embrace the fatherly role. Things turn dark, however, when Ted is arrested at a traffic stop in 1975 and charged with kidnapping Carol Daronch (Grace Victoria Cox).

Though conflicted, and despite the protestations of her best friend, Joanna (Angela Sarafyan), Elizabeth is in denial that Ted could have committed the horrible acts of which he’s suspected. She grows increasingly distant as Ted’s legal troubles multiply, and he is accused of multiple murders. In prison, Ted rekindles an old flame with Carol Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario), while trying desperately to keep Elizabeth’s affection. Can Elizabeth break this destructive emotional bond and move on with her life?

Continue reading “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”

Did ‘White Privilege’ Enable Ted Bundy?

Police, prosecutors, and a Florida jury had no problem strapping this heinous killer in the electric chair.

Actor Zac Efron, who plays serial killer Theodore “Ted” Bundy in Netflix’s new film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019), has claimed in multiple interviews that ‘white privilege’ allowed Ted Bundy to continue his killing spree that resulted in the murder of 30 young women in the 1970s.

Efron told an interviewer at the Tribeca Film Festival “The fact is that this movie really happened. The fact is that the whole world, literally, all the media, everybody, was capable of believing that this guy was innocent. Talk about white privilege, talk about white… whatever. Every major topic in this movie is bent on showing you how evil this person is.”

He also told Ellen DeGeneres, “Ted Bundy was a clean-cut white dude who just did not seem ‘white person.’ So, talk about white privilege,” Efron said. “What he got away with back then, nobody would be able to do today.”

It’s indisputable that Bundy cultivated the image of a clean-cut law student to mask his homicidal tendencies. He often posed as an injured person in need of help to lure women into a false sense of security. His conventionally handsome features continued to work in his favor as he proclaimed his innocence at trial and racked up a bevvy of female admirers.

“The first time I saw him, he didn’t look like a serial killer. He looked like a Philadelphia lawyer,” said Jury Foreman Patrick E. Wolski.

Continue reading “Did ‘White Privilege’ Enable Ted Bundy?”

The Highwaymen

A buddy cop tale with a historical twist, this nihilistic Netflix drama leans too heavily on worn-out cliches.

The story of the men who took down Bonnie and Clyde is recounted in The Highwaymen (2019), written by John Fusco and directed by John Lee Hancock. This bleak Netflix production aims to de-glamorize the infamous outlaw lovers with a more nuanced perspective, but still can’t help indulging in a few popular myths.

When Bonnie Parker (Emily Brobst) and Clyde Barrow (Edward Bossert) mastermind a prison farm escape, Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) convinces Texas Governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) to bring ex-Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) out of retirement. Hamer agrees, and after purchasing a small arsenal of weapons, he reluctantly teams up with Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), another ex-Ranger past his prime.

Despite being “too old for this shit”, Hamer and Gault use experience and gut instinct to show up a team of FBI agents utilizing the latest law enforcement techniques, led by Agent Kendale (Jason Davis). After a string of false leads and narrow misses, the elderly lawmen finally gripe, complain, and manipulate their way into locating the outlaw gang. A young deputy named Ted Hinton (Thomas Mann), who grew up with Bonnie Parker, is there to provide dark irony and identify the criminals’ bullet-riddled bodies.

Channeling Neo-Westerns like No Country for Old Men (2007) and Wind River (2017), and to some extent the TV series True Detective, The Highwaymen focuses on a life-or-death pursuit through an unforgiving and bleak environment, with characters the modern world has left behind. Unfortunately, and despite its original contribution to the Bonnie and Clyde filmography, it comes across as an unimaginative imitation of these other works.

Continue reading “The Highwaymen”

Was Bonnie Parker a Cold-Blooded Killer?

The Highwaymen’s portrayal of outlaw Bonnie Parker is more dime novel fantasy than reality.

In Netflix’s new historical film The Highwaymen (2019), Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson play ex-Texas Rangers Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, the two men responsible for taking down outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in May 1934. The famous outlaw couple don’t get a lot of screen time, but when they do, expect blood and bullets to fly.

In The Highwaymen, 24-year-old Bonnie Parker is portrayed as every bit as dangerous as her male companions, firing a Thompson submachine gun to cover a prison farm escape and coldly finishing off a wounded patrolman. But this portrayal is more in line with the sensational dime novels and films of yesteryear than reality.

Bonnie was born in Rowena, Texas in 1910 and grew up west of Dallas. She dropped out of high school and married a man named Roy Thornton just shy of her 16th birthday. Her husband was frequently in trouble with the law, and she moved back in with her mother and worked as a waitress. That’s when she met Clyde Barrow.

Continue reading “Was Bonnie Parker a Cold-Blooded Killer?”

Lizzie: A Lackluster Revisionist Thriller

Just four years after Lizzie Borden Took an Ax and the campy TV mini series it spawned, were audiences really clamoring for another Lizzie Borden film?

An uninspiring cast sleepwalks its way through this speculative take on an all-too-familiar story in Lizzie (2018), written by Bryce Kass and directed by Craig William Macneill. The film pits Lizzie Borden and the family’s live-in maid, Bridget Sullivan, against her tyrannical father and unsympathetic step mother in what co-producer and lead actress Chloë Sevigny described as an overtly feminist take.

The film opens in the aftermath of Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and Abby (Fiona Shaw) Borden’s murder. An investigator asks their 32-year-old daughter, Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny), whether her father had any enemies. From there, the film rewinds to the family’s employment of a 25-year-old Irish maid named Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart). According to the filmmakers, that was the catalyst for the eventual double homicide, and the answer to the investigator’s question. There is never a question about Lizzie Borden’s involvement in her parent’s death. The obvious foil, and rival for Lizzie’s inheritance, her uncle John Morse (Denis O’Hare), serves as a flimsy red herring.

Lizzie’s central conflict is between Lizzie, Bridget, and her domineering father, who seeks to control all the women living under his roof. While Lizzie’s sister, Emma (Kim Dickens), fades into the background, Lizzie and Bridget find themselves in a compromising position, one that leads to her parents’ gruesome murder. Sevigny herself characterized this as a literal “smash the patriarchy” moment.

In real life, Andrew and Sarah Borden were found murdered in their Fall River, Massachusetts home on August 4, 1892. Their middle aged daughters, Lizzie and Emma, lived with them, along with their maid, Bridget Sullivan. There had been significant tension in the family leading up to the murders, and Lizzie gave conflicting alibis. Lizzie was arrested and put on trial. After 90 minutes of deliberation, the all-male jury acquitted her. Her trial was a national media sensation, but to this day, there are many competing theories about “whodunnit.”

Continue reading “Lizzie: A Lackluster Revisionist Thriller”

An American Crime

A talented cast delivers a boilerplate recitation of horrific events in this movie of the week focusing on the 1965 Sylvia Likens case.

Written and directed by Tommy O’Haver, An American Crime (2007) was based on a case of horrific abuse inflicted on a teenage girl at the hands of Gertrude Baniszewski in her Indiana home during the 1960s. Though released on Showtime and given an R rating by the MPAA, and despite a talented cast, An American Crime never rose above the level of a made-for-TV drama.

Sylvia (Ellen Page) and Jenny (Hayley McFarland) Likens are daughters of carney folk who must go on the road. They leave Sylvia and Jenny in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener), a single mother with six children of her own. Baniszewski agrees to care for the girls for $20 a week. She becomes abusive when the payment arrives late, but by then the girls have nowhere to turn. Their attempt to contact their parents backfires when Gertrude finds out and punishes them further.

The abuse escalates when Gertrude’s eldest daughter, Paula (Ari Graynor), becomes pregnant and Sylvia tells the man with whom Paula’s been having an affair, to shield her from his abuse. Paula complains that Sylvia is spreading rumors about her, and Gertrude beats and locks Sylvia in the basement as punishment. In the basement, Gertrude invites her own children to participate in Sylvia’s torture. Can Sylvia and Jenny escape before it’s too late?

When faced with a crime of this magnitude, it’s natural to ask why it happened. What kind of person would do such a thing, and why? Why were the children complicit in the abuse, and what does this say about the nature of evil? Like many true crime dramas, An American Crime takes viewers through a succession of events without getting inside the minds of its characters to address these deeper questions.

Continue reading “An American Crime”