NBC may have developed a reputation for sensationalism thanks to the Geraldo Rivera special and some racy made-for-TV movies, but The Case of the Hillside Stranglers (Sunday at 8 p.m., Ch. 2), about the real-life murders of 10 young women, avoids exploitation in favor of crack storytelling.
The movie benefits from superb performances all around, especially Richard Crenna as real-life homicide detective Bob Grogan.Steven Gethers, who directed the movie and wrote the script, based on the Darcy O'Brien book "Two of a Kind: The Hillside Strangers," gives his actors gritty dialogue and realistic scenes. What more do we need to know about Grogan when he gets out of bed and goes to the refrigerator to find nothing but a solitary pickle floating in a jar?
Dennis Farina, a former real-life cop and good-guy star of "Crime Story," is evil incarnate as Angelo Buono, the upholsterer who with his cousin Kenneth Bianchi was eventually convicted of murder.
Billy Zane as Bianchi seems at the beginning of the movie almost too much the charming pretty boy, but by the end of it his character has become a malevolent manipulator.
Gethers effectively follows both the cops and the killers through the events of 1977-79. The heart of the story belongs to Grogan, a tough-talking cop obsessed with his job to the detriment of his marriage. When he comes in to the office before dawn, the first thing he does is pour himself a stiff drink and complain to a colleague (James Tolkan) that his estranged wife is demanding he lead "a normal life - and wear pajamas."
Karen Austin plays J.D. Jackson, the would-be witness who becomes Grogan's understanding girlfriend, and so caught up in the case she even poses as a customer to get a load of Buono.
The movie opens with the handsome Bianchi gaining entrance to a woman's apartment by flashing a "police reserve" badge and telling her that her car has been damaged in the parking lot.
Her body is found dumped on a hillside, hence the name of the crime wave that shocked and fascinated Los Angeles, as well as rest of the country in late 1977 and early 1978.
Grogan immediately makes two accurate assumptions - that there are two men involved and that they are raping, torturing and murdering women for fun.
The psychopaths Bianchi and Buono are outwardly normal guys. At one point, Buono shows his cousin his collection of rare fish and recalls how he and his third wife awakened their 6-year-old daughter to watch one of the fish give birth to live offspring.
"They shoot 'em out like a rocket," he says admiringly, adding, "It was great sex education for the kid." Bianchi tells him he's a great father.
For Buono, there was a psychological reward in not getting caught. But Buono's downfall eventually was his cousin's need for celebrity.
Buono and Bianchi would pose as police officers while driving in their car at night, pull over an unsuspecting woman driver, then abduct her and take her back to Buono's suburban home. The bodies were disposed of on the wooded hillside not far away.
The movie portrays abduction scenes, but only conveys the horrific nature of the crimes through brief scenes showing marks of torture on the bodies. There is one scene, though, when Buono, with a bound and struggling young woman in his arms, turns to Bianchi before slamming the door and says in a monotone, "Me first."
It appears that the stranglers might have gotten away with the crimes, except that Bianchi, exiled to Bellingham, Wash., by his cousin for being too careless, messily murdered two young women there.
After his arrest, Bianchi tries to fake insanity, but the L.A. cops get a psychiatrist to declare him a fake.
There's a somewhat abrupt transition to the middle of the trial, but a nicely played scene has Grogan showing the jury, in the dark of night, the hillside locations where the bodies were found.