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Sunday, March 24, 2013

KEMPER -- movie review by porfle

(This review originally appeared online at in 2008.)

You'd expect a film called KEMPER (2008) to be really dark and grim, and possibly hard to watch, but this loosely fact-based tale plays more like an episode of some really low-budget made-for-cable cop show.  It's not as bad as it could've been, but nowhere near as good as it should've been.

The opening set-up is practically a pitch for a series-- a small-town police detective named Tom Harris (Christopher Stapleton) solves murders with the secret help of a quiet, highly intelligent and perceptive house painter who lives with his domineering mother.  The trouble is, the guy helping the cop is none other than infamous "co-ed killer" Edmund Kemper, who's contributing to the town's body count himself while helping Detective Harris track down the rest of the local psychos. 

This fictional friendship between Harris and Kemper is the main thing that keeps the film from being a genuine portrait of the actual serial killer, which might have yielded a truly frightening and disturbing tale on its own.  It also sets up the cat-and-mouse game that follows Harris' discovery that Kemper is a murderer (after he offs his mother with a hammer and then dismembers her) and his subsequent hunt for him.  Kemper keeps in constant phone contact with Harris, wishing to continue their relationship and even helping the detective get reinstated after his suspension from duty.  This he does by kidnapping a young woman and sending a videotape to the mayor in which he threatens to kill her unless Harris is reassigned to the case. 

As our hero, Detective Harris, Stapleton is pretty much a stiff.  The rest of the cast is either fair or below-par, with the exception of Robert Sisko as Kemper.  His face framed by shaggy hair and thick glasses, Sisko keeps the character reined in throughout and never overacts, while deftly making him just sympathetic enough to keep us from regarding him as a total monster.  In this, he's helped by some flashbacks that give us an idea of how he turned out the way he did.  Not the intimidating hulk that the 6'9', 300-pound Kemper must've been in real life, Sisko makes up for this by giving us a character that's consistently interesting to watch rather than scary. 

Jack Perez' screenplay rarely provides any chills, either, and while occasionally coming up with some wit or a good bit of dialogue here and there, it's sometimes cringe-inducingly dumb.  An early scene shows Harris and Kemper puzzling over a picture sent to them by another killer, which features the words "ynoga" and "ysatsce."  Any schoolkid could figure this out in about two seconds flat, yet it takes our brainy detectives forever to accidentally stumble upon the solution.  "Could be Slavic...or Native American," Harris muses to another cop at one point. OR, it could be "agony" and "ecstasy" spelled backwards...DUH.

The bland direction by Rick Bitzelberger is often about as unimaginative as it gets, though he, too, seems to have his moments of inspiration.  The murder scenes aren't very excitingly staged, with the exception of an impulsive act of violence by Kemper that comes as a shock.  There's a fair amount of gore, decapitated heads, and other nasty business, but this isn't anywhere near the sort of gorefest that films of this kind often are.  To its credit, KEMPER takes itself seriously and rises above the dregs of the genre on occasion, even giving us a titles sequence that's an amusing rip-off of SE7EN. 

At its best, KEMPER is a mildly entertaining time-waster that's neither very exciting nor exceedingly boring.  The climactic confrontation between cop and killer is nicely done, and there's a final scene that's just good enough to bump my rating up half a notch, thanks mainly to a freak convergence of director, writer, and actor Sisko hitting just the right notes before the fadeout.

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