The MOnster is back! And, this time, it reviews the definitive film about serial killer Karla Homolka!
Released in 2006 and written and directed by Joel Bender, Karla stars Laura Prepon as Karla Homolka and Misha Collins as Paul Bernardo. Produced by True Crime Investments and Quantum Entertainment, the film did not have an extremely wide theatrical release – only seen on the big screen in four countries – but has since had a wider DVD release, mainly in the USA and Europe. At the time of writing, Rotten Tomatoes had given it an average rating of 3.4/10 and IMDB, 5.5/10. Shot completely in the USA, the film is fairly contained and boasts a budget estimated at $5m.
Karla picks up the story in October 2000 when, after serving 8 years of her original 12 year sentence, Homolka is transferred to The Regional Psychiatric Center in Saskatoon, Canada, for a psychiatric evaluation. As her doctor, Dr. Arnold – played by Patrick Bauchau – states in the opening moments of the film: he must evaluate her, her memories of the crimes, the events leading up to them and her present behavior to determine whether or not she should be recommended for parole. There is no doubt that the parole board will take his recommendation, so he is literally her only hope.
This is a simple premise, but, for those who think beyond the first layer of what they see, it will not remain simple.
Bernardo and Homolka’s stories are well known: Karla was seen as the abused wife forced to go along with her husband’s sadistic deeds under threat of extreme violence and was, because she was perceived as a victim, successful in obtaining a plea bargain. There were to be no murder accusations for her, only a mere 12 years in prison and a manslaughter charge in exchange for testifying against her husband. There was a public outcry, however, when tapes were revealed that showed her as an instigator almost as sadistic and evil as Bernardo, but, as the plea bargain was already set in stone and couldn’t be overturned, her punishment was far less than what it otherwise would have been. Bernardo, on the other hand, was convicted of two first degree murders and two aggravated sexual assaults and was sentenced to 25 years in jail. He was also named a “Dangerous Offender”, which means that his eventual release is almost out of the question.
The film documents Dr Arnold’s repeated interviews with Karla, and the viewer is soon taken on a journey into the past and shown the development of her and Bernardo’s tempestuous relationship, their assault and murder of her younger sister, Tammy, and the abduction, torture, rape and murder of their two further victims. On the surface, this is a simple matter of switching between timelines: the Arnold interviews in the present and the events of the past. Where things become complex is when it is realized that, although the interviews are straightforward enough, the past events might not have occurred as they are shown. This is because all that’s being shared with us is either Arnold’s or Karla’s interpretation of the past.
There is also the added complication that, should what we’re seeing be Karla’s interpretation, the question of whether she’s telling / recalling the truth or whether she’s coloring the story to her advantage in order to win parole points isn’t answered. And, of course, the past scenes where she isn’t even featured – which show only Bernardo – must, by mere definition, be supposition and hearsay! I rest my case, your honor!
This becomes especially relevant because, in a surprising move, the film stays away from the discovery of the tapes like that plot point was the plague! Yes, Bernardo is shown taping the murders and is also shown hiding the tapes, but the fact that the tapes were introduced as evidence in their trial after Homolka’s plea bargain was set in stone is never revealed. The fact that these tapes apparently show Homolka to be every bit as callous and murderous, every bit as sadistic and terrifying, every bit as psychopathic as Bernardo, is never addressed. Because of this, the film only shows half the story, and it would appear that Arnold is also only given half of the facts to work on.
If I had been Arnold, if I had been taken through the story as given to him by Karla in the film, and if I had interacted with her as she’s interpreted by Prepon, I would have recommended that she be paroled. It therefore comes as a complete shock when the good doctor’s verdict is “Karla Homolka is a person highly artificial, articulate, manipulative, who is egocentric, if not narcissistic, and whose behavior cannot be explained solely on the basis of intimidation or abuse by Paul Bernardo…”
Don’t get me wrong, Prepon is amazing in the role. Her performance as Karla shows us a woman who is incredibly insecure, desperately needy and willing to do anything for the man she loves and wants to keep, even if she knows what she’s being asked to do is so very wrong. It shows a woman who was severely abused and who was beaten into doing what “her king” wanted, but who also saw “her king” as possibly the only other real person in the world. It shows an innocent woman trapped by her own mind and by a boogeyman of a husband. It shows an excellent actress being put through her paces and creating a wonderful character. It shows Karla as victim, as lover and loving sister and as wife. In fact, it shows everything but the truth.
The fact that Bernardo and Homolka were seen by all who knew them as a fairytale couple belonging to the Beautiful People tribe, is underscored by almost every shot in the film. Golden-haired Prepon is dressed in blue or grey and bathed in either blue or gold light – kudos to the DP and the lighting team – in order to accentuate her blue-grey eyes and flawless blonde beauty. Bernardo is shown as preppy and handsome; the epitome of the perfect boyfriend and husband. The overall effect is almost Hollywood-esque in that it almost reads as though the real couple’s looks and charisma were increased by the Name Talent playing them. This is not the case, though, as Paul and Karla were beautiful and charismatic and utterly irresistible. It is, though, interesting to note that it is only after Karla leaves Paul that he becomes unkempt and unattractive and that their house descends into decay.
Prepon is also shown in close-up or extreme close-up exceedingly often during her interviews, with the background blurring into non-existence at times. This is a very effective metaphor for the self-centeredness of the sociopath where they see only themselves and their wants and needs in focus and everything else doesn’t really matter.
There is also a difference in quality between the interview and the flashback sequences. While the interviews are incredibly slick examples of top-notch studio filmmaking, the flashback sequences are grainier and more “indie” seeming. This totally works as a subtle nod to the importance of film in the overall story, and as reference to the fact that Paul and Karla taped almost everything to do with their murderous exploits. The soft focus grainy tone to the flashback scenes could also almost suggest that the memories being revealed are themselves grainy and out of focus, which underlines the subtle theme of memories being subjective and open to interpretation.
There is a strange dichotomy about how the film deals with the truth. Given the “no tape reveal” plot-twist, it’s hardly surprising that Karla’s treatment of the truth ranges from Incredibly Accurate to Not True at All. Incredibly Accurate moments include the almost-perfect re-creation of Karla and Paul’s wedding photo, the use of the teddy bear in the torture scenes, the fact that Tammy Homolka was killed in a downstairs room and the references to the killings happening on or around holidays. The Not True at All category must, however, include the facts that the third Homolka sister, Lori, was totally left out of the picture, that their second victim (supposed to be schoolgirl Leslie Mahaffy) was at least ten years too old and that Karla, Tammy and Lori’s parents were actually in the house when Tammy was killed. Fact and fiction are blended seamlessly, though, and everyone who watches the film will get the overall idea…except for the tapes’ no-show!
Bender’s Karla is a great story and a fine film with talented actors giving striking performances. It’s a pity that it strayed so far from the truth. Unless I’m missing something, how the film’s Karla was played or was intended to be perceived does not tie in with the Karla of reality, which has the effect of leaving the viewer confused about exactly who and what she was. But maybe that was the filmmaker’s intent all along: you believe that Karla is “something” from what she tells you and what you see, and, at the end of the day, you find out that she is really “something quite different”…