Austin Film Fest Review: CONFESSIONS OF A SERIAL KILLER Is A Scuzzy Cousin To HENRY

The mostly forgotten '85 horror movie is Austin's answer to John McNaughton's uncomfortable classic.

Robert A. Burns was a brilliant art director, helping to create the original Sawyer Family house of horrors for Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ('74), and Herbert West's lab in Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator ('85). This is why writer/director Mark Blair hired the UT legend to work on his down home adaptation of sequence murderer Henry Lee Lucas' life, Confessions of a Serial Killer. He wanted his movie to possess a Longhorn feel that reflected the filmmaker's Texan upbringing, while also eerily recreating the scuzzy nature of his subject's "on the road" existence, which mostly consisted of deviant behavior. 

A funny thing happened along the way - the lead actor who was cast to portray Confessions' overly polite, Southern iteration of Lucas dropped out during the production's earliest days, and Blair (along with his producers) were stuck without a lead for their micro-budget horror movie. While the creative team gathered around a kitchen table, debating how the project was going to move forward, Burns was in the backyard with a bucket of fake blood, slathering two models and taking polaroids for the titular terror addict's private collection of self-made "pornography". Dripping with karo syrup and laughing maniacally, it was suddenly clear to a daydreaming Blair who should play his Lucas.

Shot over the course of six grueling weeks in August of '84, Confessions of a Serial Killer plays like the Texan cousin to John McNaughton's Chicago grime classic, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (which was similarly shot in the mid-'80s and held for release until '90). Unlike Michael Rooker's cold, blunt instrument of savagery, Burns plays "Daniel Ray Hawkins" as a reserved, socially reluctant everyman, cruising Interstate 35 in a busted shit mobile in order to pick up and promptly dispose of multiple hitchhikers (his thrill butcher claims to have murdered over 200 people at one point). Hawkins' Otis is a grunting redneck named Moon Lewton (Dennis Hill), with whom he has "homosexual relations" before marrying the oaf's prostitute sister, Molly (Sidney Brammer - a bloodthirsty flipside to Tracy Arnold's naive Becky). Together, they form an odd familial unit, moving from one home/vehicle to the next while indulging their unquenchable collective thirst.

Blair and his scrappy crew do a great job capturing the Austin landscape, including local landmarks (such as the immortal Top Notch Burgers), and the golden countryside that surrounds it. Like Hooper's Chain Saw, the movie is incredibly unnerving in its depiction of beautiful dread, alternating between black nights and blown out days, both of which hold plenty of opportunities for flies to get caught in the Hawkins clan's web. Framed via interviews with a crusty Sheriff (Berkley Gaines), the same ordinary malevolence that made McNaughton's movie so disturbing is ever-present, and perhaps heightened here, as we watch an aimless drifter recount the best days of his life, which just happened to involve copious amounts of senseless bloodshed. 

Roger Corman bought Confessions of Serial Killer after it was completed, playing the movie overseas before vaulting it for half a decade. Following the massive success of Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs ('91), Corman trotted Blair's movie back out in '92, slapping a balding man in a Hannibal Lecter mask on the VHS cover before selling it mostly to mom and pop chains (as Blockbuster wouldn't carry the title beyond franchise locations due to its "mature content"). Confessions is a great example of scrappy DIY craftsmanship, never afraid to be utterly unpleasant in its pursuit of base scares. This isn't some lo-fi slasher, leaving the bodies of dead teenagers in the woods, but a legitimately skeevy exercise in true crime turned pulp fiction.