by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Yesterday morning I watched a pretty incredible movie from one of my Lifetime recordings that turned out to be a good deal more intense than one of Lifetime’s usual woman-in-distress movies. It was called Karla and was based on a notorious real-life serial-killer couple from Canada in the 1990’s, Paul Bernardo (Misha Collins) and Karla Homolka (Laura Prepon, top-billed and a regular on the former series That 70’s Show even though I’d never herd of before). The film is framed as a flashback narrated by Karla to her prison psychiatrist, Dr. Arnold (Patrick Bauchau), who after she’s served eight years of her 12-year sentence is evaluating whether he should recommend that she be paroled. That means we see the events mostly from her point of view — a fact which made this a highly controversial film in Canada, especially in the areas where Paul and Karla had lived and committed their crimes. Indeed, there was such revulsion against this movie in Canada that even though a Canadian company made it, it had to be filmed in Los Angeles because no Canadian provincial government wanted the production in their area — an ironic reversal of the innumerable number of Lifetime films in which Canada has “played” the U.S.!
Even after it was finished, certain provinces didn’t allow it to be released there and a lawyer representing the families of two of the couple’s victims first announced plans to file a lawsuit blocking the release of the film, then relented after he saw it. The main argument against it was that, by presenting the events from Karla’s point of view and narrating the film in her voice, the filmmakers — director-co writer Joe Bender and his writing partners Manette Beth Rosen and Michael D. Sellers — had essentially whitewashed her and portrayed her more as Paul’s psychological victim than as his willing co-conspirator. There’s something to those allegations, though even with Karla delivering the narration and thereby attempting to shape our understanding of what happened there are enough hints — especially in the flat, affect-less and utterly remorseless tone with which Prepon speaks Karla’s self-serving explanations and several details she drops that make it seem like she was more culpable than she was letting on — that there is another way of seeing this story even though the only other living witness was her criminal partner.
Karla is 18 when she and a girlfriend are eating at a restaurant; in walks Paul and his male friend, and Karla is instantly smitten with Paul even though he’s no more than ordinarily attractive (in fact, it’s probably just as well they didn’t cast a drop-dead handsome hunk in the part; it makes Karla’s attraction to him and desperation to keep him more ambiguous and therefore more of a dramatic issue). He’s an aspiring musician and filmmaker, and the first night he meets Karla he takes her back to his room and they have sex — and insists that both their friends stay and watch, which right there should have warned her that this guy was more than usually kinky. Nonetheless, she’s turned on enough that for their second date (and their first one without an audience) she brings a pair of handcuffs and invites him to restrain her and pretend to rape her. What she doesn’t know — and neither do we, though we find out considerably sooner than she does — is that he really is a rapist, known as the Scarborough Rapist (after the town where most of his crimes were committed), though the police haven’t caught on to him yet.
Their relationship proceeds on two tracks, one normal and one both psychologically and morally sick; they do all the regular couple things — they move in together, talk about getting married, eventually do get married and then talk about having kids — while they also get involved in murder early on when Paul says he’s obsessed with the idea of having sex with Karla’s virginal sister Tammy (Cherilyn Hayres, reasonably credible as kin to Laura Prepon but considerably more zaftig than her on-screen “sister”), and what’s more he wants to have sex with Tammy without Tammy knowing about it. Accordingly, Karla steals some anaesthetic from the veterinary clinic where she works and drugs her own sister so Paul can have his wicked way with her, while Paul is running the camera for his film of the occasion (one thing that amazes me about serial killers is how many of them are obsessed with documenting their crimes and thereby create the evidence against them themselves) — only the anaesthetic proves too strong (not designed for humans, it literally burns Tammy’s cheeks when Karla applies a rag soaked in the stuff to her) and Tammy dies, and from then on Paul has a hold over Karla that if she reports him to the police, he’ll turn over the videos and she’ll go down with him.
From there both the “normal” and criminal parts of their relationship proceed apace, as our criminal couple kidnap two young students, Tina McCarthy (Kristen “Honey” Swieconek) and Kaitlyn Ross (Sarah Foret), hold them captive in their home and ultimately torture them to death. Paul also beats up on Karla regularly for the usual stupid reasons abusive spouses invent, and the former owners of the clinic where Karla works try to intervene — thinking she’s merely a domestic violence victim and not realizing she’s participating in murders — and it’s when Paul is picked up and held overnight on a domestic violence charge (which, of course, Karla doesn’t press against him) that some savvy person in the police tech lab runs his DNA and realizes he’s the Scarborough rapist. Eventually he’s arrested for the murders — as is she — and Karla is the one who offers to turn state’s evidence first, so she gets a 12-year sentence while Paul gets life in prison. (He doesn’t get the death penalty because, as a civilized country, Canada doesn’t have it.)
Paul, of course, tries to get leniency by offering his own version of the murders that makes Karla seem like the prime mover — and Karla the movie would have been considerably stronger if Bender and his co-writers had told the story from both Paul’s and Karla’s point of view, intercutting between them and allowing each to react to the other’s version as they recount the events — but even as it is, it’s a pretty chilling tale that stays ambiguous as to What Made Karla Run but is honest about the lack of remorse that leads Dr. Arnold to warn against giving her parole. (A few written titles at the end explain that she served the remaining four years of her sentence and left prison in the company of a man she’d met while there — he was serving a sentence for murder in the prison’s male wing — much to the obvious consternation of people in the parts of Canada who had felt terrorized by Paul and Karla in the day.)
Karla is a chilling tale that manages to be less than it could have been but still considerably more than the usual blend of light horror and heavy titillation with which serial-killer stories are usually told today (does the name “Hannibal Lecter” mean anything to you?), and the biggest flaw in it as presented on Lifetime is the constant hiccupping in the actors’ voices throughout the movie where the words “fuck,” “shit” and their derivatives were bleeped out for American television.