Color, 1976, 91 mins. 37 secs. / 85 mins. 43 secs.
Directed by Denis Héroux
Starring Mathieu Carrière, Debra Berger, Leonora Fani, Christine Boisson, Ely Galleani, Carole Laure
Severin Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Among the many serial and mass murderers who rocked the news from the '60s well into the '80s and became a kind of dark American folklore, Richard Speck is still one of the most infamous due to the brutal murders of eight student nurses in Chicago in 1966. The crime and Speck's subsequent trial were major news items long afterwards and quickly inspired the Kōji Wakamatsu film Violated Angels in 1967, as well as the grisly finale of the 1983 Cannon Charles Bronson vehicle, 10 to Midnight. Stuck in between them is another film loosely adapted from the Speck killings, Born for Hell, a Canadian tax shelter production that used financing from France, West Germany, and Italy to assemble a truly jaw-dropping cast of international actors for what would have normally been a quickie exploitation film with minor artsy aspirations. The film barely hit theaters in 1976 with its U.S. release getting reworked as Naked Massacre, mostly on the trash cinema circuit, before getting its widest distribution as a U.S. VHS release in 1984 from Vidcrest. That VHS edition became the source for many bootleg releases on DVD over the years, but finally the original cut (and its VHS variant) have been brought back officially from Severin Films in 2021 on Blu-ray and DVD.
Relocating the events to the violent backdrop of Belfast, Northern Ireland, the film transforms the notorious mass murderer into an American Vietnam vet (Carrière) trying to work his way across the globe back home. Prone to violence and mentally unstable, he spends his time frequenting a local pub and panhandling near a boarding house for student nurses. One of the young women, Amy (Sweet Movie's Laure), takes pity on him and allows him to worm his way into the house, which also includes Debra Berger (daughter of actor William), Ely Galleani (Five Dolls for an August Moon), Fassbinder regular Eva Mattes, and Leonora Fani (Giallo in Venice). Soon he's using his switchblade to threaten the women and hold them hostage, unleashing a wave of violence that take the city by storm.
Born for Hell was primarily driven by credited director and co-writer Denis Héroux, one of the most important names in Canuxploitation starting with his sexy early '70s local hits like Valérie and L'initiation before producing such films as The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, Quest for Fire, Atlantic City, and a bunch of Claude Chabrol titles. This would prove to be his penultimate directing credit (followed by the feline horror anthology The Uncanny), and it's certainly a rough change of pace with a nasty edge in the second half that pulls few punches without getting extremely explicit. Conceptually it's very grim stuff that delivers a deadly church bombing shortly after the main credits roll and isn't afraid to get truly scuzzy, including a queasy encounter with a prostitute and of course the ordeal with the nurses that, while not explicit for the most part, verges on Last House on the Left territory at times.
Cited as a 2K scan from an uncut 35mm print from the National Archives of Canada, Born for Hell looks much better here than the decades-old SD transfers we've had until this point. The presentation of what's advertised as the director's cut is a nice bonus as well, looking about as good as a theatrical print could yield with a gritty appearance but nice color and natural film grain. The film was evidently shot without live sound (for obvious reasons given the many nationalities of the cast), but the principals appeared to be speaking English so that's the ideal way to watch it even if everyone's looped. The French track is also included (both are DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono) in case you feel like comparing, as it sounds more elegantly performed even if it doesn't come close to matching anyone's lip movements. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided. In "The Other Side of the Mirror" (14m14s), Carrière chats via video conferencing with Kier-la Janisse about his appearance in Malpertuis and the challenges of acting opposite a tipsy Orson Welles, the mandated changes made to Born to Hell involving its location and the victims, the military jacket he stills owns, the advice from his father that prompted him to take the role, the vague "sexual encounters" he had with the crew, and the issue of directorial authorship that he (surprisingly) attributes more to Hungarian filmmaker Géza von Radványi. In "Nightmare in Chicago" (12m52s), local filmmakers John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) and Gary Sherman (Dead & Buried) recall via Zoom their own memories of the Speck murders and the areas of Chicago they frequented that were impacted by the shocking crimes, as well as some other tangential peculiar anecdotes from the era. Then podcaster Esther Ludlow extrapolates on Speck in "A New Kind of Crime" (38m20s), a detailed analysis of the murderer's troubled background, his unique place in the annals of serial killers, and the details of that fateful night. The fascinating video essay "Bombing Here, Shooting There" (17m2s) hones in on the Dublin aspect of the film, noting several uncredited Irish actors, examining the backdrop of the "troubles" going on at the time in real life, the key geographic areas depicted in the film, and the historical value of the coverage and sometimes improvised touches captured by the filmmakers. Finally artist Joe Coleman gives an untitled discussion of Speck (14m21s) about the impact of the killings including the iconic tattoo on the killer's arm (which inspired the title of this film as well as a key clue) and the importance of this "living monster" on Coleman's psyche. Coleman also presents "Inside the Odditorium" (9m41s), a closer tour of his work inspired by true crime events with numerous Speck elements incorporated throughout. Finally the disc rounds out with the Italian trailer and, in a nice touch, the full 85-minute Naked Massacre cut, here in identical quality to the main version but featuring the alternate title sequence pulled from film. The differences here are obvious from the outset as this cut drops the establishing info about Belfast and makes some trims to cut to the chase quite a bit faster, with the house siege now coming significantly earlier in the running time.
Reviewed on July 29, 2021