I have long contended that the most annoying serial killer of all time was Paul Michael Stephani, a resident of Minneapolis who killed three women in 1980.
Stephani was known as The Weepy-Voiced Killer. (Even his nickname was annoying.) Whenever Stephani committed a murder, he would promptly call 911 and confess while sobbing. As you might expect would happen to someone who was enough of a dumbass to call the police right after murdering someone, Stephani was eventually captured and convicted. Sentenced to 40 years, Stephani died of cancer while in prison and nobody misses him.
Unfortunately, because all of Stephani’s 911 calls were recorded, he’s recently become a very popular subject for true crime shows. It’s not there’s anything particularly interesting about Stephani’s crimes. It’s just that it’s easy (and cheap) to build a show around the sound of him whining on the phone. As someone who probably spends too much time watching true crime realty television, I’ve had to listen to Stephani’s voice more than anyone should ever have to. Making it even worse, there’s currently a show called Evil Calls, which uses a recording of Stephani in its commercials. I’ve actually stopped watching Investigation Discovery just because I’ve gotten so sick of hearing that loser whining, “Please don’t talk, just listen… I’m sorry I killed that girl. I stabbed her 40 times…”
However, the Stephani tapes do provide one valuable service. The sound of Stephani’s pathetic voice reminds us that most serial killers are not the urbanely witty and intelligent figures that we’ve gotten used to seeing in the movies. Most real-life killers are whiny losers who kill for very basic reasons and who are stupid enough to call 911 and confess. Movie killers are a different breed all together.
Take the 1997 mystery Deceiver, for instance.
In Deceiver, Renee Zellweger plays a world weary prostitute. We only see her in flashbacks, largely because she was murdered before the film’s opening scene. Her name was Elizabeth, which brings to mind Elizabeth Short, the legendary Los Angeles murder victim who is better known as the Black Dahlia. Much like the real-life Black Dahlia, Elizabeth’s body was cut into two pieces and left in a park. (According to the film’s imdb trivia section, Elizabeth was also named after Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist who pioneered the study of false memories.)
Suspicion immediately falls on James Walter Wayland (Tim Roth). The youngest son of a wealthy and powerful South Carolina family, Wayland is an infamous alcoholic. Wayland admits that he knew Elizabeth. He even took Elizabeth with him to a fancy party, all the better to offend his parents. Wayland may be a black-out drunk with a history of erratic behavior but he also swears that he didn’t kill Elizabeth.
Two detectives are determined to trick Wayland into confessing. Detective Edward Kennesaw (Michael Rooker) is a respected veteran, the type of detective who can get a confession out of almost anyone. His partner is Detective Philip Braxton (Chris Penn), who is a bit less impressive. As we’re informed early in the film, Braxton graduated at the bottom of his high school class and has been waiting for a promotion for quite some time.
From the minute that Kennesaw and Braxton start to interrogate Wayland, it becomes obvious that Wayland is hardly your typical murder suspect. He’s certainly more impressive than the Weepy-Voiced Killer. He’s witty. He’s smart. He’s cocky. He admits to being an alcoholic and to suffering from black outs and seizures but he also claims that, unlike every other man who Elizabeth dealt with, he actually cared about her. Wayland also reveals that he knows some details about Kennesaw and Braxton. He knows about Kennesaw’s troubled marriage to a woman (Rosanna Arquette) who has a history of cheating on him. He knows that Braxton is in debt to a local bookie (Ellen Burstyn). And, as the interrogation continues, Wayland starts to suggest that one of the interrogators is hiding an even darker secret.
Deceiver‘s a frequently fascinating film to watch, even if it’s not always easy to follow. If there’s any film that would seem to demand multiple viewings, it’s this one. The majority of the movie takes place in one darkened room and directors Joan and Josh Pate do a wonderful job capturing the claustrophobia of that setting. (Fortunately, there’s enough flashbacks to keep the film from getting too stagey.) Roth, Rooker, and Penn all give intensely stylized performances. They may not feel realistic but they fit in perfectly with the fever dream atmosphere of the film. Roth, in particular, gives a performance that is both mannered and intriguing. It even feel appropriate that his Southern accent is in no way convincing. It just makes sense that Wayland wouldn’t sound like anyone else in the world.
It’s a heavily stylized film, full of odd dialogue and skewed camera angles. It’s a film that often feels like a journey right to the center of an extremely twisted mind. (Of course, the movie is designed so that you’re never quite sure whose mind you’ve entered.) There’s nothing realistic about it but that’s okay. It’s certainly preferable to watching a movie about The Weepy-Voiced Killer.