The case of serial killer Leonard Lake is one of the most notorious in
California history. Along with his equally psychotic partner, Charles
Ng, Lake was an ex-Marine and survivalist responsible for kidnapping,
human exploitation and murder during the 1980s. They took their victims
to a secluded mountain hideaway for ransom, torture, sexual assault and
finally murder. Lake also videotaped activity with his victims, and
taped himself describing for the camera why he wanted to commit these
atrocities. This latter video came into the possession of director
Jeffrey Frentzen, who constructed this middling "terror" film around
frankly astounding testimonial footage.
The loosely constructed plot tells the tale of the two killers in flashback form, as a fictional survivor Sonia (Naidra Dawn Thomson) recalls to a private detective (Kevin McCloskey) the horrors of being one of Lake's captives years prior. The detective is seeking the whereabouts of another Lake victim who disappeared around the time Sonia managed to escape from the house on the hill. The flashbacks show Lake and Ng as somewhat unskilled kidnappers who tried to build a money making enterprise around their murderous exploits. They would enslave the female victims, keeping them in grungy prison cells, and were not above kidnapping relatives and people they just didn't like.
Frentzen, here a first-time director who also co-wrote and edited, had helped produce several low budget direct to video genre flicks with German expatriate filmmaker Ulli Lommel between 2005 and 2008 (with title such as KILLER NURSE, DIARY OF A CANNIBAL and GREEN RIVER KILLER). Superficially, HOUSE ON THE HILL is reminiscent of these earlier productions by virtue of also having been shot on HD cam under what could charitably be called tough, small crew conditions in claustrophobic rooms. Unlike most found footage disasters, this movie's low-end video look actually complements the grainy testimonial footage of Leonard Lake. The reportedly extreme sexual violence was toned down for U.K. and U.S. release..
HOUSE ON THE HILL is fairly well directed by Frentzen, who constructs gruesome set pieces, such as the drawn out killing of Crystal Nelson, Laura Leigh's death by baseball bat, and the murder of an entire family. Although the movie occasionally drifts into the same territory as John McNaughton's HENRY PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, the disjointed flashback format sadly keeps characterization to a minimum. As soon as we start to know the victims they are dispatched. The concept of showing the two murderers as incompetents that try but cannot seem to make a profit from their killing spree is a different approach for a serial killer flick.
Though ultimately done in by low production values, a grating music score but offset by decent acting from a small cast of unknowns, HOUSE ON THE HILL shows off a solid directorial debut and proves once and for all that serial killers should choose their victims carefully if they expect to make any money from their exploits.
Based on a true story, HOUSE ON THE HILL is a true crime melodrama with strong horror elements, chronicling the outrageous 1980s murder spree of serial killer Leonard Lake, who would target, kidnap, rob and kill people -- and even whole families. Sonia, the only survivor of Lake's killing spree, teams up with a private investigator to help him locate a woman who disappeared into Lake's compound. In the process, Sonia recounts the horrors of the house, where Lake and his accomplice would force her to videotape the killings.
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