Portraits of a Killer (1996): Flirting with Danger

Dave soaks up a stylish serial killer thriller that isn’t as cut and dry as it seems.

Growing up in Detroit, David A. Jackson went to Michigan State and earned a law degree at the University of Illinois. His first passion, though, was music and at the back end of the ’80s Jackson found himself working as a lawyer for Capital Records and, later, MCA, before beginning a successful private practice. It was here that he met his wife and future collaborator, Shauna Shapiro, who was employed by CineTel Films at the time. Marrying in 1989, Jackson and Shapiro wasted no time in setting up a music-based production company, which eventually spun off into Showcase Entertainment.

Once ranked as one of the top three international distribution companies by a major trade publication, Showcase has produced, distributed and marketed in excess of two-hundred feature films and television series. The distribution side of the industry is Jackson’s forte, so production credits are less prolific. Having said that, his name still crops up (as a producer) on a handful of interesting features. David Marconi’s The Harvest (1992) is one. An early venture for Jackson, it remains a deeply undervalued piece of work. The Bad Pack (1997) – a frugal but riotous riff on The Magnificent Seven (1960) – is another. PORTRAITS OF A KILLER falls short of those – but if you’re after a serial killer thriller with a dose of style and a Jagged Edge (1985) sensibility, it’s certainly worth hunting down.

A murderer is on the loose in the city, and four of the victims are featured in the latest book from a celebrated photographer, George Kendall (Costas Mandylor). It looks like an open and shut case – more so when novice attorney Elaine Taylor (Jennifer Grey) gets assigned to the defence by boss Jim Miller (Kenneth Welsh). Facing off against hard-bitten prosecutor Carolyn Price (Patricia Charbonneau), the deck seems stacked against Taylor from the start, while the seductive advances of Kendall put a new spin on the term ‘lawyer-client privilege’…

The main strength of Portraits of a Killer is also its greatest weakness, and that’s the script. Penned by first-timers Scott McPherson, Nancy Laing and Bruce Harvey (an attorney turned producer whose company, Illusions Entertainment, helped get the project off the ground), there’s a lopsided structure to the picture that prevents its ingenious hook from flourishing. Important things happen too late on, and inessential exposition plagues the first two-thirds. Still, there’s an ambiguity to helmer Bill Corcoran’s feature and I like that – especially its contrariness to the whodunnit tropes.

That was certainly an aspect that Mandylor picked up on having seen the final cut:

“I tried to play him very evenly so people can’t tell if George Kendall is good or bad,” he told the Calgary Herald. “I watched the film not long ago, and I was pleasantly surprised. They kept the character ambiguous. Without getting too complicated or arty about it, I’d describe him as level-headed on the outside, and a manipulator on the inside.” [1]

Cinematographer Curtis Petersen shoots Portraits of a Killer with panache. Scenes are impeccably lit, and there’s a lushness to a lot of the production design that makes it very easy on the eye. In terms of the cast, both Grey and Mandylor fit their roles well, and Michael Ironside has a meaty supporting role that grows as the film progresses [2]. IMDb has this listed as a telepic, and that is correct to at least some degree. Made with the participation of Canadian cable behemoth Super Channel, ‘Portraits of Innocence’, as it was originally known, was going to debut theatrically. The finished film certainly made it into one cinema, the Edmonton Odeon in mid-April 1996, and it was pencilled in for screenings in Ottawa the following month. Whether it made it I don’t know. Portraits of a Killer did, however, arrive in American video stores that month through Live Entertainment. Hardly the wide release that Harvey envisioned while shooting on the streets of Calgary in June ‘95 – but with distributor par excellence Jackson involved, strong presales in South America and Europe meant that this $1.8 million programmer turned a profit regardless.

USA/Canada ● 1996 ● Thriller ● 89mins

Jennifer Grey, Costas Mandylor, Michael Ironside, Patricia Charbonneau, Kenneth Welsh, M. Emmet Walsh ● Dir. Bill Corcoran ● Wri. Bruce Harvey & Nancy Laing, story by Scott McPherson

[1] Good Guy Turns Complex by Fred Haeseker, Calgary Herald, 19th April 1996.
[2] Portraits of a Killer was Ironside’s third picture of four for writer/producer Harvey. The first was Killer Image (1991), the second was Probable Cause (1994), and the last was One of Our Own (1997).

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