On December 3, 2017, the Investigative Discovery Channel (ID), premiered its first scripted film, “The Dating Game Killer.” The film centers on serial killer, Rodney Alcala. He is someone, who in mainstream circles, hasn’t received the infamous notoriety of, for example, a Ted Bundy or a John Wayne Gacy, but he is responsible for more murder and mayhem than the two of them put together. In fact, the number of victims that can be attributed to Alcala are estimated at 130. How did Alcala get away with so much destruction between the years 1971 and 1979? From many accounts, he had a disarming smile, a friendly disposition, was of above average intelligence, and because, he more often than not, carried a camera with him, holding himself out as a professional photographer, he had a ready to use ruse to lure his victims. (As an aside: While attending New York University Film School, one of Alcala’s instructors was Oscar winning director, Roman Polanski).
Alcala was eventually apprehended on July 24, 1979, shortly thereafter, thanks to information he let slip while talking to his sister who was visiting him in jail, law enforcement learned Alcala, a California resident, had a storage garage in Seattle, Washington. What was discovered, amongst other things, such as jewelry belonging to his victims, were over a thousand pictures that Alcala had taken over the years. Unfortunately, investigators were not able to identify a number of the people in the photographs. There are active websites that feature Alcala’s pictures, and people who had family members, especially women, who went missing prior to Alcala’s apprehension, are urged to look at the pictures on the websites. In 2013, Kathy Thornton, who never gave up searching for her missing sister Christine, learned, thanks to the pictures posted on-line by CBS News, (Columbia Broadcast System) that her sister, had been one of Alcala’s victims. He had murdered Christine during the summer of 1977 in Wyoming, and buried her body in the desert.
The film begins with Alcala’s first known crime which took place in 1968. A man, steps out of a phone booth, and is concerned when he sees a young girl accepting a ride from Alcala, while she is walking to school. The man gets the attention of a police officer, named Jim Hamell. The officer, who will later become a detective, has a recurring role throughout the film. Hamell is played by Robert Knepper (Prison Break). Based on the following incident he, in essence, makes it his life’s work to make sure Alcala is put in prison, and never set free to harm anyone again. Officer Hamell tracks Alcala, portrayed by Guillermo Díaz (Scandal), back to his apartment, and upon knocking down the door, discovers the bloodied, raped, and unconscious body of Tali Shapiro. Thankfully, even thought she had lost a tremendous amount of blood, she arrived at the hospital in time to be saved. In the interim, Alcala fled the scene before he could be arrested, and was able to avoid capture until 1971, when the FBI added him to their 10 most wanted list.
When, thanks to being identified from the FBI poster, he was discovered in New Hampshire working as a camp counselor, and extradited to California to face the charges, prosecutors were in a bind. Fortunately, as previously stated, Tali survived her ordeal with Alcala, but she was so traumatized by the incident, that her family moved away, and refused to let her testify in court against him. Faced with no other choice, prosecutors allowed Alcala to plead to assault. He was sentenced to a term of no less than one year in jail, but with the possibility that he could serve life imprison. Alcala acted as a model prisoner, and said all the right things to his psychiatrists. In the end, he served a year and five months for the horrific crime.
From that moment forward the film highlights several other crimes that Alcala committed, and also showcases an unlikely moment from his life, one that would lead to him being dubbed the ‘Dating Game Killer.’ On September 13, 1978, Alcala, appeared on the popular ABC (American Broadcasting Company) television show “The Dating Game,” which aired from 1965 through 1986. At the time, the show didn’t do background checks, so Alcala’s sordid history was not known by the series’ producers. Alcala competed against two other bachelors, who like himself, per the rules of the show, could be heard, but not seen by bachelorette, Cheryl Bradshaw, who is played in the film by Tanya van Graan (24 Hours to Live). Cheryl wound up choosing Alcala as the winner. Fortunately for her, after meeting Alcala and talking with him back stage, she got the sense that something was off about him. Off camera, she informed the show’s producers that she refused to go out with him. If Cheryl had gone out with Alcala what would have happened? Would he have been able to control his urges and not kill someone he was seen with on national television? Clips of Alcala and Cheryl’s interactions on the show can be seen on youtube.com.
In addition to the storylines involving Alcala and Detective Hamell, the movie deals with the determined drive of a grieving mother, Carol Jensen, portrayed by Emmy winner Carrie Preston (The Good Wife). Preston’s character is based on Marianne Connelly, the mother of 12 year old Robin Samsoe, Alcala’s last known victim. Like the real life mother she is portraying, Jensen never wavers in her efforts to make sure Alcala pays for his crime. She is continually frustrated with the legal system, and at one point puts in motion a plan to be Alcala’s judge, jury and executioner.
Samsoe’s murder, did lead to the eventual conviction, and a sentence of death being imposed on Rodney Alcala. His story, however, didn’t end with him just waiting on death row until it was his time to be executed. On two separate occasions, Alcala had his conviction overturned. The first time was on August 23, 1984 by the California Supreme Court, due to improper information given to the jurors about Alcala’s prior sex crimes, during his first trial. The second time was on April 2, 2001 when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals nullified Alcala’s conviction, after his second trial, because, the park ranger who discovered Samsoe’s body, had been placed under hypnosis by police investigators, in order to jog her memory that she had seen Alcala in the park where Samsoe’s body was discovered; this was done before she testified in court. Ultimately, thanks to the advancement in DNA testing, Alcala was convicted during a re-trial in 2010, and this time, his conviction was upheld.
“The Dating Game Killer,” was directed by Peter Medak (Romeo is Bleeding), from a teleplay co-written by Emmy nominee Darrell Fetty (Hatfields & McCoys), and two-time Emmy nominee Leslie Greif (Brando). The film which is parts crime and thriller has a runtime of 86 minutes. The violence that takes place during the film is more implied than shown. Diaz does a competent job portraying Alcala, a human being who was the embodiment of evil. Furthermore, Preston and Knepper, two performers whose work I’ve liked in everything I’ve seen them in, execute their roles well. For those interested in true crime, the film moves along at a quick pace, and is entertaining enough for at least a one-time viewing.