Schlockmania considers James Glickenhaus to be an unsung auteur. Starting with The Exterminator in 1980, he made a series of unique and action-packed films over the next decade and a half (he also started up a production/distribution outlet that allowed Frank Henenlotter to make his satirical grindhouse classic Frankenhooker). If you look at films like The Soldier and The Protector, you’ll see a distinctive mix of unusual plot hooks, casually offbeat humor and a crisp visual style used to capture elaborate action.
Slaughter Of The Innocents was Glickenhaus’ next-to-last film. In this one, he turns his attention to the serial killer thriller subgenre that had become so popular in the wake of The Silence Of The Lambs. Appropriately, he got Scott Glenn from that film to topline here as Stephen Broderick, a maverick FBI agent who specializes in tracking down serial killers. Unlike his fellow agents, he has a unique secret weapon: his brainiac computer-whiz son, Jesse (played by the writer/director’s son, Jesse Cameron-Glickenhaus).
Jesse makes a connection between a recent murder in Utah and an older unsolved murder in the same state, theorizing that both are the work of a previously undetected serial killer. When the wrong man is executed for the older killing, Stephen makes a point of finding the real killer. As he hunts for the culprit, he finds an underworld of cultists and child abuse. Jesse is determined to help, bringing himself to the killer’s attention as he sneaks out on his own to uncover more clues. This sets the stage for a finale that is action-packed and unusual in the trademark Glickenhaus style.
Critics often slag off Slaughter Of The Innocents for a lack of realism, like a federal agent taking his kid to a murder scene and allowing him to contribute analysis and clues. To Schlockmania, this un-reality is what it makes it fun: some viewers have described this film as a combination of The Silence Of The Lambs and Encyclopedia Brown. That should clue you in to the fun available here: it combines hard-hitting action, a dollop of horror and procedural elements with a completely unexpected story of a father trying to impart life lessons to a precocious son who is growing into his teen years.
This esoteric stew of elements shouldn’t work but it does. The first reason why is the professionalism of Glickenhaus behind the camera: by this time in his career, he understood how to put together a film with production values slick enough to compete with Hollywood and had developed a flair for staging suspense and eye-popping action with a sleek visual style. This results in highlights like a creepy moment where the killer stalks an agent in a library and a jaw-dropping finale that mixes kids in peril, fisticuffs, sharp instruments and a curious interpretation of biblical scripture.
The second reason Slaughter Of The Innocents works is because there is a genuine sense of conviction driving its eccentric premise. Glickenhaus has said in interviews that the story was inspired by the experience of having a son and all the concerns that come with raising him. Thus, even though this has periodic splashes of blood and grim plot elements about cultists and a serial killer, it’s ultimately a sentimental story about a father and his son. It even closes with a walk-and-talk scene between the two that plays like something out of a very unusual afterschool special. These moments are delivered with heart and sensitivity that just add to the film’s unpredictability factor.
If you’re already a fan of Scott Glenn, his work here adds another attribute. He clearly was having fun carrying a film here, drawing on his tough guy side when he needs to but also digging into the scenes where he has to be fatherly and displaying a charmingly low-key sense of humor that fits the movie’s sensibility. He’s the calm eye of the storm that keeps this unusual combo of elements anchored.
Some viewers cry nepotism about the casting of Cameron-Glickenhaus here but given that he was the inspiration for the film, his casting seems oddly apropos. He gives a quirky, deadpan performance that works for the strange conceit of a kiddie serial-killer profiler/sleuth: for example, he has a legitimately funny scene where he interrogates a crook who has some information he needs. Elsewhere, Kazaan is compelling as a killer who is as tormented as he is scary and the eclectic supporting cast includes Darlanne Fluegel, Kevin Sorbo and a young Aaron Eckhart.
In short, Slaughter Of The Innocents furthers Schlockmania’s theory of Glickenhaus as auteur. Only he could come up with a serial killer thriller that doubles as a father-son story – and the mixture of conviction and polish he brings to the proceedings ensures that it feels like the work of someone with a singular vision.
Blu-Ray Notes: Synapse recently reissued this on blu-ray. The transfer does well by the slickness of the production, delivering color and detail in the style expected from this company. It also includes a barrage of supplements, including a director’s commentary, new interviews with FX designer Gabe Bartalos and DP Mark Irwin, vintage interviews and a neat EPK from when the film debuted as an HBO original feature. Recommended for Glickenhaus fans.