Plot: Ann Rule (Barbara Hershey) is an aspiring writer with a focus on real life criminal cases, an interest she also pursued at one point as a police officer. Now she tries to share these cases with the public through her books, but she also devotes time to a local suicide prevention hotline. As part of the service, she speaks to those in desperate situations and mindsets, to offer them comfort, an ear to listen, and hopefully, some help that will ease their current problems. One of her fellow hotline volunteers is Ted Bundy (Billy Campbell), a likable and charismatic man who strikes up a fast friendship with Rule, as he seems to share some of her values. At the same time, Rule is fascinated by a string of murders that has baffled the authorities and even with some key information known, the killer has been able to remain at large. When she realizes that Ted shares the name and type of car as the mysterious maniac, she writes it off at first as coincidence, but soon begins to wonder…
Entertainment Value: Based on Ann Rule’s popular true crime book of the same name, The Stranger Beside Me is one of those stories that proves yet again that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Rule would become one of the most successful true crime authors, which makes her friendship with notorious serial killer Ted Bundy so surreal, which of course, leads to an interesting movie adaptation. A made for television movie might seem like an odd destination for a story as brutal as Bundy’s, but the film opts to focus on Bundy’s persona, Rule’s suspicions, and the race to catch the killer, rather than the sordid elements involved. So if you want a slasher style serial killer movie, this is not that kind of ride, as it eschews the bloodshed and carnage. I appreciated the more character study approach taken here, even if it is forced to rush and oversimplify both Bundy and the investigation involved. This could be because of Billy Campbell’s terrific performance as Bundy, but I think the movie is just well made overall, bolstered by being based on such a well crafted book. I’d recommend this to fans of serial killer cinema, horror movies, or true crime style content.
I’ve seen a number of performers take on the role of Ted Bundy, but Billy Campbell’s turn here is one of the most effective. He is able to slide between charismatic nice guy and eerie sociopath with ease, bringing both sides of Bundy’s horrific persona to life in chilling fashion. To understand the crimes, you need to see why so many women trusted or at least felt comfortable around Bundy, which Campbell is able to convey, showing Bundy’s mask of sanity at work. I also like that when he devolves into the darker side of the persona, he doesn’t go over the top, but portrays a grounded, believable type of evil, just as the material asks. The insanity is there on full showcase, but Campbell’s Bundy feels real and that is crucial to The Stranger Beside Me. Barbara Hershey is also quite good as Ann Rule, in a grounded, restrained effort that isn’t flashy, but feels just right for the role, I think. The friendship between she and Campbell doesn’t always have the natural texture to it, but it works well enough. The cast also includes Suki Kaiser, Kevin Dunn, and Brenda James.
The Disc: This one arrives on Blu-ray via Mill Creek Entertainment, in a rock solid, better than expected presentation. The image is clean and sharp, with natural grain intact and no digital issues to be concerned about. I found detail to be strong in most scenes, though fine detail was average overall. So a sharp image and certainly an upgrade over previous home video incarnations, without question. The colors seem natural and contrast is on the mark, so quite a good effort from Mill Creek here.
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