“Another Kill. Another Thrill”
The Todd Killings (1971)
Directed by Barry Shear, (Wild in the Streets 1968,Across 110th Street 1972) written by Joel Oliansky, Dennis Murphy and Mann Rubin. It stars Robert F. Lyons as the infamous true life serial killer (Charles Schmid) Skipper Todd. The film hosts an incredible cast of actors, Richard Thomas, Belinda Montgomery, Sherry Miles, Joyce Ames, Holly Near, James Broderick, Gloria Grahame, Fay Spain, Edward Asner, Barbara Bel Geddes, Michael Conrad and Meg Foster.
It’s a bit of rare 70s THRILLER genre vérité, which is brutally stripped bare of self consciousness or moral ambiguity. Director Barry Shear shows no pretense with this film, it’s bleak and graphic and stars the fresh scrubbed American youthfulness of Robert F Lyons who is chilling as he inhabits the persona of Steven ‘Skipper’ Todd with the acuity of an anti social archetypal socio-path, a foreshadowing doppelgänger of serial killers to come.
Based on the real life character of 60s thrill killer, Charles Schmid also dubbed the Pied Piper of Tucson who was found guilty of murder in 1966 and sentenced to death, but wound up getting 50 years to life, when the state of Arizona temporarily abolished the death penalty in 1971. Eventually Schmid himself was murdered in prison.
Lyons worldly ruthlessly inhospitable persona channels a charismatic young philosophical misanthrope who embodies the 60s attitude of the anti establishment credo, taking it to a violent level of psychotic abandon. Todd becomes an anti- hero to the local youth who worship him, in particular the very young women he easily beds, who treat him like a deity. He exhibits the qualities of a Svengali as he manipulates both male and female devotees. Todd is cool and urbane, charming his way into the lives of several high school teenagers in a small California town. There is a jaundiced atmosphere to this community, as the complacency and rumbling undercurrent of disturbed restlessness paint a very uneasy portrait of American life off kilter.
When the film opens, Todd has killed a 16 year old girl named Sue Ellen Mack, having recruited two other teenagers to help cover up the crime by burying the body in the vast and ceaseless desert, the perfect place to lose a body. One teen is an overweight girl Norma (Holly Near) who hangs on Skipper like a minion, clinging to him like a swooning groupie and the other a scraggy termite called Andy.
Shear directs each scene with a heartless realism. The three while leaving the desert just having buried Sue Ellen, pick up Billy Roy ( Richard Thomas) who is hitchhiking, just having been released from reform school. There is the sensibility to the film that exposes a mob mentality. This heightened sense of a younger fringe craving to dwell aimlessly outside of society, the phrase used often to signify an opposition to society or being a ‘citizen’ is prevalent in sub genre films, such as the biker genre. In this environment it is feasible that an awakening adolescence would be mesmerized by an outlier, a bad boy, and therefore aide in concealing the crime. It’s conceivable that a flock of youths could be present at the scene of a murder, not only do nothing to stop it, and in fact, help in it’s surreptitious design to cover it up, and allude the police. The unrepentant complicity to the crimes bares a similarity to the working dynamic of the 1986 film The River’s Edge
Skipper Todd manipulates Richard Thomas‘ character Billy like a master puppeteer, dangling the potential for romance with his former classmate Amata. Billy has been obsessed with Amata since High School. Unfortunately Amata only has eyes for Skipper, and poor naive Billy is so easily influenced and blinded by his attraction to this girl that he doesn’t see how Todd is using him as yet another pawn in his coterie.
Belinda Montgomery plays Roberta a pretty 16 year old girl from an affluent family, who is less pliant and impressionable at first. It is her rebellious attitude and her blatant defiance toward Skipper’s malevolent magnetism, which charge his advances which become more potent, as he becomes drawn to her the more she resists.
She’s the one female who appears immune at first to Skipper’s charms. Although she restrains from falling into the same infatuated vapidness like the other girls, ultimately after Skipper breaks into her house one night, beats and rapes her, she finally breaks down and succumbs to his control and decries that she loves him. The manifest use of violence against women as sexual stimulation, and the tenet of annihilating women’s power through control, not love is another inherent trope of the story. Skipper mother as a role model only teaches him to take, to make money, and skews the boundaries of love for him by bestowing upon him an odd, underlying sexualized affection.
We are clued into Skipper Todd’s evolution as a misogynist, as an Oedipal nightmare, who fancies himself an elitist an Übermensch, Friedrich Nietzsche’s superman who poses as anti-hero, bemoaning the state of society and it’s lemmings who conform, yet ironically depending on the very thing he condemns in order to suck the life force out of it. This he needs for his egoist dogma to be able to thrive, feeding off the susceptible, and violating the vulnerable, just as Mrs. Todd picks the bones clean of the elderly men she is charged to take care of.
Though living as an outsider, he needs followers to facilitate his crimes. To help him bury the bodies. He espouses that people have ‘stale dreams’ and that society is riddled with lying and selfishness. In this he is a true Sociopath, as he is the most selfish phony of them all. As self deluded as was Charles Manson who consider himself to be a songwriter and profit, Todd also writes songs on his guitar, recording himself singing glorifying lyrics about his strangulations of the girls he kills. A minstrel madman, strumming and fucking his way through Tucson.
As I’ve said earlier, Todd’s followers include a young Richard Thomas as Billy Roy a guileless yet loyal young man, who unwittingly enables Todd to continue his blood lust and ravaging of young girls. Billy remains naive until the end, when he finally sees the true evil nature of his friend Skipper Todd, and ultimately turns on him.
Shear’s The Todd Killings conveys the feeling of hopelessness and hollow confinement which pervade much of the film and the collective scenes of impulsive brutality. Whether or not the story is historically accurate to the events that led up to Scmid’s capture is unclear, regardless the narrative is a somber, chilling mood piece about society and the attractive monsters it sometimes breeds.
The film creates an eerie, often brutally unsettling tone that unleashes a sense that there is no way out of conformity. You either live an existence of an ugly sterile complacency or wind up being sacrificed on the altar of individual freedom.
The use of the desert as a playground/killing field for Todd and his followers creates an alienating environment. Todd’s compulsion sets the tone for a fraying wire of isolation, in which a barren land of free love and reckless idolatry ultimately lead Todd and his followers to devolve by the film’s tragic end.
At the root of Todd’s twisted nature lies that hint of Oedipal fixation, as his relationship with his mother portrayed by Barbara Bel Geddes bares the reflections of an incestuous partnership. Todd’s conflation of sex and violence, his natural adeptness at manipulation and psycho-sexual violation ultimately make him a serial killer who thrives on destroying that which he is fixated on. The film provides us with an insight into his hatred of women, American motherhood, and the society that engenders both to be simple offerings for the slaughter.
Mrs. Todd’s, Skipper’s money hungry mother owns a nursing home for elderly men running it like a military complex, all of who’s family members never visit. She manages this ‘institution’ like a waiting room for decaying livestock, providing minimal comforts, she’s more militant in her administrations than compassionate as a care giver. For her this is nothing but a business arrangement that supports her simple lifestyle. She shows no emotional connection to the elderly men in her care, nor for her son, who visits periodically, skulking around for hand outs. No emotional maternal outpouring, yet a queer romantic sort of banter.
Skipper tells her that he would ‘rather die than make my living that way.’ She tells him that he is in fact ‘living off them…We all make our lives that way, that’s what life is all about.”
Skipper treats her more like one of the many girlfriends he uses in order to cop some ready spending money. Mrs Todd spouts off about life like an unemotional puritanical hen, urging him to find employment or at least help her out there at the home, which he violently rejects.
The entire atmosphere of the old age home and the town, is disparaging of the human condition and gives us a little insight into Skipper Todd’s lack of empathy, largely pronounced by the contrasting verve of the youth culture shown asphyxiating by the small -town’s conservatism.
Todd’s mother is a clinically acidic detached, and cold-blooded ‘mother figure’ and a reminder that though Skipper seems repulsed by the way the old men have been abandoned by their families, it is still their money that he virtually parasites off of when he comes calling for a hand out from his confederate mother.
Without giving away the climax of the film, I will say that there is a particular scene towards the end that is so savage, framed with such a starkly simple realism, that it is utterly jarring.
The Todd Killings creates a story telling that fuses together our very real fears of the social boogeyman who lurk amidst all us ‘normal’ seeming folk, and although filmed in the 70s, it makes a timeless leap into a contemporary arena without loosing any of its thrust. It tells the story of a monster like Charles Schmid, without feeling outdated or hazy around the edges due to lack of a more graphic or gore drenched narrative.
The film also doesn’t rely on police procedural to fill us in on the details, it is told partly from the perspective of Todd’s own dystopian psyche and partly from the victims themselves. In particular Montgomery’s portrayal of Roberta which is nuanced, strikingly dramatic and ultimately heart wrenching.
The film also stars one of my favorite unsung actresses Gloria Grahame as Billy Roy’s mother. It also co-stars the wonderful Edward Asner, Fay Spain, James Broderick, Michael Conrad as Detective Shaw, and good old Holly Near as Norma ( just can’t forget her in Angel, Angel Down We Go 1969) as one of Skippers nubile sycophants.
On March 10, 1975, Schmid was stabbed 47 times by two fellow prisoners, he died almost a month later.
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Fantastic photos and blog entry by Sweetheart of the Rodeo: Hell among the yearlings
Police Officer: Do you have relations with men?
Skipper Todd: I try not to. But sometimes there’s a guy who’s really sweet… it’s so easy. We’re both men… we both know where it’s at. Personally, you’re not giving anything away.
Police Officer: What’s your feeling’s towards girls?
Skipper Todd: I can sleep with them once because it degrades them. It makes them dirty. The worst thing about it is… you meet a chick who isn’t… bad. You can’t screw her because you don’t want to make her “dirty.”
Roberta: You actually came to see me without any of your baby-pimps? Wow. How do I rate that honor?
Skipper Todd: I just loved your performance at the pool.
Roberta: So, you’re the one who rides the dune buggy and “services” the little girls huh?
Skipper Todd: Oh yes… and speaking of little girls, how old are you?
Roberta: 16. Just about your speed too, isn’t it?
Skipper Todd: Ha-ha! It’s a good age. It’s a little over the hill these days, but it will do.
Roberta: How old are you?
Skipper Todd: 23
Roberta: Why don’t you do something besides hang around the pool.
Skipper Todd: I’m a songwriter. I’m gonna immortalized all of us here.
Roberta: Wanna drink?
Skipper Todd: Uh… sure.
Roberta: It’s interesting what turns on the little girls. What do you think it is? Is it because you’re a creep? Or is it because you’re dangerous?
Skipper Todd: It’s some of each.
“Skipper Todd digs girls. It’s his idea of killing time…”
I dig you all- genre fans, so stay with me while killing some time -Eternally yours -MonsterGirl
2 thoughts on “The Todd Killings (1971) -The Oedipal Minstrel Killer of Tuscon and the Cult of Anti-Hero Worship”
That’s quite some hairdo Skipper Todd is sporting.
But seriously, I was stunned to read that the real killer was stabbed 47 times and lived for almost another month. That is amazing.