The Lighter Side of Torture
In 1988, a young man in Kansas City named Chris Bryson dabbled with the wrong things, dealt with the wrong people and one night trusted the wrong man, who clubbed him, raped him and injected his throat with Drano.
For the better part of a week, Bryson endured what can only be described as a living hell. He was strapped to a bed, beaten repeatedly, raped morning and night, prodded, poked, pricked and drugged. Left alone one morning, Bryson broke free from his restraints, leaped from a second-story window and hobbled off for help, wearing nothing but a dog collar. Within 24 hours, the street was closed off, police officers had swarmed over the Hyde Park home, and a dig was under way to uncover the heinous trophies buried in the backyard of Bryson’s tormenter — sexual serial killer Bob Berdella.
Sometime between that day and now, Bryson vanished — changed his name, relocated to southern Missouri, started a new life. The old Bryson, the one who made a young man’s mistakes and paid for them with punishments beyond any proportional scale, ceased to exist.
The house, 4315 Charlotte, went away, too. It was white, an outwardly typical midtown home, though piled high on the inside with screwball junk Berdella couldn’t sell at his now infamous stall at the Westport Flea Market. Police found evidence of ungodly horrors both inside and outside the house. Later, a millionaire named Del Dunmire bought the lot, razed the house and deeded the vacant land to the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association.
There also was a Kansas City Times reporter back then who tried to explain, in a limited but illuminating way, how these crimes happened. She’d discovered remarkable things about the Berdella case that implicated at least one high-ranking Kansas City official. Then one day she collected her notebooks and tapes and clippings about the Berdella saga, deposited them in a landfill and left forever.
Back then, there were opinions and jokes and even a song about Berdella. Horrified by the crimes, many Kansas Citians resorted to morbid humor. One radio disc jockey remade the 1960s hit “Mellow Yellow” using Berdella’s spree of rape and murder as his own lyrical punch line. In time, those reactions drifted into history as well.
Finally, there was the monster himself. From 1984 to 1988, Bob Berdella murdered no fewer than six young men. Only, he didn’t just kill them. He kept them alive for a while, made them his personal playthings, tortured them, then grew tired of them and moved on. Once apprehended, Berdella spent 4 years in prison before a heart attack killed him in 1992. Some say he got what was coming to him. Others say he should have lived and suffered longer. Either way, he’s gone.
With Berdella dead, the surviving victim vanished and the key reporter gone, the crimes have remained in the city’s shadows for nearly 15 years. Arguably, there is no reason to revisit them now.
Ben Meade disagrees. Entranced by the Berdella ordeal and its effect on Kansas City, the local avant-garde filmmaker has dug it all back up. In his trademark style, he has mixed myth with fact, credible sources with bullshit artists, gravity with absurdity, blending together everything in a meandering stew of obscenity.
He calls this creation Bazaar Bizarre, after the cluttered shop Berdella kept. The movie’s premiere closes the Kansas International Film Festival on September 16.
It’s a mystery — or merely a testament to Kansas City’s ability to reside under the national radar — why Bob Berdella never achieved the mainstream notoriety of John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy.
He was, after all, arrested on Easter weekend, smack in the middle of an NCAA Final Four that placed Kansas City and Kemper Arena at the center of every sports-obsessed mind in America. The grisly details of Berdella’s crimes (a torture log book, electrodes, needles, Polaroids, disembowelment, decapitation, anal rape) should have burned the killer’s name into the country’s collective memory.
But they didn’t. The case brought only fleeting attention to Kansas City, most notably with an appearance by the clown prince of journalism, Geraldo Rivera. Two years after his embarrassment at Al Capone’s vault, Rivera tried lamely to connect the Berdella murders to his own contrived exposé on a nonexistent network of Satanic evildoers.
Over the years, though, Berdella’s national fame receded entirely into the realm of sleazy, serial-killer-devoted Web sites. In Kansas City, stories about Berdella settled below the surface, as though waiting to be mined. Sixteen years after the murders, Meade encountered anecdotes, opinions, analyses and takes everywhere he went. Everybody, it seemed, had something to say about Berdella. He was an egotistical jerk. A know-it-all. A pompous asshole. A misogynist. He smelled weird.
“Everybody has some angle,” Meade says before offering his own Berdella story.
“I was living in Brookside, and I heard it on a rock and roll station that picked it up off the news radio,” he says of the day Berdella was arrested. “I grabbed a camera and got in my car and said, ‘I’m going down there.’ They had cops like bugs, all over the place. I tried going through here, but it was just nuts. On Sunday, I went down there with a friend of mine, and we went on the next street, where they busted down this fence in this guy’s yard. They took a backhoe in there and were going to start digging up this guy’s yard. That’s when they dug up his [Larry Pearson’s] head.”
Meade struggled for position, hoping to catch a piece of history on film, but police had the area isolated. “I couldn’t get close,” he recalls. “I didn’t get any pictures. It was a terrible thing.”
Before he left that day, Meade interviewed a middle-aged couple who lived near Berdella. Though he didn’t know it then, the shot would become the first filmed for Bazaar Bizarre.
For years the Berdella investigation left Meade unsatisfied. Everything went away, but nothing was settled. Myths had been presented as facts, and the actual facts were released so sparingly that the truth was incomplete.
“I think because of the timing, they needed to expedite the case,” Meade says. “I think they had him by the balls because they had Polaroid photographs of a certain number of people, and they had a torture log, which was a loose-leaf binder notebook. So I think they knew they could get him on those six [victims]. I think they made a deal with him, and it was basically, ‘We don’t care what you’ve done outside of this. Let’s cop a plea to these, and we’ll spare your life and call it a day.'”
In the following decade, Meade left a lucrative but draining finance career to pursue his creative interests. He enrolled in graduate-level film courses, earned a doctorate from the University of Kansas, landed a teaching gig at Avila University and created two feature-length films, Vakvagany and Das Bus, both of which screened at numerous film festivals around the world and were sold to the Sundance Channel.
Meade’s movies established him as an iconoclastic documentarian dedicated to provoking his audiences at all costs.
In Vakvagany, Meade unapologetically invades the privacy of a Hungarian family whose peculiar post-World War II home movies have fallen into his hands. With the help of three entertaining but ultimately unqualified experts — crime novelist James Ellroy, psychiatrist Roy Menninger and the late filmmaker Stan Brakhage — Meade scrutinizes the family using the random images and “scenes” captured a half-century earlier. Then he tracks down the surviving siblings, both of whom are in states of mental disrepair, and submits his modern-day footage of them to the same panel.
Meade leaves viewers of Vakvagany wondering whether the Locsei family was involved in the pilfering of Jewish valuables. They also may have been sexual deviants. Meade gives the audience enough information to suspect many things but not enough evidence to prove any of them. Naturally, opinions of the film differed widely — in Amsterdam, an audience nearly rioted as the credits rolled.
In Das Bus, Meade’s madcap look at Kansas City bus culture, the director again toyed with the truth. He merged real interviews, fake interviews, archival footage, dramatizations, staged events, music videos and one belly dancer into an 80-minute exploration of true tales and urban legends without letting the viewer know which was which.
Meade takes a similar approach with Bazaar Bizarre, but this time his material already contained a concrete story line.
Which is not to say he followed it.
“As a filmmaker, Ben tends to internalize stories,” says Mike Adams, director of photography on both Das Bus and Bazaar Bizarre. “So this film isn’t really so much about what Bob did to his victims. The story is more what Bob did to Kansas City. And that’s not something I think was readily apparent. Ben’s style is to find the thread that runs a little deeper than the story.”
There is a moment early in Bazaar Bizarre in which an interviewee refers to Berdella’s crimes as the “ultimate objectification of another human being.” In addition to raping and torturing his victims, Berdella went so far as to dissect a few of them. In one case, he hung a young man by his feet, slit his torso and watched as his entrails slithered to the ground.
Berdella took great pleasure in tearing apart his victims.
Meade seems to take equal delight in piecing the serial killer’s saga back together.
As Adams says, “Who else would think to make a musical out of Bob Berdella?”
In its final cut, Bazaar Bizarre is obviously a product of Meade’s fevered mind. There are annoying musical interludes, for example, three out-of-place music videos by the fictional rock band the Demon Dogs.
Other Meade trademarks — a score by Boston’s Alloy Orchestra, for example, and Ellroy’s inexplicable but hilarious commentary — do considerably more for the story. It is Ellroy, for instance, who provides one of the film’s highlights with his pointed rebuttal of Berdella’s televised assertion that he treated his victims no worse than the media treated him. (“That’s preposterous,” Ellroy belches, “and the most convoluted, most specious logic on God’s green earth.”)
Meade had signed Ellroy to the project early, allowing him to cement the connection in the title (James Ellroy Presents Bazaar Bizarre). But he also had set out to make a more straightforward documentary, based in part on the research of former Kansas City Star reporter Tom Jackman.
As a police-beat reporter in the late 1980s, Jackman covered the Berdella case, later spinning his reportage into a gritty account called Rites of Burial. Now out of print, the book was little more than grocery store discount-rack ballast. Its most affecting element, a series of crime-scene photos and Berdella-shot Polaroids, speaks to both the influence and the sensitivity of the book’s coauthor, former Kansas City homicide detective Troy Cole. The cover features a mug shot of Berdella (captioned, “The butcher of Kansas City, Missouri!”) surrounded by photos of his victims, one of them hogtied.
Years after the book’s release, Meade contacted Jackman, now a reporter with The Washington Post, about turning the Berdella story into a movie. “I tried to do something I’ve never done before, which is make a straight documentary,” Meade says.
That ambition didn’t last. Bazaar Bizarre quickly veered into familiar Meade territory.
“The film is not really about Berdella,” Meade says. “It is, but it’s almost like he’s one of the subtexts. It’s about the system, about people, about humor, how we handled the whole thing with humor…. It’s going to bring out just as many questions as it does answers, so people are going to be pissed. And that’s fine. Because I don’t have the answers. I don’t think we’ll ever have the answers.”
Meade collected enough material to make a more traditional documentary, and Bazaar Bizarre often displays the flourish, inventiveness and bravery the genre demands. It also provides a few gotcha moments, courtesy of authority figures who are obviously unfamiliar with Meade’s editing style.
“Thank God it’s 16 years later, because no one in their right mind would say a lot of the things these people involved in the case say — they wouldn’t have said it back then,” Meade says. “When this comes out, a lot of people are going to be mad they went on camera.”
Meade mentions Cole, the KCPD investigator who admits on camera that his initial impression of the beaten and delirious Bryson was that he’d been involved in a lovers’ quarrel. “Which implies that gay people who are lovers, when they quarrel, they torture each other,” Meade says. “That’s a hell of a thing to say. That’s similar to seeing a woman naked, beaten, running down the street and thinking her and her husband are just having a fight.”
Meade’s also prods Albert Riederer, the former Jackson County prosecutor who was in the middle of a heated re-election campaign when Berdella was arrested.
In retrospect, Riederer blames his then-opponent, Carol Coe, for dragging the crimes into the political arena, a criticism Meade deftly pairs with archival footage of the younger Riederer calling for Berdella’s head. (“I would love to see him executed,” Riederer crows.)
But Meade takes his best jab at Riederer when the former prosecutor says he didn’t mind sparing Berdella’s life, because he knew the killer wouldn’t last long in prison. (“I just assumed he would do something in jail that would get him killed,” Riederer tells Meade.)
Meade cuts to commentary by the Rev. Roger Coleman, who spent an agonizing time counseling a suicidal Berdella during the killer’s initial incarceration. Four years later, a panicked Berdella called Coleman and said prison officials were withholding his heart medication. Shortly thereafter, Berdella died of a heart attack.
Confronted with Coleman’s story, Riederer says the minister should have informed authorities if he’d known about any attempts on the prisoner’s life. Regardless, he says, Berdella “got what he deserved.”
But Meade goes beyond simply resurrecting the investigation and incarceration of Berdella. He says he felt compelled to re-create the man’s grisly crimes.
“The problem with this film, I can feel it in my gut, is that there are a couple scenes that show what he really did,” Meade says. “They’re quick, but the way they’re done, it’s upsetting to a lot of people.”
Of course, Meade considers this not so much a problem as good, kick-you-in-the-teeth filmmaking. There are moments in Bazaar Bizarre, several courtesy of special-effects artist Jeff Sisson, that audiences will find difficult to watch.
While re-creating the torture of victim Jerry Howell, for example, Meade couldn’t shake the mental image of Berdella sodomizing Howell with a cucumber.
Viewers won’t be able to shake the image, either.
“Ben’s definitely a provocateur,” says Adams, Meade’s closest collaborator besides coproducer and wife Dianna. “He loves the dirt, the more dirt you can get into something. That really is a driving force in his work. That’s why he makes choices like, ‘Hey, I’m going to stick a cucumber up this guy’s butt.’ A lot of people would work around that.”
Meade dives into reality’s messiness with an almost creepy delight. It is one thing to show full-frontal male nudity. It’s another to do so with a character who has just escaped a 4-day torture session and who is — through the benefit of crude cinematic makeup — bleeding out his ass.
Complaints about Bazaar Bizarre began surfacing long before filming was complete. Early press about the project yielded furious calls and irate e-mails. “I told my wife, ‘I’m going to have to have help on this,” Meade says. “This is going to be draining. We’re going to have problems. We’re going to have to change our phone number. We’re going to have issues.'”
One early call came from the sister of Mark Wallace, Berdella’s third known victim. She informed Meade that if he represented her brother in a bad light, she’d contact her friends in the mob. The director called her bluff. “I said, ‘Well, that might be, but generally people who have connections to the mob don’t call people up and tell them that. They just have them killed. So why don’t you just tell me what your beef is?'”
Her beef turned out to be the common assumption that her brother was a male prostitute — one of several myths associated with the Berdella case, and one Meade both disproves and fosters in Bazaar Bizarre.
“What’s the consensus in Kansas City?” Meade asks. “That they were all junkies and male prostitutes. No. Her brother worked for a lawn service and mowed his [Berdella’s] lawn. He got him in the house one time, and it all began.”
Of the surviving victim, Meade says, “Bryson wasn’t a male prostitute. He was a drug dealer.”
Meade knows that because Bryson told him.
Bryson surfaced after news of Meade’s film reached him, contacting Meade through an attorney. But Bryson didn’t want to sue Meade. He wanted to be part of the film. For a fee, he agreed to tell his version of the story.
And what a version it turns out to be: Bryson’s on-screen testimony is a remarkable display, if only for its total lack of emotion. For whatever reason, he recounts his 4 days of hell with the same intonation he might use to give someone directions to his home.
By his own admission, Berdella often told his victims that he’d be the last person they ever saw, a chilling thought that causes one to wonder how Bryson could even have thought about the NCAA tournament, much less asked his tormenter if he could watch a game. Like almost every other aspect of Bazaar Bizarre, Bryson’s story is shot through with ambiguity.
“The whole film took a credibility leap when Bryson agreed to be in it,” Meade says. “And then this thing with Karen Blakeman popped up. And the judge.”
At the time of the murders, Blakeman covered the courts for The Kansas City Times. Her work led her to an extraordinary conclusion about how Berdella met his victims. Conventional wisdom said the killer found them loitering downtown, specifically at the seedy corner of 10th and McGee. To an extent, this was true. But Blakeman learned that at least one victim, Todd Stoops, had been sent as part of his probation to Berdella by a municipal court judge. How Berdella’s name came to be included on a list of court-approved drug counselors has never been verifiably reported.
Less than a week after Judge Marcia Walsh delivered Stoops to Berdella for drug counseling, Berdella himself was arrested for trying to sell marijuana to an undercover police officer, Blakeman reported.
Blakeman also revealed that in 1984, Stoops had told police he suspected Berdella in the disappearance of his friend Jerry Howell and that he believed drugs probably had been used to sedate Howell. Four years later, when Berdella was arrested, Howell became known as his first victim.
“Although he was the subject of both drug and missing persons investigations, Robert A. Berdella was able to manipulate Kansas City’s criminal justice system,” Blakeman wrote in March 1989.
This spring, Meade traveled to Hawaii to interview Blakeman, now a reporter for The Honolulu Advertiser.
Blakeman told Meade about a prison visit she made to interview Berdella in 1991, following the arrest of Jeffrey Dahmer, whom Berdella reportedly had deemed an “amateur.” At Berdella’s request, Blakeman brought two tape recorders, then listened as he told her how he had fooled the court system. At the end of the interview, Blakeman says, prison officials confiscated her tapes for review. Later, they told her the tapes had been inadvertently destroyed.
“I think people wanted her to leave Kansas City because of what she was digging around and found,” Meade says.
In the film, Meade holds up Blakeman’s story as proof that local authorities wanted to be done with the Berdella ordeal, even if it meant ignoring the possibility of more victims.
“If you’re a no-count, then fuck you,” he says of the city’s attitude. “Die. Get picked up. We don’t care. We’ve got better things to deal with. If you’re gay, if you’re black, if you’re a prostitute, if you’re a dope dealer, a drug user, you’re down on the pecking order of human life value. And I don’t think that’s exclusive to Kansas City. I think that’s everywhere. But I think that had a lot to do with this.”
Meade’s outrage, though genuine, is not the driving force behind Bazaar Bizarre. The film is ultimately a hodgepodge, an assortment of items that create nothing more tangible than a vibe. In certain moments — interviewing the police officer in charge of missing persons in the 1980s, for instance — Meade plays it straight. But then he cuts to an interview with an emergency room physician who claims to have reattached Berdella’s penis multiple times — and laughs about it. Or a chat with Berdella’s hairdresser. Or a visit with his florist, who makes an eloquent if worthless argument that “this man was not all bad.” Or Berdella’s mechanic, who shows no such lenience. “I’m glad the sick son of a bitch got what was coming to him,” he says. Leaning over the hood of a car, he adds that Berdella wasn’t just a sadistic, psychopathic murderer but also a bad customer.
Meade also includes a campy musical montage featuring Berdella (played by local actor Chris Leo) gallivanting to the “Mellow Yellow” parody. The director re-creates scenes from each victim’s horrendous experience. And he pays homage to various well-known conspiracy theories, including one that has Berdella creating countless Kansas City cannibals by cooking his victims into the chili he served at the Westport Flea Market.
In other words, the film is a fun, chaotic mess. But unfortunately, Meade cut a scene that might have helped viewers put the project into some kind of perspective.
An early edit of Bazaar Bizarre opened with a brief, monochromatic shot of Meade acting as if he were responding to an interviewer’s question. The idea was for Meade to answer his critics before they could object.
“A friend of mine who’s a film critic came up with a great term for documentaries,” Meade says. “He calls them ‘fuckumentaries’ now, because he said the subject matter is still there, but now the film is more about the director’s attitude toward the subject matter. They always have a point of view. You always get to see what the director wants you to see.”
In this case, it’s a piece of Kansas City history many people would rather ignore, told with all the subtlety of drive-in splatter flick.
If Bazaar Bizarre succeeds, if it lands a spot in the Sundance Film Festival’s offbeat American Spectrum series, as Meade dearly hopes, the director knows he’ll be bashed for exploiting Berdella’s grisly murders for his own gain.