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TV REVIEWS : May Madness: Murder and Mayhem

May 03, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Touring the blood baths of May. . . .

If it's Monday, this must be "Murder in the Heartland" and "Black Widow Murders: The Blanche Taylor Moore Story."

Combined body count: 14.

ABC's "Murder in the Heartland" and NBC's "Black Widow Murders" have nothing in common beyond being docudramas about homicide, but those Nielsen-compatible common denominators are sufficient to earn them exposure in yet another carnage-cluttered ratings sweeps period.

Nor do the deadly protagonists of these stories have anything in common beyond sinisterism. Based on this account, seductive Blanche Taylor Moore at least was fun to be around, if you weren't consuming her arsenic-spiced banana pudding and potato soup. But 19-year-old Charlie Starkweather was a gun-slinging, all-hating sociopath without a single redeeming quality.

Starkweather is blamed for 11 deaths. His rampage across Nebraska and into Wyoming in the winter of 1958 with his eighth-grader girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, jolted a nation preoccupied with the Cold War. These slayings occupy Part 1 of "Murder in the Heartland," airing at 9 p.m. on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42. Airing at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Part 2 recalls the pair's capture and convictions, which led to Starkweather's death in the electric chair and to the 14-year-old Fugate's controversial imprisonment.

A young gas station attendant becomes the first victim of crack-shooting rifleman Starkweather, a Lincoln, Neb., garbage worker-turned-robber who chain-smokes, wears blue-tipped white boots and a leather jacket and identifies with the rebellious outcasts played by actor James Dean.

Next to die are Fugate's parents and 2-year-old sister. Telling Fugate he's holding her family hostage, he persuades her (or forces her, depending on your view) to join him in fleeing from the police. And the chase is on--leaving a trail of still more bodies.

What makes Starkweather terrifying is the cavalier, offhanded, almost bemused manner in which he kills, as if casually swatting flies for diversion.

As capably played by English actor Tim Roth, Starkweather is a strutting, cowardly, trigger-happy little punk who lives out his romantic fantasies about being a tough guy. Executive producer Michael O'Hara's script has him striking macho poses in front of a mirror, getting juiced on the idea of being an outlaw. "People gotta learn," he says to himself. "Hey . . . don't get in my way."

Yet essentially, "Murder in the Heartland" is as pointless as Starkweather and Fugate. When it comes to conveying the heartlessness of real-life contemporary killers, "Murder in the Heartland" is no "In Cold Blood," Richard Brooks' complex, shadowy and gripping black-and-white film version (1967) of Truman Capote's book about two ex-cons who murdered a rural Kansas family. Nor does it match the intensity of "Badlands," the 1973 Terrence Malick film inspired by the Starkweather slaughter.

*

If "Murder in the Heartland" is at all memorable, it's less due to Starkweather and Fugate (nicely played by Fairuza Balk) than to the nostalgic vistas that director Robert Markowitz creates from the wintry bleakness. This is a hard land of solid, earthen values and a 1950s belief system probably passed down from generation to generation. You see it in the faces of the people, and in their behavior. When the body of an old farmer shot by Starkweather is discovered lying face down, strait-laced county prosecutor Elmer Scheele (Randy Quaid) stoically observes the murder scene. When informed the old man had no chance because he was shot in the back, Scheele's expression immediately hardens into disgust. Plugging a man is bad enough, plugging him in the back violates a higher code.

Once the chase ends, "Murder in the Heartland" is roadblocked too, and its last 90 minutes are consumed mostly by two laborious trials that examine and re-examine the culpability of Fugate, who claims that she killed no one and was terrorized by Starkweather into obeying him. Was she his co-conspirator or his hostage?

Thirty-four years after Starkweather's execution and 17 years after Fugate's parole, the question seems moot, making "Murder in the Heartland" just another needless exhumation of mass bloodletting.

*

The setting for the diverting "Black Widow Murders" (at 9 p.m. on Channels 4, 36 and 39) is Burlington, N.C., where aging-but-amorous widow Blanche Taylor Moore (Elizabeth Montgomery) lives in a trailer park, works in a grocery store, attends church regularly and is devoted to her two daughters.

The sweet-talking Blanche also appears devoted to her boyfriend, Raymond (John M. Jackson). What Raymond doesn't know is that (according to Judith Paige Mitchell's script) Blanche fatally poisoned her husband and probably her father. Raymond also doesn't know that she's poisoning him, hoping to gain control of his estate.

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