Born for Hell Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: July 20, 2021
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono; French DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono (Born for Hell cut only)
Subtitles: English HoH (Born for Hell cut only)
Run Time: 91:37 (Born for Hell cut), 85:43 (Naked Massacre cut)
Directors: Denis Héroux
A recently discharged Vietnam vet (Mathieu Carrière) travels to Belfast, where he traps, terrorizes, and tortures a dorm full of student nurses.
The social and cultural turmoil of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s produced a multitude of angsty, angry motion pictures. Some were built upon the dread of the Vietnam War and growing distrust in American politics. Some took a long view of increases in violent terrorism abroad. Others still explored the public’s morbid interest in the newly-defined concept of the serial killer and infamous figures, like the Zodiac Killer, John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz, and Ted Bundy. One notorious Canadian/West German/French/Italian co-production, Denis Héroux’s Born for Hell (1976), did all three at once.
On its surface, Born for Hell is based on the true crimes of Richard Speck, an Illinois-born, petty crook turned serial killer/rapist and mass murderer who held nine student nurses captive in Chicago in 1966. Over the course of one night, he raped, tortured, and killed eight of the nine women. He was captured a few days later and was imprisoned for life, dying of a heart attack at the age of 49. Héroux’s film renames the killer Cain Adamson and was the second movie version of Speck’s crimes, following Kōji Wakamatsu’s bleak Pinku eiga, Violated Angels (Japanese: Okasareta Hakui) in 1967, and would be the last, save nods and mentions, until the 2000s, when Keith Walley’s Speck (2002) and Michael Feifer’s Chicago Massacre: Richard Speck (2007) were released straight-to-video. Héroux’s version is grim and stylistically pragmatic, the performances are naturalistic, and the screenplay is interested in exploring psychotic behavior, but none of this disguises the film’s exploitative nature: it is a horror movie and it is made in the vein of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972) to titillate its audience. The push and pull between sobering reality and salacious shocks makes Born for Hell a particularly harrowing experience.
Most late ‘80s & ‘90s serial killer movies were just that – movies about serial killers – but, in the ‘70s, films like Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971, based loosely on the crimes of the Zodiac Killer), Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, based loosely on the crimes of Ed Gein), and Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973, based loosely on the crimes of Bonnie & Clyde) framed their horrors and tragedies in the socio-political anxieties of the era. Born from Hell isn’t concerned with subtle theming and doesn’t leave those anxieties to the subtext. Instead, Héroux (and possibly co-writers Géza von Radványi, Clement Woods, and Fred Denger) alters Speck’s back-story to include references to the fallout of the Vietnam War and the Irish Republican Army’s post-Bloody Sunday bombing campaign against the British government, which was still ongoing when the film was released in 1976. The real Speck did not serve in Vietnam, but, given the war’s escalation in the years after he was sent to prison, it’s not hard to imagine an alternate reality where he did. He also never took a vacation to Belfast (he barely left the American midwest, despite working as a merchant seaman), but, again, it wouldn’t have been out of the question, considering the popularity of European backpacking trips during the ‘70s. Born for Hell is sort of a what-if scenario, in which RIchard Speck was born a few years later, lived a quintessentially ‘60s American young adulthood, and still decided to kidnap, rape, and murder eight women.
Disregarding a small handful of exceptions, like Wendell Franklin’s The Bus is Coming (1971), Vietnam veterans weren’t often cast as tragic figures or heroes until the ‘80s. Instead, they tended to be frightening, shell-shocked monsters, quite literally in the case of Bob Clark’s Deathdream (aka: Dead of Night,1974), which was followed closely by less literal examples in Born for Hell and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (also 1976). Whereas Scorsese and Clark brought the war home to Gothic-tinged American streets Born for Hell’s unrest of late ‘70s Belfast is an ongoing theme, from the opening title card through most of the first act, where our Speck stand-in navigates warzone-like streets patrolled by armed guards, watches children play war games, and survives a bloody church bombing.
While the film isn’t outright sympathetic towards Cain, it does frame his cruelty as a result of his PTSD, which is exacerbated by explosion, gunshots, and TV news, and his lonely suicidal tendencies, which are exacerbated by his inability to leave Belfast (a nod to the real Speck’s inability to find work as a merchant seaman). This sympathy fades quickly, when he’s psychoanalyzed by a male prostitute, who surmises that Cain hates women (in a particularly salacious twist, it is implied that he slept with his prostitute sister, who later comitted suicide). Soon after, Cain humiliates another prostitute and breaks into the dorm to wreak havoc. Héroux also does an admirable job portraying the nurses as real and tragic people, so, even as Cain occasionally weeps, the audience can’t possibly misunderstand the evil of his actions (unlike, say, Taxi Driver).
Following an eclectic career, Born for Hell was Héroux’s second to last film as director, followed by the popular kitty-themed horror anthology, The Uncanny (1977, not to be confused with Greydon Clark’s killer kitty on a boat movie, Uninvited ). Soon after, he moved on to producing second-rate Saturday morning cartoons (Heathcliff & the Catillac Cats , Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors , and MASK ) and award-winning features (including Louis Malle’s multi-Oscar nominated Atlantic City ). An interesting career, to say the least.
Born for Hell was released on stateside VHS twice, by VIDCREST and Questar, as Naked Massacre and, due to shaky copyright, made its way onto a number of budget label, grey market DVD collections. Before this HD debut, the best option was an anamorphic disc from Media Target in Germany that included Héroux’s original cut. Severin’s Blu-ray was scanned in 2K from an uncut 35mm print recently discovered in The National Archives of Canada. That scan is presented in 1.85:1 and 1080p. German cinematographer Heinz Hölscher’s photography is gritty and grainy with harsh contrasts and sickly hues, all perfectly capturing the gloom of Belfast and the grime of the situation. Colors are consistent, but tinged by greens and blues in what I assume is a purposeful stylistic choice. It’s not pretty, because it’s not supposed to be and this philosophy extends to the extra deep black levels, which shore up edges and magnify the doomy atmosphere. I would normally complain that the blacks pool and crush some of the fine details, but, again, I think this is the point and it works very well. Some shots exhibit considerably more print damage than others, usually thin scratches or vertical green lines, and often towards the end of a reel.
Born for Hell comes fitted with its original English mono soundtrack in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio, along with a dubbed French track, presumably produced for the French Canadian market. Despite the single channel treatment and the fact that most of the movie takes place in a single location, there’s some aural layering throughout, especially street scenes, which set the mood with a montage of radio/tv, traditional Irish music, and street noise. There is otherwise almost no music and the naturalistic dialogue (I suspect that Mathieu Carrière was dubbed to disguise his accent) quality depends on the environment, so I wouldn’t exactly call it a demo disc.
The Other Side of the Mirror (14:14, HD) – The extras begin with a brand-new interview with lead actor Mathieu Carrière (conducted by Kier-La Janisse via Zoom), who chats about his wider career in film, working with a particularly difficult Orson Welles on Harry Kümel’s Malpertuis (1971), changing the location of the Speck murders for practical and legal reasons, sleeping around on set, and touring Europe as an actor. He also claims that Hungarian director, Géza von Radványi, was the film’s true director with Héroux acting as supervisor.
Nightmare In Chicago: Remembering the Richard Speck Crime Spree (12:52, HD) – Interview with local Chicago filmmakers John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of the Serial Killer ) and Gary Sherman (Dead & Buried ) talk about Speck’s crimes.
A New Kind Of Crime: The Richard Speck Story (38:20, HD) – Once Upon A Crime podcaster Esther Ludlow breaks down Speck’s story and crimes in this solid primer on the subject.
Bombing Here, Shooting There (17:02, HD) – A 2021 video essay by filmmaker Chris O’Neill, who explores the film’s connections to Belfast and the history of the area at that time, including then & now comparisons. Apparently, Born from Hell was one of the few movies actually filmed on location, instead of the northern part of the country.
Artist Joe Coleman on Speck (14:22, HD) – Coleman, who is well-known for his serial killer art and memorabilia, gives his perspective on Speck.
Inside the Odditorium (9:41, HD) – A look at Coleman’s collection and Speck-themed art.
Naked Massacre cut (85:43, HD) – Unlike other recent Severin releases containing multiple cuts, there isn’t a choice of version on the main menu screen. You’ll have to look at the extras menu to find the shorter US video cut. The video quality more or less matches the extended cut and the mono soundtrack is a bit busier, because there’s a very loud score drowning out a lot of the dialog.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.