As the deep freeze of winter 1958 set in, 19-year-old Lincoln, Nebraska, resident Charles Starkweather stained America’s heartland blood-red.
The blue-jean-clad rock-and-roll fan who combed his hair “like James Dean” hit the open road with his 14-year-old “fiancée” Caril Ann Fugate and, along the way, slaughtered 11 people, all but one during a horrific one-week run between January 21 and January 28.Starkweather’s homicidal streak actually commenced on November 30, 1957, after a gas-station attendant refused to sell a stuffed animal to the teenager on credit. Starkweather returned with a shotgun and demanded $100. He then took the worker to a secluded area and blew the man’s head off.
On January 21, Starkweather went to Caril Ann Fugate’s home, where he fatally shot her mother and stepfather, and strangled and stabbed her two-year-old sister. Starkweather and Fugate remained in the house with the dead bodies for six days.
The couple then drove to the farm of a family friend, where Starkweather killed both the man and his dog. Next to die was another local teenage couple. Starkweather shot the boy and attempted to rape the girl, but killed her in frustration.
From there, Starkweather and Fugate invaded a home, murdering three more innocent people and another dog. A traveling salesman in Wyoming followed, so they could steal his car.
Finally, a dust-up with another motorist attracted the attention of patrol car. Caril Anne ran toward officers, screaming, “It’s Starkweather! He’s going to kill me!”
Charles sped off, but a sheriff’s bullet shattered his car’s back window, and the flying glass sliced up Starkweather severely. He pulled over and surrendered.
Nebraska authorities extradited Charles Starkweather. A jury found him guilty, and a judge sentenced him to execution in the electric chair. Seventeen months after the first killing, Starkweather himself was dead.
Caril Anne Fugate maintained that Starkweather had been holding her hostage, threatening to kill her family — who she claimed she didn’t know were already dead. She ended up serving 17 years for her role in the crimes. Some experts now believe that Fugate suffered from “Stockholm Syndrome,” wherein a prisoner is deluded into sympathizing with his or her captor.
Instantly, the Starkweather murders took on a mythic tone. The young, hip psychopathic slayer embodied the scariest possibilities of the dreaded “juvenile delinquent” — a figure who was increasingly coming to be feared at the time in a nation awash with an unprecedented number of adolescents.
A decade later, Charles Manson and his killer “Family” cult would re-create and amplify such terror regarding hippies. And also as with Manson, art and popular culture have drawn considerable inspiration from the tragedy. Here are the movie versions.
THE SADIST (1963)
Arch Hall, Jr., is one of the most amusing — and surprisingly talented — figures in early 1960s exploitation movies. Appearing in a spate of films financed and produced by his father, Arch Hall, Sr., Junior is best known for playing an Elvis-esque rocker on the rise in Wild Guitar (1962) and taking on a giant, California-desert-dwelling caveman in Eegah (1962).
From there, though, Junior switched gears severely in The Sadist, in which he plays an absolutely terrifying Charles A. Tibbs, a vicious teenage criminal modeled on Charles Starkweather, who’s traveling cross-country with his even younger, almost mute girlfriend. Piles of corpses were strewn behind in their wake.
The Sadist, made for a mere $33,000, is a taut, almost unbearable exercise in hardscrabble suspense. The impact comes almost entirely from Arch Hall, Jr.’s, unbearably scary performance, wherein his every sneer seems to rip a hole through the screen so he can leap out and come after us.
Badlands, writer-director Terrence Malick’s starkly beautiful and unnerving meditation on the relationship of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, was largely regarded as a masterpiece upon its arrival, and the movie has grown only more powerful in the decades since then.
Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek star as fictionalized versions of the real-life couple, and, even though the film somewhat tones down the utterly repugnant details of the true crimes, its violence is shocking and horribly heartfelt.
In 1993, the United States National Film Registry selected Badlands for preservation in the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” That, it is.
STARK RAVING MAD (1983)
A low-budget spin on the Starkweather/Fugate files, Stark Raving Mad is most notable for being released under numerous titles to maximize its marketability of curious VHS renters in the early days of home video.
While the movie was shot as Rockaday Richie and the Queen of the Hop, in Canada the film was called Execution and in Australia it was Murder Run.
Stark Raving Mad is essentially a generic re-creation of the famous late fifties spree of violence with unremarkable actors going through the motions.
The movie offers up no answers regarding the killings and truly only begs one question: How did the people who put this out ever pass up that original title of Rockaday Richie and the Queen of the Hop?
MURDER IN THE HEARTLAND (1993)
The ABC miniseries Murder in the Heartland faithfully recounts what happened after Charles Starkweather infamously got a taste for homicide and took Caril Ann Fugate along with him.
It’s a fine TV network take on the topic, benefitting tremendously from its casting of Tim Roth as Starkweather and Fairuza Balk as Fugate.
In the nineties, “serial killer chic” proved, like grunge music, to be an underground phenomenon that arose to, at least momentarily, overtake popular culture.
For a while at the dawn of the decade, homemade ’zine publications and harsh noise-rock bands obsessively chronicled and even celebrated perverse murderers to the point that it became “cool” — i.e., marketable — enough to result in a poorly aged Hollywood product on the order of Kalifornia.
Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis portray the cornfed redneck Starkweather/Fugate surrogates who kidnap David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes playing Yuppies who are forced to come along on thrill-kill jaunt.
In time, the city folk come to sort of admire their low-born captors as the bodies pile up. It’s an inadvertent reflection of the attitudes of an era when Johnny Depp would actually brag about owning paintings by John Wayne Gacy.
NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994)
Oliver Stone’s behemoth multi-media attempt to mount and ignite cinema’s ultimate Armageddon is arguably the most avant-garde film ever released by a major Hollywood studio — especially as a summer blockbuster! — and it’s impossible not to admire the sheer ambition on display.
Natural Born Killers‘ ham-headed all-points overwhelm, however, has always divided critics and audiences. Screenwriter Quentin Tarantino, for one, denounced Natural Born Killers before it even came out, but the movie did boast a devoted cult following for a while.
Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis (her again) costar as almost nineties superhero incarnations of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.
Just as the actual 1950s couple seems to be inextricably intertwined with early rock-and-roll, NBK‘s Mickey (Harrelson) and Mallory (Lewis) are very much the alt-rock Lollapalooza versions of the same archetypes, verbally and visually exploding with every excess from those very last days when MTV actually showed music videos.
These days, NBK is especially fascinating to witness while knowing it came out just before the dawn of the Internet — a phenomenon that would rapidly and entirely annihilate and reinvent the very media that the movie is so hell-bent to pummel us with messages about. Millennials will likely be entirely baffled.
At a time when low-budget, true-crime serial killer cash-ins flooded video store shelves on the order of Ed Gein (2000), Ted Bundy (2002), and Gacy (2003), it’s hardly a surprise that Starkweather turned up among them.
Brent Taylor plays Charlie. Shannon Lucio takes on Caril Anne Fugate. Lance Henriksen costars as The Mentor, a ghostly cowboy who steps out of the shadows and yells at Starkweather like a mean dad, telling him to stop being a pansy and kill people like a man and such nonsense.
So, yes, Starkweather is a cheap horror movie based on actual tragedy and suffering. Whether or not that’s a knock is entirely up to your own taste.
Main photo: “Natural Born Killers,” Warner Bros. promotional image