This is a true story, though some elements have been fictionalized to protect the innocent - or the guilty. In this form, it centres on Skipper Todd (Robert F. Lyons), a young man in his early twenties who even at that age was not as young as he used to be, and having no job relied on his mother (Barbara Bel Geddes) to support him. He spent his time hanging around with the local teenagers, since he was someone they could look up, being cool in their eyes, and most significantly he could supply them with drugs to get high on. In return, he would ask sexual favours, and maybe sometimes request they do him a different kind of favour - like covering up a murder.
The Todd Killings was indeed based on a true story, though the real Charles Schmid, who Lyons was effectively playing, went unmentioned here, no matter how closely the screenplay stuck to the facts of his case. He was not so much a serial killer as a multiple murderer, though his motives remained rather difficult to fathom: he was charismatic and popular, and had no reason to kill anyone, but in some kind of twisted power trip bred from his psychology, he liked to murder the teens he was palling around with, and as he had them under his thumb, the ones he did not kill would see this behaviour as perfectly understandable and do their best to back him up, as a "friend".
Had Charles Manson and his Family not perpetrated an even more sensational murder spree, it is likely Schmid would be better remembered, his psychopathology worth looking into for criminologists to work out what makes such opportunistic killers tick. But while Manson's crimes inspired a collection of cash-in thrillers and hippy horrors, many of them cheap and nasty, Schmid merely had this almost-contemporary examination of his activities, a film that was not only forgotten many decades past the point of the incidents in question, but was not widely seen at the time, perhaps surprisingly after its director had helmed the bad taste science fiction hit Wild in the Streets.
He being Barry Shear, a filmmaker who would probably be better known had he not concentrated his career in series television episodes and the occasional special, yet his occasional forays into the big screen were worthy of reassessment as they betrayed an extremely cynical frame of mind that could have been a source for much fascination if he had chosen - or been given the opportunity - to display it in film more regularly. As it was, he ended up with a journeyman body of work that hinted at a deeper understanding of where society's maladjustments and sicknesses lay when he was allowed to exercise it in the movies; if anything, The Todd Killings went even further than his previous effort in that vein as it did not have the cushion of satire to make this more palatable. This was grim from start to finish, despite the sunkissed look.
This was why it has been latterly described as a precursor to a bigger, no less unsettling, cult true crime movie of the eighties, River's Edge, yet while that was leavened with a savagely dark sense of humour, you were afforded no such sweetener here. Skipper manipulates the superficial kids purely because he is an authority figure they can respect, something of an outlaw, someone who understands what they want out of life, and with a disdain for the older generation, who, after all, is sending the young men to a war they don't believe in. Meanwhile the teens play around by the communal swimming pool, get high on Skipper's stash, and pair off for casual sex. Richard Thomas played a boy fresh out of reformatory trying to join in but hopelessly out of it, indicative of the obsession with youth mixed with a disgust the film held; the hated oldies were played by an impressive array of ageing stars. As for Lyons, he worked consistently, but rarely had a role that showed off his talent as this does - the scene where he rapes Belinda Montgomery who relents and whispers an "I love you" summed up the perverse nature of a discomfiting, uneasy experience. Music by Leonard Rosenman.