Hunt for The Unicorn Killer
A review of the NBC movie "The Hunt for the Unicorn Killer"
by R.D. Heldenfels
`Unicorn Killer' is unsatisfying
Part of the problem with `true story'
drama is central issue is unresolved
On its surface, and in its structure, The Hunt for the
Unicorn Killer looks like other four-hour TV movies,
ones ``based on a true story'' where a charming guy
proves to be the embodiment of evil during the first
two hours, then faces justice in the last two.
Looked at in those terms, the NBC movie -- airing at
9 p.m. Sunday and Monday -- does not work very
well. For one thing, its central case remains
The movie is based on the story of Ira Einhorn
(known as the Unicorn), an engaging, eccentric
figure from the Philadelphia counterculture. In 1977,
Holly Maddux, who had been Einhorn's lover,
disappeared after attempting to end her relationship
with Einhorn; 18 months later Maddux's brutally
beaten and by then mummified body was found in a
trunk in Einhorn's apartment.
And that, it turned out, was just the beginning of the
story. Thanks to the endorsement of powerful
friends in Philadelphia society, Einhorn got
unconscionably low bail. In 1981, just before he was
to stand trial for Maddux's murder, he left the
country and remained in hiding well into the '90s.
In 1993, he was convicted in absentia of Maddux's
murder, but he was not arrested until 1997, when he
was finally found in France. Since then, Einhorn has
been fighting extradition from France to the United
States; a ruling in February that he be extradited is
now under appeal.
Hasn't exactly been brought to justice, has he? To
be sure, his reputation has been scarred. Activist
Jerry Rubin, a friend of Einhorn, once said that ``Ira
betrayed everything I stood for and possibly
everything he stood for. . . . Ira betrayed the '60s.''
At the same time, in spite of all the evidence, to this
day there are people who don't want to believe
Einhorn is a murderer. Kevin Anderson, who plays
Einhorn in the NBC movie, has said, ``With all that
we know about some of the government
conspiracies that took place in the '60s and all of the
advanced ideas that Einhorn preached, one could
make a case that he was set up.''
The movie tries to fit the traditional form. Einhorn's
relationship with Maddux (played by Naomi Watts)
occupies most of the first part. The second focuses
on attempts to investigate Maddux's disappearance
-- driven largely by her father Fred (Tom Skerritt);
then Einhorn's prosecution, escape and eventual
rediscovery. But not only does reality keep the
movie from a satisfying dramatic arc, the
moviemakers themselves undercut their tale.
A major dramatic problem is the lack of apparent
aging by Einhorn -- who will be 59 on May 15 -- and
by Maddux's sisters, who continue to press for
judgment against Einhorn. (Fred Maddux committed
suicide in 1988.) In a movie where viewers' outrage
would be underscored by more obvious indications
of how long this case has dragged on, it's odd that
the dramatic impression is undercut this way.
Then again, the movie clearly sets out to be
something other than just a charismatic-killer tale. At
times, it could just as well have been called The
Resurrection of Holly Maddux.
Maddux does indeed tend to get lost in the Einhorn
saga, if only because she has been dead for more
than 20 years and he's still out there, driving law
enforcement crazy. And by presenting her in the first
part of the movie, and repeatedly noting her family's
devotion in the second part, The Hunt for the
Unicorn Killer tries to make Einhorn's crime seem
even more heinous by highlighting the victim.
Let's be clear, then: Einhorn has been convicted of a
horrible, brutal crime, one that demonstrates his
indifference to human life. (He continued to live in his
apartment even as Maddux's body decayed there.)
But in trying to elevate Maddux, the movie does a
disservice to history.
Steven Levy's book The Unicorn's Secret, which is
the basis for the NBC movie, paints a rather
different picture of Maddux than is evident in the
sweet-faced Watts' performance. Her emotional and
sexual history were complicated before she met
Einhorn, and her relationship with her family at times
In the movie, for example, Holly refuses a crucifix
from her father because Einhorn would not like it; in
Levy's telling, Holly refused the crucifix because she
was questioning her faith -- before she knew
Einhorn. Fred Maddux, for that matter, is far less
likable in Levy's account of the Maddux story than
he is as played by Skerritt.
Granted that most based-on-fact movies play with
history, the changes remain troublesome because
some people will take what they see as an accurate
depiction. Still, I didn't know much about the
Einhorn-Maddux story before seeing the movie and
still found it unsatisfying as drama. It has flat spots,
a trite dramatic flow and an ending that wants to be
uplifting but is overwhelmed by the sourness of what
has gone before.
R.D. Heldenfels writes about television for the
Akron Beacon Journal.
He can be reached at