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 unresolved.

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 strained.

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 330-996-3582.