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Gavin Schmitt

Review: Pioneer Horror Film "Bender"

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The unsettling true story of America's first serial killing family. A troubled doctor (Jon Monastero) searches for patients swallowed by the prairie and encounters the Benders, homesteaders trapped by a life of unspeakable sin.

If nothing else, this film deserves praise for bringing the story of the “Bloody Benders” to life. Somehow, despite a lifetime of reading true crime and history, as well as devouring thousands of horror films, this reviewer has no recollection of ever hearing about the Bender family. And it is such a good story, that it really deserves to be explored more. From 1869-1872, the family killed at least 11 people and even captured the imagination of a young Laura Ingalls (1867-1957), who had a loose connection to the Benders.

Horror fans will delight at James Karen (“Return of the Living Dead”) as lecherous Old Man Bender. His actions are ravenous, almost animalistic, but perhaps not far from reality. According to reports, the real Bender “spoke very little English. When he did speak it, it was so guttural that it was usually unintelligible.” Further, he “was prone to laughing aimlessly, which led many to consider him a half-wit.” So this bizarre portrayal is actually quite appropriate. (Horror fans also get Bruce Davison of “Willard” fame as the mayor!)

The plot is clever and imaginative. The easy way out would have been to do a straight-up exploitation film with blood and guts. We still get that, of course, but the focus is really on an outsider (the doctor), which provides a more interesting story than just the same old hack-and-slash. The unfortunate thing is that there is very little dialogue, and a fairly short (80-minute) running time, so the film feels less than fully fleshed out at times. There is also the fact that the costumes seem too clean for pioneers. Apparently they could not afford to buy the costumes outright or get them dry cleaned, so the actors had to avoid dirtying the rentals.

While the film is less than perfect, it is still a valiant effort and ought to be appreciated for being more than the same old thing. Horror, as much as we all love it, has a tendency to beat a dead horse. Not so in this case. The “pioneer horror” subgenre is small – beyond “Ginger Snaps Back” and “Ravenous” there are few entries – and “Bender fits in well here. The film was in distributor limbo for a couple years, but is now seeing the light of day thanks to Candy Factory Films.

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