Serial Thriller: The Chameleon. Investigation Discovery. Sunday, December 6, 9 p.m.
Television hadn't been invented when T. S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land, or it would have begun, "December is the cruelest month." The networks, their budgetary wads shot on November sweeps programming, lapse into a programming coma, and the airwaves are full of mutant reindeer and poverty-pimping ghosts. It's enough to make you long for a serial killer, bearing not frankincense or myrhh but a machete and a bucket of steaming entrails. But be careful what you ask Santa for, or you might wind up with Serial Thriller: The Chameleon.
Made by Europeans who've almost certainly never set foot in America (their "Las Vegas" location looks like the tumbleweed-blown town in The Last Picture Show) and perhaps have never even sat down in front of a TV or movie screen (the random editing gives the show roughly the coherence of a Czech art film run backwards), The Chameleon does for serial killers what Showgirls did for strippers.
A highly fictionalized account of a string of murders of young women committed in Nevada and Texas in 1980 and 1981, The Chameleon allegedly—I personally find it nearly impossible to believe—had a brief theatrical run before being edited into a three-hour miniseries to air as part of Investigation Discovery's omnibus true-crime series Serial Thriller. (Two hours air Sunday, the third at 9 p.m. Monday.)
I mention this because it's conceivable (remotely … barely … oh, hell, no it isn't) that The Chameleon wasn't this brain-burstingly bad before the network got hold of it. But that's a matter for the Nuremburg Tribunal on Crimes Against Television to determine later. As a viewer, all you need to know is that The Chameleon will cause you to question the true value of the powers of sight and hearing.
The gimmick of Serial Thriller has always been that while it's blatantly obvious to viewers from the opening moments a serial killer is at work, it's a mystery which of the legion of creepy male characters is behind all the slicing and dicing.
The Chameleon follows the formula with far more enthusiasm than skill. Even the lanky cadaverous cop investigating the Las Vegas killing (Richard Brake, The Bastard Executioner), who's given to tender, whispered conversations with the dead women and likes to swap tips about the most effective species of snake for corpse disposal, seems a likely suspect.
To compound the confusion, The Chameleon's screenplay consists of at least three different narratives (two of them continuing flashbacks) so ineptly intercut that it's almost impossible to tell who's still alive, which suspects have been been eliminated, or if the entire story has blundered through a rip in the space-time continuum to a Klingon planet.
In fact, the Klingon scenario probably makes a good deal of sense in the context of The Chameleon's script. It's hard to imagine that so many Earth girls would be saying stuff like "Why don't you ever invite me back to your place? How come we always just end up in the back of your truck?" Or hitchhiking through the middle of a desert and taking rides from guys who look like Charles Manson on a bad hair day.
Even the killer himself seems disturbed by the suicidal guilelessness of his victims. "Why did those chicks make me shoot 'em?" he wonders aloud after yet another unsatisfactory social encounter. "They made me shoot 'em over a car, damn it! They could have just let me take it, but nothing's that simple anymore." The post-modern version of the Twinkie defense.