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The Lighter Side of Torture

Filmmaker Ben Meade has turned the grisly murders of KC serial killer Bob Berdella into a musical. Got a problem with that?

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In 1988, a young man in Kansas City named Chris Bryson dabbled with the wrong things, dealt with the wrong people and one night trusted the wrong man, who clubbed him, raped him and injected his throat with Drano.

For the better part of a week, Bryson endured what can only be described as a living hell. He was strapped to a bed, beaten repeatedly, raped morning and night, prodded, poked, pricked and drugged. Left alone one morning, Bryson broke free from his restraints, leaped from a second-story window and hobbled off for help, wearing nothing but a dog collar. Within 24 hours, the street was closed off, police officers had swarmed over the Hyde Park home, and a dig was under way to uncover the heinous trophies buried in the backyard of Bryson's tormenter -- sexual serial killer Bob Berdella.

Sometime between that day and now, Bryson vanished -- changed his name, relocated to southern Missouri, started a new life. The old Bryson, the one who made a young man's mistakes and paid for them with punishments beyond any proportional scale, ceased to exist.

The house, 4315 Charlotte, went away, too. It was white, an outwardly typical midtown home, though piled high on the inside with screwball junk Berdella couldn't sell at his now infamous stall at the Westport Flea Market. Police found evidence of ungodly horrors both inside and outside the house. Later, a millionaire named Del Dunmire bought the lot, razed the house and deeded the vacant land to the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association.

There also was a Kansas City Times reporter back then who tried to explain, in a limited but illuminating way, how these crimes happened. She'd discovered remarkable things about the Berdella case that implicated at least one high-ranking Kansas City official. Then one day she collected her notebooks and tapes and clippings about the Berdella saga, deposited them in a landfill and left forever.

Back then, there were opinions and jokes and even a song about Berdella. Horrified by the crimes, many Kansas Citians resorted to morbid humor. One radio disc jockey remade the 1960s hit "Mellow Yellow" using Berdella's spree of rape and murder as his own lyrical punch line. In time, those reactions drifted into history as well.

Finally, there was the monster himself. From 1984 to 1988, Bob Berdella murdered no fewer than six young men. Only, he didn't just kill them. He kept them alive for a while, made them his personal playthings, tortured them, then grew tired of them and moved on. Once apprehended, Berdella spent 4 years in prison before a heart attack killed him in 1992. Some say he got what was coming to him. Others say he should have lived and suffered longer. Either way, he's gone.

With Berdella dead, the surviving victim vanished and the key reporter gone, the crimes have remained in the city's shadows for nearly 15 years. Arguably, there is no reason to revisit them now.

Ben Meade disagrees. Entranced by the Berdella ordeal and its effect on Kansas City, the local avant-garde filmmaker has dug it all back up. In his trademark style, he has mixed myth with fact, credible sources with bullshit artists, gravity with absurdity, blending together everything in a meandering stew of obscenity.

He calls this creation Bazaar Bizarre, after the cluttered shop Berdella kept. The movie's premiere closes the Kansas International Film Festival on September 16. It's a mystery -- or merely a testament to Kansas City's ability to reside under the national radar -- why Bob Berdella never achieved the mainstream notoriety of John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy.

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