In the early 1870’s the residents of Labette County, Kansas, lived alongside a family of serial killers. Known later as “The Bloody Benders,” their modus operandi was to lure travelers into their grocery store, invite them to stay for dinner, crush their skull with a hammer, and slit their throat to ensure death. Afterward, they would bury the remains somewhere on their property. Just as soon as they had been discovered, they vanished without a trace, making it difficult to ascertain if all the details we know are factual or fictional. However, stories like these are the perfect playground for filmmakers, as they are able to take as many creative liberties as they would like, and in the end, they need only say its “inspired by true events.” That being said, Bender is one of many adaptations of these events, but it looks to be one of the only films that explicitly deals with the actual Bender family and their specific victims.
Dr. William York is the only physician in the town of Independence, Kansas. After a local woman dies in his arms, her children run away from the town. Feeling responsible for their loss, he ventures into the wilderness to bring them back to the safety of independence. Along the way, he finds a peculiar “grocery” store in the middle of nowhere. The doctor enters and enjoys the hospitality provided, never knowing that the children did the same, but never left.
Visually, this film develops just the right atmosphere for its story. Vast empty plains, long walks to the town hall/church, and the house in which the Benders live is set up as a small store and dining area in the front with a single bed directly behind, separated only by the dirtiest sheet you can think of. Everything about the mise-en-scéne within the film just lends itself to being very unsettling. Now, where the film succeeds visually, it disappoints sonically. The film’s score utilizes a lot of strings, and very rarely does it fit what is happening on screen. Don’t get me wrong, the score is well written, from lyrical, minor harmonies, to atonal, technically difficult string phrases. It just doesn’t complement the atmosphere set by the visuals. There are even times when the editing attempts to match the rhythm of the string parts, attempting to bridge the gap between the visual and the sonic; it just falls short and ends up jarring you out of the film.
In addition to the visual aspects of the film creating an unsettling atmosphere, the acting amplifies that tenfold. It is bizarre to me. For example, David Lynch has his actors miss their beats (by a fraction of a second) on purpose, making the “natural” conversation between actors very unnatural and unnerving. In Bender all of the beats are hit properly, but the actors deliver lines in a rather stunted (for lack of a better word) way. It’s as if their cadence is being disrupted by very intense thoughts happening in their head. This is mostly the case with the character of Kate Bender, but almost all of the characters do this in a less pronounced way. It is a form of awkward acting that I had never seen, nor was I expecting to see, but it most certainly lends itself to the overall creepy atmosphere of the film.
On the whole, Bender takes many creative liberties with the story of the Bloody Benders. If you are interested, give the film a watch and read a few reports about the Benders to see if you can spot all the differences. It is a fun watch for anyone who appreciates indie horror cinema. Seventy-five minutes is not a very taxing timeframe and the positive qualities of the film greatly outweigh any negative you might find.