The true story of a Sacramento-based serial killer is relayed via an unconventional medium in Carey Burtt’s unsettling 16mm short work The Psychotic Odyssey of Richard Chase. As a distorted narrator’s voice intones, the disturbing biographical details of Chase’s life are dispassionately relayed. Tracing Chase’s development from troubled tot to full-blown sociopath, Burtt’s movie visualizes the killer’s heinous acts with a collection of action figures, crude drawings, and found footage. The clear stylistic forbearer here is Todd Haynes’ seminal Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Each of these films uses toys to fill out its cast, at once distancing the audience from the narrative and daring us to let our guard down. In both, the campy novelty of the approach quickly gives way to something more genuine. As Psychotic Odyssey unfolds, the utterly alien nature of Chase’s behavior supersedes the dolls or the narration as the most effective distancing effect here. This subject simply is too far gone to be adequately explained. It’s to Burtt’s credit that he dares not try. As the depths of Chase’s depravity become clear, any laughs prompted by the novelty of Burtt’s approach are likely to get stuck in your throat.
Despite the abstraction caused by the doll actors, Psychotic Odyssey grows increasingly gruesome as Chase begins to eat animals and eventually turns his attention to human victims. This film’s extremely abstracted violence arguably becomes, in a way, as unsettling as any attempt at a more realistic representation might. It is impressive that Burtt creates such a sense of dread while wielding such a limited palette. Paper cutouts are used as stand-ins for Chase’s perceived oppressors. An anatomical “visible man” model is used to visualize his hypochondriac fears. With primitive but expressive lighting, Burtt imbues his simple dioramas with real atmosphere. The crude crayon drawings and cardboard sets become more than adequate in this context. They drive home the impossibility of doing the film’s subject full justice in this medium, and always remind the audience that in viewing cinema, we do not view truth. The chilling net effect of this six minute long descent into madness is greater than the sum of its parts. The home-made production values of Psychotic Odyssey domesticates Chase’s insanity, associating it with familiar, typically benign objects, ultimately making it that much harder to shake off or compartmentalize.