What We Do Is Secret : serial killer flicks

Thought I'd specialize this time 'round. Nothing but serial killer biopics. Enjoy! (And if you do, feel a little uncomfortable with yourself!)

(C, 2002) Movies about famous serial killers are like adaptations of Frankenstein or Dracula: the audience already knows the story, so it's all about how well the story is re-told. In this case, that's pretty well, with a nicely underplayed performance by Jeremy Renner as Dahmer. He's a mild-mannered guy who works in a chocolate factory all day and cruises for men he can take home at night. He drugs them, has sex with them while they're unconscious, and drills holes in their heads to try to turn them into zombie sex slaves. The film alternates between Dahmer's present day (dealing with a victim and another potential victim who he spends a lot of time talking to) and his past, where he argued with his father and kills his first victim. The film is restrained and surprisingly nonsensationalistic, not just an exploitation film. Given the subject matter, they can afford to underplay it. They even overdo that a little, so the killing almost gets forgotten. There's very little gore, but the acting is pretty impressive.

The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer (C, 1993) Effectively creepy dramatization of the crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer, not shying away from but not fully relying on the gory details. The guy playing Dahmer (Carl Crew) is a lot bigger and beefier than the real Dahmer and therefore more imposing, and he plays Dahmer as a brooding, malevolent, emotional obsessive motivated by his desire to keep and control his gay lovers by murdering them so they won't be able to leave him. He's basically building a harem of ghosts, keeping skulls to cuddle. He killed several while living with his grandmother, managing to dismember and dispose of their rotting carcasses without her catching on (though she does complain about the stench). Finally he does move into his own apartment (where all his neighbors are soon complaining about stenches) and is soon arrested for drugging a minor. While on probation he kills more, tries to turn some into sex-slave zombies by injecting acid into their brains, and cooks others into meatloaf which he serves to future victims. Others he dissolves in acid (while alive!). He keeps luring guys home on the premise of paying them to take nude pictures, then drugging and killing them, sometimes making morbid phone calls to taunt the parents of his victims. This film came out before Dahmer was killed in prison so it's not "complete" but mostly sticks to the facts, and is disturbing due to its melancholy morbidity. There's some splatter, but it's kept mostly suggested. Still, knowing this film doesn't stray far from fact, it's pretty lurid. It's low budget and that shows, but it's effective and worth looking for.

Just came out on DVD, which you should buy, but you can also watch it online if you're willing to settle for that:

Ed Gein
(C, 2000) aka In The Light of the Moon. Steve Railsback (who’s most famous for his eerie portrayal of Manson in the Helter Skelter TV movie) plays yet another major psycho as he portrays creepy necrophile/cannibal Ed Gein, whose crimes horrified his Wisconsin farm community and inspired Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deranged, Three on a Meathook, this film, and who knows what else. Mother-fixated Ed goes crazy and starts robbing graves and murdering women after his repressive religious fanatic mother (Carrie Snodgress) dies. His neighbors (a few of whom even know he has shrunken heads hanging on his bedroom door) just think Ed’s a bit odd or has a weird sense of humor, and even let him babysit their kids. In actuality he’s a schizophrenic and getting worse, and the film does an admirable job of capturing the dreamlike world he lives in and the way his fantasy life intrudes on reality. Ed suffers from loneliness and reads a lot of unsavory material about death and Nazis and head-hunters and it gives him ideas, and before you know it he’s dancing around in a suit made of women’s skin. The movie’s fairly accurate to the facts and re-creates some of the grisly murder scenes in detail, yet doesn’t come across as exploitative. Railsback manages to be very creepy and yet somewhat sympathetic, showing Gein’s tortured nature.

Also on DVD, but for the quality-unconscious cheapskates there's the online version:

Gacy (C, 2003) Dramatization of the crimes of John Wayne Gacy, who's mostly depicted here as a businessman with a big sanitation problem. There's a horrible stench coming from his crawlspace and bugs and maggots are all over, and people come to look at it, amazingly not catching on that he has a lot of bodies buried down there, the remains of young men he's hired for maintenance work, then abducted, sexually abused, and murdered. Even as people start getting wise to the weird goings-on at the Gacy place, he’s still trying to find more space to bury victims. It’s fairly well-made and has some creepiness, but unfortunately not enough, and it gets tedious, especially since the production’s not exactly a high-class affair. You’d expect more sensationalism, but this is pretty tame. The acting is impressive, though.

Ted Bundy
(C, 2002) Low-budget horror/biopic depicts notorious serial killer Bundy as a sociopathic preppy peckerneck who's exploiting a girlfriend for sex and school money while he goes around shoplifting and jerking off outside girls' windows and beating up women and stealing their purses. By day he works at a counseling hotline, and plans to become a governor (as a Republican, o' course - they'd probably still vote for him). He also starts hitting women with crowbars after luring them to his car wearing a fake arm cast and asking for help, or by posing as a cop. He rapes and kills them (and then sometimes rapes them again). His girlfriend never catches on that he's a psycho, even while he plays disturbing, hateful games with her. The countryside's soon littered with corpses and Ted's having a high ol' time until the cops catch up to him. Then he manages to escape, gets recaptured, then escapes again and attacks a whole sorority house before getting caught yet again. There's no real gore (although special effects whiz Tom Savini does have a cameo) but plenty of disturbing behavior as a gleeful Ted goes about his sick business. Better than you think it'd be.

Again, available online, or DVD...


  1. Great post, as usual... but, what? No 'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer' review? I soooo expected that one to be included here, even if it's not a strict biopic...

  2. I didn't have it handy. It's not an exhaustive list of serial killer flicks, or I'd've needed to put in a whoooooole bunch of Manson stuff. It was just what I could fit in on the spur of the moment... :)