John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, the Zodiac killer, Jeffrey Dahmer – some of the most prolific and notorious serial killers in United States history.
Keeping in tune with America’s obsession with the macabre, theses killers (and many more) have been the subject of countless films, both fiction and non-fiction, based on their heinous crimes. When dramatized for Hollywood, the facts are often fudged and the events sensationalized, but more often than not, the true-life crimes and criminals are much more monstrous and enthralling. On the other hand, documentaries, for better or worse, can often be too focused on facts and less on entertaining (not always the case, but typically).
A new documentary focusing on one of these infamous men attempts to blend both cinematic mediums into one – simultaneously factual and fictional. Using a mixture of archival footage, interviews, and recreations, The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, tells the story of Jeffrey Dahmer and the people around him during the summer of his arrest in 1991 in Milwaukee.
Like the other serial killers listed above, the story of Dahmer’s notorious crime spree is largely well known, at least the filmmakers think/hope it is because not much background info is provided. Granted the film concentrates only on the immediate time around his arrest in July 1991, more details about his early crimes and subsequent trial would have been interesting and helped to create a fuller picture Dahmer and his 13+ year criminal history. Instead, we are given scattered info through three separate talking head interviews and rather subdued recreations of Dahmer’s daily life.
The interviews – one with the detective who spoke exclusively with Dahmer after he was arrested, another with the lead medical examiner of the horrific crime scene, and finally, one with Dahmer’s next door neighbor – provide the crux of the film. All three provide key elements to the story, revealing Dahmer to be both a soft-spoken, but friendly man who kept to himself and simultaneously a clearly demented, meticulous killer.
Each provide their own profound insight into the case: “As soon as you walked in there, you could smell that funky putrid smell of death” (detective), “If someone asked you to write a horror story, this would some of the stuff you would write” (neighbor), and “The best way I can describe it is that we were dismantling someone’s museum” (medical examiner).
Because the film only features three interviews, the scope is limited (even more so but focusing solely on the immediate time around his arrest). Even though the featured three do provide interesting information and insight in Dahmer, the addition of a few more subjects probably would have helped round out the film.
The duality of Dahmer is really the focus of film, kind of playing into that frightening old adage: “it’s always the last person you would suspect.” And where this duality is really emphasized is the droll recreations of Dahmer’s day-to-day life – buying fish, eating fast food, drinking beer, procuring a large barrel, riding the bus, checking into a hotel – which seem innocuous at first, but as we all know, can become very sinister in purpose. These brief asides add depth and help build tension throughout the film, features that may not have been possible in a traditional documentary format. The fictionalized segments also allow the filmmakers to indulge in a little more showy artistic expression, often capturing a lonely Dahmer (played with creepy ease by Andrew Swant) in lingering wide shots and silent long takes.
The Jeffrey Dahmer Files does an excellent job of capturing who Dahmer was at the time of his arrest, but only teases at his mindset during that time and does not reveal much new information on the case. What we do see is how the case and its far-reaching notoriety affected each of the interview subjects in vastly different ways, making it a much more personal film rather than an exposé.
At a lean (almost too lean) 76 minutes, the film offers a glimpse into Dahmer and his crimes and almost urges viewers to seek out more on the grisly subject matter at hand. For what it is, the film is a fascinating and intimate look at one of the most notorious serial killers in American history.
The Jeffrey Dahmer Files is directed by Chris James Thompson. The film initially premiered last year at SXSW.
The Jeffrey Dahmer Files opens Friday, March 15 at Chalmette Movies – screening at 5:15 and 9:15 p.m. daily.
So come out and support Chalmette Movies (8700 W. Judge Perez Dr.) by catching this new film, so that the theater can continue bringing interesting films like these to the New Orleans-area. Also, visit the theater’s website for more information, directions, showtimes, and ticket prices.
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