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July 18, 2011

The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer

(1993, Dir. by David R. Bowen.)

The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer isn't so secret revealing as I hoped it'd be.  For example, the one part of Jeffrey Dahmer's story that most interests me has been glossed over entirely here.  But that's OK, I suppose, because even Dahmer's Wikipedia page misses the point.  What's the point, you ask?  The point is that, from ages 2-6, Jeffrey Dahmer's father went to school at Iowa State University, meaning that toddler Dahmer lived about two miles from where The Mike is sitting right now.  But nooooo, Dahmer's family couldn't stay put...and thus my sweet little town doesn't have a serial killer we get to lay claim to.  I cry foul!

Ahem.

Now that we're past my little tantrum, let's talk about the film itself.  The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer (which totally maddens me by using that colon instead of the word OF) is s far cry from Things, the other new DVD release from Intervision Picture Corp. that I reviewed a few days ago.    In fact, the only things these two films have in common are that they were released straight to VHS and that they are now released by the same company on DVD.

Much to my surprise - even though the DVD packaging says exactly what I didn't believe - The Secret Life is a shockingly serious film.  Director David R. Bowen and writer/star Carl Crew - fascinated by the accounts of the killer (who had been captured two years earlier and was still alive in prison at the time the film was released) - set out to make the closest account of Dahmer's exploits possible, leaving the expectations of a horror fan at the door.  This isn't a cheesy, action packed account of a killer on the loose - it's a straight-forward tale that seems to revel in the chance to show what really happened.  Bowen and Crew produced the film in secrecy - assuming they would be fighting with Hollywood productions who picked up Dahmer's story - only to find that no one else dared to make a film based on the killer at the time.  A backlash from the media and the families of those involved of course followed, and it's safe to assume that the film's approach to the killer was one of the biggest concerns.  This plays like a documentary; like an episode of a true crime TV show that turned into one big re-enactment. 

From a cinematic perspective, there are plenty of problems with Bowen and Crew's approach.  The film follows Dahmer (played by Crew, who bears some resemblance to the real killer) as he goes through the motions of picking up gay men, luring them into his apartment, and offing them in various ways.  This formula is repeated with little filler in between luring-and-killing scenes, and thus the film becomes repetitive pretty quickly.  The biggest changes from scene to scene generally are the manners with which Dahmer will dispose of each victim, but also include changes in the random creepy underpants that Dahmer's oft-pantless victims are wearing.  Y'know that old saying about wearing nice underwear just in case? These guys must have heard that message, because their varying briefs had more colors than a bag of Skittles. Anyway, my point is that when the different colors of underpants that you're forced to stare at are the biggest change from scene to scene, that probably means your film is formulaic to a fault.

The other minor issue I had with the film came from Crew's performance as Dahmer.  In general, I thought he did a good job of making the character creepy and I certainly wouldn't go back to his apartment with him after seeing the film.  (Then again, I'm straight and wear boxers, so I'd be safe anyway.)  The issue, albeit minor, was that it was near impossible to look at and listen to the performance without wondering if he was trying to mimic "Buffalo Bill" from The Silence of the Lambs.  There are moments throughout the film when Dahmer seems to have left the building and you just end up waiting for Crew to scream something about the lotion and the basket.  Again, I think the performance is generally good, particularly for what the film is, but it's hard for it to step out of the shadow of Ted Levine's performance two years earlier.

That said, the biggest plus about The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer is that it is a surprisingly relevant film.  By avoiding campy or cheesy turns, Bowen and Crew really seem to get us interested in the life of Dahmer, even offering some understanding into the character's mind.  All of this was done without permission of the people involved and without any books that had been written or any other source material, but the film still feels kind of like it's the "authorized" look into what went on during Jeffrey Dahmer's real world killing spree.  The film isn't terribly gritty or stylized either, which certainly adds to the real-life intrigue of the tale.  Dahmer has been brought to film since, but it's hard for me to believe that any of the more polished versions could keep me as interested as Bowen and Crew were able to here.

The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer is by no means a great film, and I kinda got sick of it at times.  But it really does seem to be trying to mean something, and I have to give credit to the film for presenting Dahmer's story so directly.  Events and names have been changed, of course, but The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer still manages to feel like it's close to reality at every turn...which is a pretty unsettling thought when you consider the man the film was based on. (Even if it decides to omit the glorious landscapes of Ames, Iowa!)

Intervision's release of The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer isn't packed with as many features as their DVD of Things was, but it does offer an audio commentary by Bowen and Crew and a trailer.  The disc makes up for its lack of bonuses with audio and video transfers that are far superior to the one on the Things disc.  Though the film still looks like it's on a VHS, it at least looks like a clean VHS that hasn't been run through a chainsaw.

For more information on The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer, head on over to the Intervision Picture Corp. site, or head over to Amazon for purchasing information!

1 comment:

John Bem said...

I like the distressed look of the DVD box. I thought it was an ancient VHS box at first. Is this faux distressed or did you drop it in the washing machine? This is an intriguing write-up, and I appreciate your insights, but the movie just doesn't sound like my cuppa tea.