JULY 11, 2011
Unlike Things, which is from the same niche label (Intervision), The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer (why no “of”? Was “The Secret Life” an aborted anthology series of some sort?) isn’t something you get drunk and watch with friends, due to the subject matter. Dahmer is one of the most modern of our serial killers (in fact he took one of his last victims twenty years ago today), with plenty of his would-be victims and their immediate families still alive. Unfortunately, it’s still kind of laughable, making it a rather “awkward” movie, to say the least.
Not that the filmmakers set out to make a lurid, darkly humorous movie based on Dahmer; their hearts were in the right place. They stick to the facts, the guy playing Dahmer is a pretty good physical match, and they don’t try to make him out to be a sympathetic or tragic figure like the other Dahmer film did, which I’m sure is appreciated (on some level) by the victims’ families. However, the film is littered with awful performances; nearly every supporting character is either stiff as a board or overacting in a manner that would befit a Disney Channel sitcom. I should feel bad or scared for one of these poor bastards he’s about to kill and defile, but more often than not I was trying hard not to chuckle at the abysmal acting.
Carl Crew (as Dahmer) also provides the film with voiceover, a largely misguided creative choice. The fact that Crew also wrote the script just makes matters worse; you have a guy doing a not very good job reading his own not very good lines. It’s just all goofy, amateurish nonsense (“I didn’t want to kill him.... but I couldn’t help myself.”), delivered in a super serious monotone – I was sick of it after 15 minutes, and it’s pretty consistent throughout the 99 minute film. They also never give it an origin – is he narrating from prison? Is this from his diary or something? The film ends with his arrest, and he’s still rambling from some unknown point in time and space.
I also think they were a bit too quick to make their film (it was completed in 1993, less than two years after his arrest). A few years’ worth of reflection, not to mention more of the backstory being filled in, might have resulted in a better film. The movie also skips over the trial, opting to just tell us what his sentence was. Perhaps it’s just my own minor love of courtroom dramas, but I think this might be an interesting aspect to a filmed version of the story, as the jury actually found him sane, which is how he ended up in a regular prison instead of a maximum security institution (and thus, why he was beaten to death by another prisoner after only a year or so). Granted this odd ending to his tale couldn’t have been known at the time of the film’s production, but it still doesn’t explain why they skipped over the trial.
Especially when the movie is little more than a series of sequences that recreate his killings, albeit with the sexual/homoerotic nature of them reduced to mild innuendo (and voiceover, of course). Again, kudos to not glorifying or flat out making shit up about his crimes, but there are other ways to make the movie interesting without dipping into fiction. Instead, it’s just the same thing over and over – Dahmer meets a guy in a bar or on the street, asks him to pose for him, takes a few shots, and then kills the guy. His non-killing life is largely skipped (almost zero about his childhood, nothing about the candy factory, etc), and the few attempts at bringing the outside world into the movie (such as a neighbor complaining about the smell) are awkwardly implemented. In one, Dahmer seems to be using sign language as he yells at the lady, and the entire scene just seems like something that might be going on in the background of Basket Case as Duane makes his way back to his room in that rundown hotel.
There is one bit that sticks out, however, when Dahmer takes a deaf guy back to his place for the usual thing. First of all it seems like the two knew each other beforehand (with Dahmer using actual sign language this time), which makes it feel a little sad. Most of these guys just come off as total idiots, but the idea that this guy was a friend makes his fate more upsetting in a way. It’s also a bit more creepy, as Dahmer taunts him from behind, waving an electric knife around that the poor bastard can’t hear. But nothing else approaches an attempt at either real drama or suspense. The other Dahmer film, with Jeremy Renner (which mirrors this one in many ways) had that one guy sort of psychologically profiling him for a while near the end, a mini-scene that was kind of fascinating in a way – there’s nothing like that here. All of these guys are as one-dimensional (and again, poorly acted) as the jerks in later Friday the 13th sequels. It makes the whole thing feel quite exploitative at times, an outcome that is largely at odds with the factual approach they were taking.
It’s also fairly amateurish at times, particularly in the editing. Jump cuts are common, as are still frames used for cutaways and establishing shots. Occasional text cards telling us what’s going on in his life are often rife with confusing grammar, and the end credits also have a few typos, sometimes even back to back with the correct spelling (“supervisor” followed by a “surpervisor” on the next line). They also didn’t bother editing the sound, so cuts are often accompanied by a jarring change in room tone. And I’m not sure if they were just terrible at trying to pass some Los Angeles suburbs as Milwaukee, or just didn’t care, but either way there are more shots with palm trees than there are in some movies that actually take place in LA. Simple things that a few extra hours’ work could fix, and no doubt made it harder for anyone to take them seriously at the time. I mean, if you’re making some cheap slasher movie, fine – who cares? But when you’re doing a film about a serial killer case from less than two years ago and dedicating it to his victims, you’d think they’d put a little more effort into the basics.
Of course, you’d never know the film had any such flaws from listening to the commentary by Crew and director David Bowen, which is pretty much 99 minutes of defensive response to critics and others who thought their film was crass and patting themselves on the back for being the first and such. They almost never comment directly on what is happening on screen, and it wouldn’t surprise if the track was re-edited or something, as one of them makes a comment about how the movie’s almost over when it’s barely past the halfway mark. They rarely speak about the actors, the other crew members (though apparently the original director quit or was fired because he wanted to include scenes of gay sex and was overruled – god forbid they accurately depict what happened in the film that’s supposedly accurately depicting what happened!), though they do more or less claim to be the better of the two Dahmer films on more than one occasion. Humble! The movie’s endless trailer is also included; a nearly four minute assembly of nearly every kill/important moment in the film that manages to make it look like some sort of action thriller.
In my review of Dahmer I pointed out that the film often seemed to be assuming that you had seen another film or read a book. So I guess the only thing this one is good for is a quicker way of learning the basics so you can get more out of that (superior) film. Otherwise, it’s little more than the longest Unsolved Mysteries segment of all time, albeit without the creepy voice of Robert Stack suggesting you might have the clue to solving the case (which I NEVER did, dammit! Wanted so badly to help him out!).
What say you?