Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ed Gein

Ed Gein (2000) aka In the Light of the Moon
Dir. Chuck Parello
Written by Stephen Johnson
Starring Steve Railsback, Carrie Snodgress, Carol Mansell

This is one of those low-budget, more-or-less straight-to-video (yes, video) serial killer movies they were doing for a while in the early 2000’s, and like most of those it’s pretty shoddily made and artlessly executed. But while a lot of those turn out to be just kind of cliched and dull, this one actually manages --probably through incompetence more than intent-- to stumble onto something mildly interesting, a genuinely different take on this sort of hokum. I mean, it’s not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, and in some ways its a good deal less focused and more awkward than most. But that’s kinda why I like it.

See, either through unusual strength of purpose or, more likely, through naive amateurishness, this movie ends up not really feeling very much like most serial killer movies. Though I’m sure it’s not their intent, most serial killer movies end up somewhat glamorizing, or at least romanticizing, the real-life killer involved. And it’s hardly a surprise, I mean, we’re interested in serial killers. They’re frightening and compelling, alien and unknowable, real-life monsters out there in the dark, lurking, putting on a facade of normalcy but hiding a disturbing secret. See something like Fincher’s excellent ZODIAC for an example; the Zodiac (though he’s never definitively seen in the movie) motivates the entire enterprise; as long as he stays mysterious and dangerous he holds enormous power over our minds and imaginations. We’re both repulsed and powerfully fascinated by mysteries like this, especially when there’s so much lurid detail in the acts.

I’m fairly sure that was what ED GEIN was going for, too, but in this case director Chuck Parello (THE HILLSIDE STRANGLER, HENRY 2: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER*) and writer Stephen Johnson (also HILLSIDE STRANGLER, BUNDY) didn’t approach the story in a way which would play to those ends at all. Instead of letting the killer be enigmatic and mysterious, they immerse us entirely within his world from the first frame, robbing him of every bit of gothic urban legend and leaving him probably a lot closer to what he actually was: a pathetic, kinda tragic and not-very-smart hick who did what he did for reasons utterly prosaic: he suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness and was so isolated and ignored that no one realized it. That’s it, there’s no great mystery, no sense of a monster hiding behind the face of normalcy. Just one dumb, inbred hillbilly with a demanding mother, a shitty religion, and nothing better to do with his time.


If the movie works at all, it’s because of how much Steve Railsback (THE STUNT MAN, Duane Berry from the X-Files) commits to this vision of the character. He apparently spent months preparing for the part by exhaustively researching Gein (good thing he decided not to go method, though) and the result is sort of predictable: once you really learn about somebody, no matter how awful they are, you’re bound to humanize them in some way. I think Railsback genuinely sees Gein as a tragic character, more pathetic victim than legendary villain. He plays him as deeply awkward, aggressively stupid, a social misfit and outcast who probably doesn’t really mean any harm but has mentally degenerated to the point where he barely even knows where he is anymore, allowing some of his worst impulses and his anger at the world which has rejected him to bubble up and find an outlet.

He’s the main character here, so we see things through his eyes and see the way all his day-to-day interactions are filtered through his memory of his abusive father and demanding, ultra-religious mother (Carrie Snodgress, hamming it up like they’re paying her by decibel), both dead for years by the time the movie begins. He can barely hold a conversation without saying something bizarre and inappropriate, so it’s little wonder that people avoid him as much as possible and he simply spends more and more time in his own head, gradually reinforcing strange ideas and building up a greater and greater resistance to reality. At one point he hallucinates reading a minor and incredibly uninteresting local newspaper article. That’s definitely a sign that you gotta get out more. But the point is, there’s nothing epic and gothic about his troubled inner world; it feels more like the barely-articulate ramblings of a troubled child who is desperately lonely but too uncomfortable in their own skin to reach out to others.

I'm gonna go ahead and guess that this is the Bible. it's always the Bible. How come you never get psycho serial killing nutcases who are obsessed with Kant's Critique of Pure Reason or something?

The fact that the movie is kind of ugly and style-less actually accentuates the point -- even the disturbing stuff he does seems kind of lame. Yes, they recreate his famous bedroom with the skulls on the bedposts and flayed-human-skin masks on the wall… but the camera doesn’t shoot it as though it’s mythic and larger than life, it shoots it so matter-of-factly that it just seems pitiful and mundane. There’s nothing gothic or grand about it, it’s just kind of desperate and gross, more the work of an uncomfortable mentally ill guy who collects gross trinkets than the lurid trophies of a nightmare come to life. Even the fabled “woman-suit” scene plays differently than you expect; even wearing the skin of a recent victim, Gein awkwardly dancing and yelping into the night, beer belly bouncing under his false breasts, is closer to a comical child than a fearful monster. I’m not sure, it’s even possible that this sequence is intentionally comical, with Gein’s nervous giggling and howling at the moon.

Does that make this a good movie? Hell no, it’s as low-rent and amateurish as these things come. But if you can get past the fact that it’s not good in a techincal sense, it does have a certain offbeat charm in its poorly-considered portrayal of this legendary monster. Hats off to Railsback for taking on this low-budget cynical cash-grab and really going all out in a performance which is never remotely cool or likable, but does have a certain desperate, pathetic kind of tragedy to it. Poor Ed would really like to be sane, it’s just that it’s not really in the cards for him anymore, if indeed it was ever an option from the start. So the only direction to go in down, exactly where the movie takes him. That it does so without much technical skill is lamentable, but that it depicts this story without aggrandizing it is actually somewhat commendable. At the very least, it’s a nice balance for the other, much better serial killer movies I watched this month. Here’s a good reminder that horror as an artform is about exaggeration, about using the tools of cinema to heighten fear, terror, unease. But in real life, murder is usually a lot lamer, stupider, and more pitiable. So is the movie, but oh well, at least it’s different.

*This exists!!? Possible subtitles include HENRY 2: FASTER PORTRAIT CAT KILL KILL and HENRY 2: PORTRAIT OF THE SERIAL KILLER AS A YOUNG MAN. Hopefully they can make a series out of this so when people google "Henry V" they get a DTV serial killer knockoff instead of the Shakespeare cliff notes.


The Hunt For Dread October

  • SEQUEL: None, though part of the loose series of serial killer movies they had back then, like BUNDY or DAHMER or THE HILLSIDE STRANGLER or HELTER SKELTER (which also has Railsback as Manson!)
  • REMAKE: There've been about a million movies loosely based on Gein, from PSYCHO to TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE to DERANGED. But no direct remakes of this one.
  • FOREIGNER: Spanish/Portuguese production, but in English with an American cast.
  • FOUND-FOOTAGE CLUSTERFUCK: No, there is some newsreel footage though.
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: I guess Railsback doesn't quite qualify, but he was in LIFEFORCE.
  • BOOBIES: Not in a way you'd want to see.
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Heads removed, skin removed, limbs removed.
  • HAUNTED HOUSE: No, Gein keeps seeing his mom, but it's pretty clear it's in his head and not due to any supernatural shenanigans.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Abso-fuckin-lutely
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Gein's obsession is definitely with changing himself physically into something else, I'm gonna say that counts.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Pretty high. Tiny theatrical release notwithstanding, this is early millennial DTV.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: If you think it might be a good idea to murder women and wear their skin... don't.
And barely that... only Railsback's performance keeps it from being completely unwatchable.

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