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Friday, July 8, 2011

THE SECRET LIFE: JEFFREY DAHMER -- DVD review by porfle


Out of all the low-budget serial killer biopics I've seen, THE SECRET LIFE: JEFFREY DAHMER (1993) may be the most interesting to watch as a film.  Mainly because (a) it's well made, and (b) it doesn't use a sensationalistic real-life story simply as an easy excuse to churn out yet another gory horror film. 

Screenwriter Carl Crew claims to have done his research, and, based on my limited knowledge of the case, the film seems to bear this out.  The familiar bases are covered--Jeffrey Dahmer's unhappy family life, his childhood fascination with dead animals, and his eventual transformation into a coldblooded predator who murdered up to seventeen young men. 

The fact that Dahmer got away with it for so long is accurately portrayed here as a combination of cunning, insane luck, and police incompetence.  We follow the story of his crimes from his first kill (as a teen, he murdered a hitchhiker at his family home), through a series of murders while living with his grandmother, and, after moving into his own apartment, his final rampage in which he was luring victims into his clutches at the rate of one per week.



The pattern of seducing men by offering to pay them to pose for photographs and then drugging them as a prelude to murder becomes somewhat monotonous at times, yet each individual victim adds his own unique elements to the story.  Some even escape, although their stories are dismissed by the police.  The most tragic of these incidents involves an underage boy who gets away and then, incredibly, is delivered right back into Dahmer's hands.  

As Dahmer, Crew's acting isn't always polished but he's intense and convincing, and the fact that he bears little resemblance to the actual person becomes less of a factor as one gets used to his portrayal.  Initially, Dahmer is shown as less of a maniac than an introspective loser who fears being left alone so much that he's compelled to kill those he feels attracted to and keep parts of their bodies as souvenirs.  (You almost sympathize with him as he lovingly cradles a severed head for companionship.)  As the attacks escalate, so does his sadistic streak as the murder sequences become more horrific and brutally graphic.

One of the more disturbing scenes finds Dahmer attempting to turn a hapless captive into a zombie by drilling holes in his head and filling them with chemicals.  Another is lowered into a barrel of acid and fastened inside while still alive.  Perhaps the most elaborate sequence involves some deft directorial touches, a well-crafted build-up with Dahmer displaying some wry behavorial quirks, and an extremely realistic fake head.

Still, the film isn't as exploitative as it could have been, and these powerful scenes of violence and gore are done with an understated, nonsensational style that makes them even eerier while sometimes evoking a sense of melancholy.  Originally hired to score the film before being promoted to director, David R. Bowen's subtle stylistic touches add to the mood while the lighting and cinematography give everything the look of a high-end 70s or 80s exploitation flick.



Adding to the effect is the drive-in quality print used for this DVD release, with its jagged edits and often gritty look that almost make it seem like a rough cut at times.  Despite these factors (and if you liked GRINDHOUSE, they should be a plus), the film looks good for a low-budget 35mm feature and is made with care.  Bowen states in the commentary track that he was aiming for a theatrical release--hindered in part by the controversy of the subject--and this is borne out by the obvious effort put into making it more than just the average exploitation flick.

The DVD from Intervision is in full-screen with Dolby 2.0 sound.  No subtitles.  Extras include a commentary track with director Bowen and writer/star Crew, plus trailers for this and other Intervision releases.

Outstanding performances by most of the actors playing Dahmer's victims help sell the film's realism.  Other castmembers, particularly a couple of Jeffrey's neighbor ladies who complain vehemently about the stench eminating from his apartment, are also fine, as is the beautiful Lisa Marks as Dahmer's probation officer.  But it's Crew who carries the film, both as writer and star, and he makes THE SECRET LIFE: JEFFREY DAHMER a portrait of a serial killer that's worth looking at even though you probably won't like what you see.  And it's all the more disturbing because, in this case, the monster is real.


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