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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

DEAR MR. GACY -- DVD review by porfle

I've seen several of those direct-to-video serial killer bios that have come out in the last few years, so I kind of expected DEAR MR. GACY (2010) to be cut from the same exploitative cloth--basically a lurid slasher flick marginally legitimized by the fact that it's more or less based on true events.  But this above-average account of college student Jason Moss' ill-advised attempt to get into the mind of John Wayne Gacy, who was then awaiting execution for the gruesome murder of 33 young men and boys, eschews gory sensationalism and takes us on a dark psychological spook ride into genuine fear.

When we first meet Jason, he's an aimless college student whose only real passion seems to be criminology.  The impending execution of Gacy gives him an idea--if he could find a way to contact the convicted serial killer, earn his trust and friendship, and persuade him to open up and perhaps even confess, it would make for a kickass term paper.  Inspired to an increasingly unhealthy degree by the prospect, Jason contacts Gacy by mail and even sends him some provocative shirtless photos to whet his interest.  After a little research, Jason is also able to say things in his letters which are designed to establish a sympathetic, trusting rapport with the killer.

The plan succeeds beyond Jason's wildest expectations, with Gacy becoming his ardent pen pal and even phoning him repeatedly from prison for long emotional chats.  But as the naive, overconfident Jason thinks he's getting one over on Gacy, he's being played like a cheap violin by a master manipulator.  The relationship begins to insinuate itself into every aspect of Jason's life until it finally becomes volatile and threatening. 

DEAR MR. GACY takes its time building up a sense of dread as we watch Jason stupidly get in deeper and deeper, stoked by both morbid curiosity and ego.  He's so naive that the smooth-talking Gacy has him dangling on a string before he even realizes it.  Jason doesn't even hear warning bells when Gacy creepily starts inquiring about his little brother, so sure is he that his "plan" to trick the wily convict into exposing himself is working. 

It's almost funny the way he thinks he's putting one over on Gacy when he hasn't the slightest clue of the massive mind game being played on him for the killer's twisted amusement.  This is especially evident when Gacy coaches him on how to read people and assess their traits and weaknesses in order to assert control over them.  Jason absorbs the information with interest and even tries it out on an attractive girl on campus (failing miserably, of course), oblivious to the fact that the sly Gacy is describing exactly what he's doing to the unwary Jason himself.

Director Svetozar Ristovski takes his time building a slowly-mounting sense of dread, keeping things low-key and realistic without trying to make the film overly "spooky."  We fear the seemingly inevitable outcome of Jason's downward slide (which is portrayed perhaps a bit too rapidly) as he alienates his family and his girlfriend while plunging into the depths of paranoia.  A somber cello-based score by Terry Frewer augments the film's downbeat tone throughout.

Veteran character actor William Forsythe (RAISING ARIZONA, THE ROCK) doesn't try to come off as a standard boogeyman.  He plays the character of John Wayne Gacy with seductive yet seething restraint, like a spider weaving its web for the unwary fly, until finally he gets Jason right where he wants him during the face-to-face meeting which the film has been leading up to all along.  This is where Forsythe lets loose and morphs into the terrifying monster we knew was lurking behind that fascade--it's almost like seeing Brian Cox's "Hannibal Lekter" from MANHUNTER unleashed.  The sequence inside the prison visitation room doesn't quite pack the wallop it might have, but it's still pretty unsettling.

Jesse Moss (FINAL DESTINATION 3) is well-cast as Jason and convincingly progresses from an almost groupie-like fascination with Gacy, to his growing addiction to the perverse thrill of Gacy's friendship and confidence, and finally his revulsion and terror as the relationship turns into an inescapable nightmare.  The rest of the cast is good, including Emma Lahana (ALIEN AGENT) as Jason's concerned girlfriend Alyssa and Andrew Airlie ("Defying Gravity") as his dubious criminology professor. 

The DVD from Anchor Bay is in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1, with English and Spanish subtitles.  Also included is a featurette, "The Gacy Files: Portrait of a Serial Killer", in which Forsythe talks with people who knew the man or were involved with his case.

There's no way to know how much of DEAR MR. GACY is strictly true--there's even an end-of-movie disclaimer reminding us that not all of Jason Moss' account, as related in his memoir "The Final Victim", can be verified.  But the story makes for a compelling and disturbing film, made even more so by a sad postscript which reveals that Gacy's malevolent influence may not have ended with his execution. 

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