Written by: Carl Crew
Directed by: David Bowen
Starring: Carl Crew, Cassidy Phillips, and Donna Stewart Bowen
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“I did what I did not for reasons of hate. I hated no one. I was sick or evil. Or both.”
Jeffrey Dahmer is one of history’s most notorious serial killers, and his sick exploits spawned a notorious film to boot. Filmed and released less than two years after he was brought to justice, The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer caused a brief firestorm when it hit video store shelves. That might lead you to believe director David Bowen filmed some exploitative, trashy cash-in to sensationalize a current event and make a quick buck. Turns out, this one isn’t quite the sleaze you’d expect it to be.
The film dramatizes Dahmer’s (Carl Crew) 14-year saga of murder, torture, and cannibalism, where he killed at least 17 men and kept their body parts as trophies. Told from the killer’s point-of-view, we’re offered a glimpse of his twisted mind as he descends into madness and works through his abandonment issues and comes to terms with his own sexuality.
This is one of those films where your perception of it will largely depend on your interest in such sordid subject matter. The layer of grimy reality that soaks this one and the film’s unflinching approach make it hardly entertaining; however, it is alluring and even captivating if you have an interest in this sort of thing. I personally have a passing interest in psychopathic behavior, and the Dahmer case is one of the more fascinating cases. Though the film’s introduction tells us that events and details have been changed, it still does a fair job of capturing the inexplicable depravity of Dahmer’s life. Bowen’s approach is lo-fi and feels like a low-rent version of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but it’s the correct way to go about it. One feels a film like this shouldn’t be aesthetically pleasing, and, with the exception of a few stylish interludes, The Secret Life plays out like a docudrama.
The glue of the entire piece is Carl Crew’s portrayal of Dahmer. The title character is presented as a repentant soul who is aware of the horrors he’s perpetrated; the perpetual voice-over monologues keep us inside of his head at all times, and Crew’s delivery isn’t without a hint of anguish. At times, his Dahmer resembles a jilted lover who simply doesn’t want to be alone, so he kills his victims so they’ll be with him forever. Crew is charged with the task of making him feel somewhat sympathetic in this regard, and he also has to give Dahmer a sense of normalcy too. This is a guy who kept human skulls and severed heads in his home, yet you’d never really know it if you saw him interact with people. It’s interesting that he never even becomes fully unhinged until later in the film, when he seemingly embraces his psychosis. The ability to switch between each mode with ease is one of Crew’s biggest strengths.
I’d imagine the film’s attempt to actually understand Dahmer and nearly show him in a sympathetic light was a main contention of its critics. It’s probably easier to write off these kind of perverted individuals and consider them to be one-off, inexplicable examples of madness, but the film isn’t content with that. And though it never really presents a satisfying answer for Dahmer’s crimes, it hints at the usual childhood traumas. This, along with his homosexuality, are mostly treated at a surface level, and his fractured mind is mostly impenetrable, which is important. The film is wise enough not to completely empathize with him; in the end, you still want the hammer to fall on him, and you’ll be aghast at some of the absurd events that allowed him to roam free longer than he should have. One event in particular is so outrageous that you wouldn’t even believe it in a fictional horror movie; that it really happened is all the more gut-wrenching.
Bowen doesn’t shy away from on-screen violence; though there’s a lot of it, one can hardly call it sensational or exploitative. Sometimes, cinematic violence is necessary, and, in this case, it’s needed to fully comprehend the full depravity of what’s going on. Seeing Dahmer’s acts committed in such stark, uncompromising ways keeps that wall up for the audience; his monologues can reveal his own inner torture and desire to “stay with God,” but his heinous instances of murder are ultimately unforgivable. Though things do get a bit repetitive (we see Dahmer go through the motions of picking up strangers and killing them several times), one can possibly argue that even that is necessary because we see him coldly master all of the motions. He moves from being panicky and aghast at his own crimes to being confident and malicious (his taunting of a deaf victim is particularly haunting).
This movie is definitely rough around the edges; with the exception of Crew, most of the performances are simply adequate, and the low budget is often obvious. Despite this, Bowen manages to craft an intriguing narrative that’s driven by a bleak mood and a refusal not to flinch along the way. Though it was controversial at its time of release, it won’t be hard to find on DVD thanks to Intervision’s latest release. Their disc contains a correct 4x3 transfer that’s a little worn looking, but mostly fine (the film is not impressive looking to begin with, which was probably intentional). The stereo soundtrack is similarly adequate, and special features include the film’s trailer and an audio commentary with Bowen and Crew. The Dahmer story is one that certainly lends itself to film; it’s naturally scary and disturbing, and Bowen captures that without giving into spectacle. A grim and haunting portrayal of insanity, The Secret Life sits well alongside other true-life works of horror that tend to be more unsettling than entertaining. Buy it!
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