The myth of Ed Gein as a maniacal, drooling, flesh-eating ghoul has been perpetuated throughout the last half-century in “true crime” pulp novels, a trashy comic book, trading cards (yes, trading cards), and in films as varied in their quality as in their accuracy.
Eddie Gein, for those who might not have rushed out to get the serial killer trading cards, is the lonely Wisconsin man who was so distraught over his mother’s death that he took to robbing the graves of recently—and not so recently—deceased women who reminded him of her. What he did with these corpses is what launched him immediately to world-wide sick-o status, and made him the template against which most serial killers—fictional and real—are compared to this day.
Norman Bates (Psycho, 1960), Leatherface (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974) and Buffalo Bill (Silence of the Lambs, 1990) all owe a debt to Eddie Gein. All were “inspired by” the macabre events in Plainfield, Wisconsin, but none stuck close enough to the facts for the truth about Eddie to really be known. Though Deranged (1974) was actually based on Eddie’s story, names were changed and events dramatized to the point that only the in-the-know viewer would recognize the source material.
Not so with Ed Gein.
This movie opens with actual footage of members of the Plainfield citizenry talking to reporters about Eddie at the time of his arrest, and closes with footage of the real Ed Gein being hauled off by police. The inclusion of such documentary footage is a great move. It lets you know straight off that What You’re About To See Really Happened. While the movie does go into speculation on—and sometimes outright fabrication of—a few events (most taken, again, from the Gein Mythos), director Chuck Parello and screenwriter Stephen Johnston have presented the purest look at Eddie we’ve yet seen.
The most noticeable hitch in the film is that it fails to capture the time-span of Eddie’s spree, compressing the story into what amounts to mere months. While this seems like a major license to have taken, it definitely lends credibility to the film, since one might rightfully wonder why Eddie was able to do what he did for so long, over a decade, from 1945 to 1957! And yet it’s true. Eddie was a man whom people generally avoided, unless they took advantage of him.
The townsfolk of Plainfield did regard Eddie as a bit of an oddity, but not to the point where they wouldn’t rent land from him (and never pay), or borrow a plow (and never return it). He was a mournfully sad soul, wanting only what the rest of us want—love and acceptance. This is painfully evident in a scene where Eddie is talking to his mother at her grave. He almost sobs, “Most of ‘em treat me like dirt, momma… They don’t even give me a chance.”
Scenes like this make you want to take pity on Eddie. You want to, but… From the start, there is no attempt to set him up as a likable fellow. (I know how crazy that sounds, but bear with me.) As the flashbacks come, and Eddie’s story unfolds (his abusive lout of a father, his wicked mother), the seeds of sympathy are sewn. They’re just never reaped. Maybe the first time we see Eddie in the film shouldn’t be when he’s on one of his moonlight graveyard expeditions. (You know what they say about first impressions.) No matter what we see him do after that scene, “Well, he’s a sick-o.” End of story. Had we seen him being “Eddie” first, the one the townsfolk knew, helping someone on their farm or babysitting their kids, instead of “Ed,” the one of legend, the film may have had a different tone.
Though it’s intimated several times (as in that first scene), the movie doesn’t play up the grave-robbing angle so much. We are shown Eddie digging up a body, and later we see him sitting before a collection of noses, trying each one on and laughing at the way they make him look. One body, eight noses. Clearly there are other visits, we don’t need to see them, necessarily. But what the film does do (and I believe this is a first) is show why Eddie starts stealing corpses to begin with: He wants to resurrect them. Eddie feels that he can bring the dead to life through sheer force of will.
Because the facts outweigh the fiction, most of the film’s transgressions can be overlooked. But the big one—Eddie’s cannibalism—cannot. The film makes a big deal of the fact that Eddie eats nothing but pork and beans. “Just heat up the can and, uh… supper’s served,” he says. Still, when, after having killed Mary Hogan, Eddie is shown cooking up two huge steaks, one doesn’t have to stretch too far to reach the implication. But Eddie never admitted to having eaten any portion of Mary Hogan or Bernice Worden, flat-out denied it, in fact. Now come on… This is a guy who was cold-busted with a heart in a pan on his stove, a full-bodied woman suit, noses, and vaginas in a box in his closet, and a head under his mattress, and you’re telling me he’s going to lie about eating people? Methinks not.
It’s during these lapses into the Mythos that Ed Gein borders on silliness, but it never really spills over entirely. For example, consider the scene where Eddie’s deceased mother speaks to him through a burning bush; while sticking within the bounds of his biblical fanaticism, established early on, it just doesn’t seem to work within the context of the film. Likewise, the scene where she tells him to kill the Bernice Worden character: she displays an affection for Eddie that, we can easily believe, was never shown him while she lived.
Eddie was a tortured man—deeply psychotic, yes, but tortured nonetheless. His psychosis was such that, while he clearly loved his mother (to the point of exhuming the corpses of women who reminded him of her), he also just as clearly hated her. The movie confuses this connection in its casting of Carrie Snodgrass as Mrs. Gein. Eddie liked Rubinesque women, round and voluptuous, like his mother, but Snodgrass doesn’t fit the part. And she appears to be playing Norman Bates’ mother, always calling Eddie “boy” in a raspy voice. It’s Steve Railsback’s performance that holds this film together. (Interesting side-note: In 1976 Railsback played Charles Manson in Helter Skelter. Typecasting?) As Eddie, Railsback has thoroughly nailed the role, down to the little smirk constantly playing about his lips, making you think that there’s always something just slightly amusing going on in there… something maybe having to do with meat-hooks.
The film posits that Eddie’s mother was urging him to kill, but that the grave robbing and the mutilating, that was all Eddie. This doesn’t sit well with me for some reason. It’s too Psycho, for one thing. And if the guy’s crazy enough to make a lamp out of a human spinal column and pelvis, why would he have to be coaxed from beyond the grave into killing? Speaking of that lamp, I have to mention this; Eddie was very economical in his hobby. He used it all, just like the Indians did with buffalo: soup bowls made out of skull caps, wind-chimes made out of finger bones, a belt made from nipples… Way before GG Allen’s time, Eddie may have been the first shock artist.
The Ed Gein Mythos is never going to die out. No matter what advances are made in criminal psychology, the man who dressed in the skins of dead women and danced around in the moonlight will always be a source of gruesome fascination. Is Ed Gein an attempt to bring the true story to light? I can’t say. Did it? Well, yes and no. It’s really a moot point. The question I guess you have to ask yourself is this: Are you watching for historical accuracy or for entertainment? Either way, you’ll get more of both out of this movie than out of, say, Ed and His Dead Mother.
(Footnote: I’m not saying that Ed and His Dead Mother had anything to do with the Eddie Gein story, but when you have the opportunity to give a nod to Steve Buscemi, you take it.)
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/ed-gein/