How do you spice up an already sensationalized story? How do you lift the veil off one of the most secretive serial killer cases of all time? Well, if you’re the makers of the intriguing docu-drama The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, you add interviews with people who participated in the investigation with recreations of the notorious murderer’s everyday life. Sitting down to explain their involvement are Police Detective Patrick Kennedy, City of Milwaukee Medical Examiner Jeffrey Jentzen, and a former neighbor, Pamela Bass. All three explain how they came to know Jeffrey Dahmer, with the first two explaining his capture, his confessions, and his crimes. Ms. Bass is more interesting. She talks about being friends with the fiend, even suggesting that she may have indulged – indirectly, of course – in some of the cannibalism that made Dahmer’s situation so notorious.
This is not an overview of the man and his motives. We get little or no discussion about Dahmer as a boy (he had all the FBI profiler warning signs growing up) and the actual deaths and visual representation of the gruesome details are left off screen. Instead, Kennedy walks us through his interrogation of the suspect while Jentzen explains the evidence they found. As for Ms. Bass, she’s the Greek Chorus, the voice of conjecture and concern. She’s not beyond admitting her own faults (“I was incarcerated when this happened…”) but she also adds to an already vocal contingency that can’t quite fathom how something like this happened to her small, disenfranchised community. All the while, an actor (Andrew Swant), reenacts ancillary moments from the case, as when Dahmer buys a plastic barrel to store his victims in.
It’s all very matter of fact and relatively creepy. The Jeffrey Dahmer Files doesn’t tell us anything really new about the case (unless you never followed it, which means your horror film fandom accreditation should be in serious jeopardy) but it does shed some interesting light on the established facts. Kennedy makes it clear that Dahmer didn’t want to talk to the police at first. He knew his rights and wanted a lawyer present. Realizing their timeframe was tight, he tried another approach – and it worked. Before long, the suspect was spilling his guts about spilling other people’s guts. He was discussing victim names, the way they looked, the means by which he earned their trust, and what he did with them after he was “done.” We get the discussion of the drill bit to the head. We get the desire to create sex zombies. The standard Dahmer info is all here.
What makes the movie work is the way in which director Chris James Thompson handles these horrors. There are very few horrific images. There are no crime scene reenactments or gallons of gore. Instead, he lets Kennedy, Jentzen, and Bass imply everything, turning the scandalous situation into a breakdown of pure evil. Dahmer was clearly haunted by his perverted desires, and his police ‘friend’ makes that very clear. Bass also infers that her neighbor seemed like a decent guy. In fact, she had a hard time believing that someone who worked at a candy factory and appeared so well turned out would want to live in her ghetto-like neighborhood. Again, through it all Swant does his best with the little scripting given to paint a complex portrait of the man. Sometimes, he succeeds. In other instances, he’s relatively bland and uninvolving.
Indeed, by about the hour mark, most of The Jeffrey Dahmer Files has run its dramatic course. We know how Kennedy approach his prize, what things turned Jentzen’s stomach, and what images still haunt Bass to this day (as when they removed the dead smelling freezer from his apartment). We get to the trial, the possible insanity plea, the sentencing sequence, and then the casual acknowledgement that Dahmer spent very little time in prison (he was killed by a fellow inmate a few years after being incarcerated). Oddly enough, none of the publicity or public interest in the crimes is discussed. Kennedy never mentions it, while Jentzen seems content to stay strictly within the medical examiner’s role. Only Ms. Bass makes it clear that living next to, and with, Jeffrey Dahmer damaged her life. Friends and family would constantly question her about “what she knew, when?” while cars filled with sightseers streamed past her modest living quarters. She eventually moved.
As for dramatized bits, they don’t really add much. We are inherently interested in the subject matter so Thompson doesn’t need to fill in the blanks with Swant shuttling around the city, looking grim. In fact, had the filmmaker found a fourth subject to talk to – perhaps a DA or lawyer who defended Dahmer – and tried to humanize such a sick, twisted psychopath, the faked stuff would be truly unnecessary. It is clearly added here to show that evil walked/walks among us every day, often disguised as the quiet guy who lived next door, the innocent looking family man who everyone in the neighborhood respected, or the hard working Joe with a job and several solid future prospects. Dahmer doesn’t require such a scope. He killed and ate human beings as part of a bizarre coping ritual he developed to deal with his homosexuality. That’s enough for a trilogy of movies right there.
In fact, The Jeffrey Dahmer Files feels like a placeholder, a movie made to take on some of the subjects that another, better, and more in depth project will deal with eventually. Maybe the wounds here are still too raw. Maybe Dahmer’s case, like that of the notorious Ed Gein, is just too grisly and graphic to tell properly. Sure, there have been dozens of low budget horror films on the subject (one even starring a young Jeremy Renner) but none have had the audacity, and the financing, to full realize the extent of the killer’s crazed blood lust. Until then, something like this will have to carry us over to the next notorious crime. While it provides an intriguing approach to the case, The Jeffrey Dahmer Files suffers from a feeling of incompleteness.