Jeffrey Dahmer murdered seventeen young men between 1978 and 1991. He’d lure them to his home, give them spiked drinks and strangle them, often having sex with the corpses when it was done. Pictures were taken, the corpses dismembered and some of the body parts were put in jars to be used as mementos around his home. He was also known to cook and eat some of these body parts. Reading about it, he seems like the creation of some hack airport detective novelist who dug around in his psyche and tried to make the most repellent creature it was possible to come up with.
Dahmer’s crimes offer up a true sense of guilty fascination. Much like the western world’s ongoing obsession with the Holocaust, in this world of horrors the easiest question to ask is also the hardest one to answer: How did it happen? What would ever possess a person, who was deemed legally sane, to commit acts of such monstrous enormity it’s hard to comprehend?
Marc Meyers‘ latest film doesn’t seek to explain or excuse Dahmer’s actions, but it does seek to explore the human element to this most inhumane of lives. Set in a standard Middle American small town, Dahmer (Ross Lynch) is a loner, more interesting is playing around in his taxonomy workshop in the woods than anything to do with school or family. These were the last months of the 1970s, when teenage boys still tucked in their shirts, and long hair on men was a new trend, a time of economic uncertainty and American social malaise. High school isn’t easy on Dahmer whose strange habits, including his binge drinking and a collection of roadkill, marks him to the fringes of the school cliques. He does find some camaraderie with a small group of other boys who find his strange behaviour endearing, including the aspiring cartoonist John Backderf (Alex Wolff). Given that we know what this anti-social teenager turns into, things do not turn out well.
This is the film adaptation of the 2012 graphic novel. Meyers wrote the screenplay, yet it’s adapted from the memoir of John Backderf, Dahmer’s friend back in high school. There’s no big reveal of what turns a high school loner into a monster, but there is a very dark interest in seeing what the most infamous serial killer since Jack the Ripper was like in high school. Pacing is very deliberate, there’s little blood and gore but an overarching and very effective sense of dread looming over proceedings, helped along immensely by the fantastic use of sound.
Performances are what’s to be expected. It was a great decision to cast Ross Lynch – one of the pre-teen alumni of the Disney channel – as Dahmer. He’s mastered the art of the dead eyed stare. Combined with his stooped poster and lumbering walk it’s exactly the kind of etiquette one would expect for a sociopathic serial killer, or at least what an actor would look like playing one. Lynch is decent in the role but we’ve seen this all before.
It’s strange to call this film clichéd, considering that Jeffrey Dahmer is like the archetype where a lot of these clichés come from, but it certainly has the sense that Meyers is going over previously walked terrain. There are plenty of none-too-subtle hints of the the future that awaits this strange man, ranging from creepy little details to silly and obvious symbology. Meyers does show enough style to save this from being branded as a ‘Made for TV movie’ but there isn’t anything too surprising or creative to completely shake off the label.
Of all the avenues to explore in the current crop of late seventies/eighties nostalgia, a period piece about Jeffrey Dahmer in high school is one of the more unorthodox choices. Meyers doesn’t attempt to explain why Dahmer did the heinous things he did; he’s presented as being uncanny from the very beginning, which may have something to do with his mother’s mental illness, but there’s enough tone and tension to make the experience effective.
Whether it’s morally a good idea to try and humanise a serial killer is a debate worth having, but this is still a moderately successful piece of slowly built tension and creepy foreboding.
My Friend Dahmer screens exclusively at Cinema Nova from 31st May through Madman Films.