Do we really need to talk about Jeff? A few words about the new Jeffrey Dahmer film
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Back in 2007, I was serving as first assistant director on a low-budget, slightly disreputable local sci-fi flick. (You can find it on Netflix, if you’re in the mood for a giggle.) Near the end of the shoot, the film’s director mentioned he had been approached by a big-name, highly disreputable film company about making a schlocky horror film based on the life of Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. He flat out refused. It was still too soon, he said, and he would surely be run out of town once word got out that a local filmmaker was dredging up the Dahmer case. I couldn’t help but agree. What Milwaukee filmmaker in his or her right mind would make a movie about Jeffrey Dahmer?
Fast-forward five years, and a Milwaukee filmmaker has made a movie about Jeffrey Dahmer. It’s called, simply, Jeff. The film is the creation of UWM film grad Chris James Thompson, and it mixes new interviews with vintage news clips and media reports. It also includes a smattering of fictional recreations starring another Milwaukee filmmaker, Andrew Swant, as Dahmer. Thompson has been working on the film since 2008, and a recent successful Kickstarter campaign netted him more than $15,000 for necessary finishing funds. By all accounts, it’s a well-meaning and artful film. But Jeffrey Dahmer? Really?
When A.V. Club contributor Parker Winship wrote about the film last November, I remembered the hesitations my sci-fi director had expressed, and I found myself still in agreement. Surely Milwaukee wasn’t ready to rehash the Dahmer thing in such a public manner. (The case’s 20-year anniversary last year received a surprisingly restrained amount of attention.) Wasn’t there already a shitty, direct-to-DVD Dahmer film that had pissed people off? Who would possibly want to talk about this? I assumed Thompson and Swant’s film, no matter how well-intentioned, would quickly fade away into that long, dark, art-film night.
But last week, the film picked up some steam. It was featured and discussed on a TMJ4 report, and it was selected for this year’s South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. So maybe people were ready to talk about it. After all, folks directly tied to the case were interviewed for this film, including neighbor Pamela Bass, detective Patrick Kennedy, and Milwaukee medical examiner Jeffrey Jentzen. Maybe I was wrong.
I haven’t seen the film, so I won’t speculate on its artistic merits (my last name isn’t Begel). But, like most people, I worry about the possibility of exploitation. The film’s genesis lies with Milwaukee schlock king Frankie Latina, who approached Thompson about a Dahmer flick around the same time my beleaguered sci-fi director was propositioned. I dig Latina’s grindhouse shtick—his Modus Operandi is masterful—but I’m glad he dropped the project. I can only assume that Thompson and Swant have taken a more thoughtful, meditative approach to the material.
But what if they haven’t? Would it even matter? Personally, the Dahmer case whips up a lot of conflicting emotions. I’m no serial-killer fetishist, but one of the most fascinating aspects of the case was Dahmer himself. In a 1994 interview with Stone Phillips, he appeared glum, resigned, and sad—not apologetic, exactly, but depressed and matter-of-fact. Yes, he had done the things he was accused of. Yes, he deserved to be punished. Maybe he was sick, maybe he was simply evil; he didn’t know. He had sought treatment in prison, but he suspected his unspeakable urges would plague him for the rest of his life. Has there ever been a more blue-collar, painfully Midwestern psychopath than Jeffrey Dahmer?
For better or for worse, Dahmer didn’t last long in prison (he was beaten to death by a fellow inmate), and now, nearly two decades later, our local news stations and SXSW are lining up behind a film that features a local actor walking around Milwaukee, dressed as its most notorious serial killer. I still have my hesitations, and I suspect I’m not alone. But maybe after 20 years, it’s finally time to talk our way through this, one way or the other.