Intervision // 1993 // 99 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // July 15th, 2011
Nothing will ever change the fact that 17 young men encountered Jeffrey Dahmer...
It was their last encounter.
The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer is disturbing in a number of ways -- not all of them intentional.
Dahmer -- who famously slaughtered at least 17 young men and boys, most of them during a four-year period from the late '80s to the early '90s -- was the stuff of nightmares, a living, breathing horror movie. He'd invite his victims -- many of them drifters or hustlers, others guys he picked up at bars -- to his home, photograph them, drug them, have sex with them, and kill them, though not always in that order. Some, he tried to lobotomize and keep as slaves. He kept grisly souvenirs -- skulls and other body parts. Despite the high body count in a relatively brief amount of time, and despite a few brushes with the law, he avoided detection until one of his victims actually ran from his house, half drugged, a handcuff attached to one wrist, and brought the police back, where they discovered things like weapons and, more damning, heads in the freezer.
It's impossible to make sense out of someone like Jeffrey Dahmer, though at least one film has tried: 2002's Dahmer, which offered a strong and surprisingly sympathetic central performance by Jeremy Renner.
The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer was released in 1993, a year after Dahmer had been convicted of 15 murders and sentenced to 957 years in prison. While the film opens with a text crawl about the case and features a running narration by the title character, it offers no insight beyond what you could have found in the newspaper accounts of the day, and less than you'd find currently on the Internet. What it offers instead is a steady stream of grindhouse-worthy killings and simplistic psychological musings supposedly from the Monster of Milwaukee himself. There's no social context and no outside voice; this is basically a slasher/exploitation film based -- almost too closely, at times -- on real events.
The film was shot on an extremely low budget. Normally, that wouldn't matter much, but in the case of The Secret Life, it has a terribly disconcerting effect. The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer looks like an exploitation film from the '70s. It also plays like an exploitation film from the '70s, with cheesy performances, stilted dialogue, all that.
Only it's not an exploitation film from the '70s, it's a "true crime film" that was produced while the Dahmer wounds were still fresh. While there's a whiff of sincerity about the whole thing that should distinguish it from a "fact-based" grinder like 1971's The Zodiac Killer, it's ultimately so simple-minded and grisly that it works as a horror movie and little else. It recounts the story for maximum shock value, but since there's little here beyond a parade of young men being drugged and sacrificed, it's all rather tedious -- not to mention revolting.
The lengthy text crawl that opens the movie -- and one at the end that "dedicates" the film to the victims and then lists them by name -- suggests that the filmmakers want to be respectful to the victims. But how does that jibe with a scene in which Jeffrey drugs a would-be paramour and slides him feet first into a vat of acid? While the guy wakes up and starts screaming, "My feet are burning! My feet are burning!" Did that even happen? I know Dahmer had an acid vat that he used to dissolve body parts, but did he actually dissolve a whole, living, screaming person in it? Of course, the film had already established that the acid couldn't be but so caustic, as Jeffrey earlier had retrieved a bone from the vat by putting on a pair of industrial-strength rubber gloves and plunging his hands into the vat, causing no damage to gloves or hands.
Then there's a bizarre scene in which Jeffrey tries to pick up a reluctant young man in a bar. Nearby, a priest is listening to the conversation. As Jeffrey and his prey are leaving, the priest goes to a pay phone, calls the bar, and asks for Jeffrey by name. This interlude gives the young man the chance to change his mind and leave, and the priest laughs maniacally at Jeffrey. But who was this gin-swilling man of the cloth? And how did he know Jeffrey's name?
The film seems to have two modes: lurid and silly. At one point, as he scopes out his next victim, Jeffrey voice-overs that he usually went to the bars on Fridays, "preferably on a long weekend," while an on-screen text informs us that it's "March 1988." Did March used to have a Monday holiday? The victims are all fairly interchangeable, and since it's (based on) a "true story," we know how things are going to turn out for them, so there's no real suspense. As soon as some poor soul says, "Sure, you can take pictures of me for $150, let's go," you know the drill -- figuratively and literally.
Carl Crew, who plays Dahmer, also wrote this. According to IMDb, Crew has four writing credits; shockingly, at least to me, I have now reviewed three of them. The other two are The Art of Nude Bowling -- which didn't seem to be written so much as vomited -- and Urban Legends. Crew's acting won't exactly make you forget his writing, his Dahmer being a surface-heavy monster with no particular inner life, despite the constant narration of Jeffrey's "thoughts," which are trite and repetitive.
The disc is a fairly unexciting affair: full frame transfer, stereo sound, and a commentary with Crew and director David R. Bowen. You'd think that since Dahmer was killed in prison in 1994, someone might have updated the closing text, which states, "Dahmer is currently serving 15 consecutive life terms," but apparently, no one got around to that.
Maybe someday, someone like David Fincher will make a Jeffrey Dahmer movie that focuses on the bigger questions about race and class the case brought up. Maybe someone will make a movie about Dahmer's victims, or about his trial.
Or maybe, Jeffrey Dahmer will continue to be a grisly punchline in movies like Diary of a Serial Killer and Dahmer vs. Gacy.
And, ultimately, this one.
Twenty years after Dahmer was arrested, The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer still feels opportunistic and sleazy; I can't imagine what it must have looked like when it first came out, so close to the real events.
Review content copyright © 2011 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Not Rated