Friend. Neighbor. Killer.
In the summer of 1976, in a sleepy suburb of Chicago, an unspeakable evil is germinating. John Wayne Gacy lives in a small house with his wife, two stepchildren, and an aging mother. He is well respected by the people in the community. He is well connected to local politics. He has a successful contracting business. And he even volunteers at a local hospital where he dresses up as a clown to entertain sick children. But deep down inside of Gacy is a diseased soul, a man who picks up male hustlers and rapes them. A man who hires impressionable teenage boys, who he seduces with marijuana and money. A man who exercises his abnormal sexual depravity on these young men, only to kill and bury them in the crawl space of his house. As bodies decompose below their feet and the scent of rotting corpses fill the air, life goes on pretty much as normal in the Gacy household. Before he is caught, Gacy will kill over thirty people. Before he is caught, everyone will assume that he is an average, if occasionally mysterious, man next door. But there is more to Gacy than meets the eye. Much more.
It's hard to fault Gacy for what it does not accomplish. To be more specific, this is a small, character driven dissection, a brief journey into the mind of a deranged serial killer. This is not a noirish Silence of the Lambs style thriller or a black comedic gross-out like Hannibal. Gacy wants to take one of the most notorious mass murderers in the history of the United States, a Jekyll and Hyde style double life letch who used his good neighbor next door alderman style salesmanship to lure young men into a debauched pit of sexual abuse and death, and turn him into a three dimensional man of many miscreant mentalities.
It almost succeeds. It builds upon a bravura performance by Mark Holton (Pee-Wee's Big Adventure); a smart, simple script by Clive Saunders and David Burke; and equally professional work behind the camera from Mr. Saunders to paint a human portrait of this inhuman monster. But then, this raises the question—do we really want to know the sensitive, rational side of a man who raped young boys and then buried their bodies in the crawlspace of his house, all the while putting up the front of living a happy, normal life? Is there anything inherently dramatic about knowing that one of the most despised and despicable men in the history of criminal pathology actually enjoyed working with children and helping his community? Do we care if this angel of death loved his mother? The answer, unfortunately, is no, and this is what makes Gacy, ultimately, an unsuccessful film. It tells the story it wants to tell perfectly. However, there is no drama in this character study.
Part of the problem is in the lead casting. Make no mistake, Mark Holton is very good as John Wayne Gacy. He mixes believable menace with understandable pathos. But for those of us fixated on the genius of one Paul Reubens, Holton will never be anyone other than Francis Buxton, the "where are they hosing him down" delinquent who loved Pee-Wee Herman's bike so much he had it stolen. Non-fans will never once be bothered by this, as Holton expertly essays each aspect of Gacy's personality. But those obsessed with the man-child in white shoes and a bow tie will simply keep thinking of Pee-Wee's classic put-down when confronted with Fran-sis as a sex fiend: "I don't make monkeys, I just train 'em."
Frankly, Holton's previous screen credits are not as bothersome as the lack of inherent drama in the story arc. A character better be damn fascinating before you determine to spend ninety minutes alone with their personality and mentality only, and you would think Gacy is the perfect fodder for such an up-close examination. But you would be wrong, because he represents what has, by now, become standard and formula about serial killer profiles. He had a bad childhood. He is a closeted, repressed homosexual who uses his power over young boys to satisfy his sick, sinister urges. He is the proverbial "quiet man" whose neighbor's only complaint is the sickeningly strong stench of decomposing bodies coming from under his home. There is no tension like the cat and mouse game playing of Lambs, none of the sick twisted Grand Guignol gloss of a Seven or Manhunter. Gacy peels off the public persona of a true evil entity and exposes the dimensions underneath. Unfortunately, it doesn't make for scary or edgy entertainment.
Lions Gate does a nice job of offering Gacy in a better than bare bones (if just barely) DVD package. We get a series of trailers before the disc menu arrives, which may disturb many that remember the same treatment by the likes of Disney/Touchstone. Here, however, the preview titles are so bizarre, so made in Eastern Europe and starring Lance Henriksen hilarious that they act like a welcome introduction into the post-millennial world of modern home video. The image on Gacy is a fairly non-compressed full-screen transfer that has one or two rare moments of gray fogging pixelization, but otherwise provides crisp details and rich colors. The Dolby Digital stereo soundtrack is nothing special, except in those moments where a cacophony of noises are melded to represent the final phases of Gacy's mental collapse. Then the speakers seem to come alive with demented directional droning.
As for the Gacy extras, we get a nice, truthful trailer that sells the picture as a small character study studded with some salacious moments and a nice, instructive commentary track by producers Timothy Swain, Susan Rodgers, and star Mark Holton. Holton loves to glad hand, praising every actor he appears with on screen as being "professional, fun, and fantastic" but he doesn't offer a lot of insight into how he approached or deconstructed Gacy. The producers, however, add lots of information about many aspects of the production, like how they substituted L.A. for Chicago and the shortcuts to casting extras. But without director Saunders to explain his setups and compositions, this commentary feels incomplete. Just like the film Gacy itself. While a well-crafted study into the mind of a murderer, it offers no other compelling or entertaining reason to exist. This is a well intentioned, if ultimately imperfect feature.
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