Unearthing the Truth – Serial Killer Biopics Part I: John Wayne Gacy, Jr.

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Like many of you twisted little turds out there I enjoy reading up on true crime and serial killers. We all know how hard it is to find a decent movie period let alone one that focuses on a subject that you’re reasonably schooled in; it’s almost always an exercise in futility that ends with you stomping around the house pissed off and ranting about inconsistencies overlooked and liberties taken. I’ve watched far too many of these films and have bored everyone in the room to tears with my relentless griping and miserable shit-can attitude. It makes sense instead to bring my love of the often-pseudo-but-sometimes-legit biopic to the blog where it may actually benefit someone else who enjoys the genre.

John Wayne Gacy, Jr. (March 17, 1942 ? May 10, 1994) was an American serial killer also known as the Killer Clown -- Mugshot

I chose to kick things off with John Wayne Gacy, Jr. for a few different reasons. Personally, I’ve always found him particularly interesting because he wore & removed his mask so publicly, everything seems like it was right there for you to put the pieces together. Identifying with clowns the way he did – the duality of their existence playing perfectly into how he maneuvered through the world; the face that you hide bearing no resemblance to the one you put on display. I’ve always been fascinated by people who are so fearful of the truth that they will turn to terrible ends to obliterate it from existence.

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Gacy (Clive Saunders; 2003) This is one of those low budget direct-to-DVD releases that was so prevalent in the early 2000s; it seemed that anyone with a passing interest in serial killers and a pocketful of change was pumping out their take on everyone from Dahmer to BTK. The thing that stands out to me the most about this film is the performance by Mark Holton (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Leprechaun) as Gacy.

Yes, he was a raping, murdering psychopath (or ASPD, whatever school of thought you employ) but that doesn’t mean he was able to escape the icy grip of insecurity or that somehow he was always tough and in control. He was a highly functioning, manipulative, emotional con-man who while smart enough to typically get what he wanted was also a slave to his own personal bullshit. Mark’s performance allows you to glimpse multiple facets of Gacy; from sadistic to scared to creepy to downright congenial. Holton brings a genuine, faulted person to the table & not just the depraved nightmare maker everyone thinks of when you mention Gacy’s name.

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Like most movies of this ilk, they take a bit of dramatic license mixing fact and fiction while trying to put a fresh spin on a well-worn subject. This one takes a quickie stab at a psychological profile by opening with an underage Gacy camping with his drunk, macho father (played by Adam “Mother” Baldwin) and experiencing a mild case of asshole-itis. I don’t see this as being sufficient enough to birth a serial killer it’s just kinda tacked on & serves no real purpose. The movie would have benefited from either showing what created him more in-depth or backing off from the subject altogether. Giving us a very tame 3 minute scene that has invariably happened to millions of other kids doesn’t mean shit in the context of this film; it’s a waste of energy and budget.

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COSDS - Gacy00024They spend a lot of time exploring how Gacy interacts with his employees and community – a laid-back, pot smoking, boozing boss and alternately an avid community volunteer eager to lend a helping hand to appeal to the moral majority. Despite what anyone thought about him privately (whispers of homosexuality, etc.) any boss handing his teenage employees a bong with one hand & a beer with the other is gonna win points & thereby effortlessly stock his rec room with victims. It’s important that we’re shown how the predator prowls & I appreciated the time they spent here.

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Like most serial killer films it focuses mainly on the ass-end of his “career” when he amped up the killing and was behaving more erratically, his capture imminent. If you’re looking for more than implied rape and a hammer smash to the head – you won’t find it here. Restraint aside, this doesn’t detract from the movie in the least. Mark does such a wonderful job with that massive, expressive face that he sells it without having to give you a play-by-play. We get to watch this “pillar” of the community dive deeper and deeper into depravity; the frayed edges finally unraveling.

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I have one major complaint about this movie so please excuse the rant:

The fucking crawlspace.

They spend 2/3 of the god damned movie talking about the stench of the crawlspace; the neighbors complain about it constantly, the plumber recommends lime, there are a bazillion bugs (which they refer to as “maggots” but are actually mealworms), an exterminator sprays, multiple employees dig trenches, everyone in town jokes about the stench, etc. etc. You cannot have 500 people smell rotting corpses and no one make the connection that it smells like death. Whether it’s an animal or a man, rotting flesh is rotting flesh, everyone knows what that smells like. PLUS! They keep flashing to all the ookie-creepy gross bugs and it’s nothing but mealworms and giant Madagascar hissing cockroaches! Why not just throw bunnies in the crawlspace and let’s all pretend that they eat death too? Jesus. The general public isn’t this fucking stupid. Mealworms are just beetles for Christ’s sake…WHY THE FUCK WOULD A MILLION MID-LIFE LARVAL STAGE VEGETARIAN BEETLES BE EATING DEAD KIDS? I don’t know, I’m no fucking insect specialollyologist but that whole bit took me right out of the movie. Showing it once maybe I could overlook it, but hammering it home just served to infuriate.

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COSDS - Gacy00006Overall as far as serial killer flicks go, I find this one to be pretty enjoyable. It has some inadvertently funny moments as well as some darkly humorous ones and Holton is a treat to watch. If anything, it suffers from budget restraints and a lack of focus but the result is a somewhat surreal, dreamy kinda flick that goes down like your sister after a few Jagerbombs: it might be sloppy and quick… but trust me, you get off.

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To Catch a Killer (Made for TV; 1992) I tracked this one down after hearing about the outstanding performance by Brian Dennehy (First Blood, F/X) as Gacy. This came out 2 years before he was executed and while he was still very much in the public eye seeking a new trial, so I can see why this would linger in the minds of so many simply due to its timely relevance. It stays factually accurate as it mostly comes from police files and is told from the point of view of the lead detectives on the case. The film follows the events leading up to Gacy’s arrest after he carelessly killed a 15 year old in December of 1978. This was very much the beginning of the end for Gacy as he wasn’t keeping track of his lies and they were starting to add up under the watchful eye of the police. Now, being a made for TV movie from ‘92 you’re not going to see much in the way of overt homosexuality or violence but they make up for it by presenting (mostly) solid facts and allowing a capable cast to deliver them.

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As far as Dennehy’s performance goes, he’s a great actor and there are some truly chilling moments where he conveys a rage bubbling under the surface, but for me he’s just too god damned alpha to be Gacy. Dennehy has a robust masculinity that can’t help but radiate from his every pore. He looks like the kinda guy that would kick the shit out of you for even suggesting that he liked boys, let alone raping & murdering them into the double digits. Even in an inebriated, self-hate-fueled fuck-fest-of-faggotry I just can’t buy Dennehy laying pipe in some kid. He struts through this movie like Tony Testosterone and in the latter part of the film when he’s spiraling out of control this is when you really feel like he’s acting. I guess if I had to defend my opinion I would say that it depends on whether or not you’re watching this from a sheer-entertainment perspective or if you’re familiar with the case and the man behind the crimes.

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COSDS - To Catch a Killer 5It seems that Gacy was partially just a fuck up overcompensating all his life. He was a somewhat effeminate, sickly, tubby kid who grew into the same kind of man. To the casual observer he had a solid work ethic but it was just another way to mask his real agenda. He insinuated himself into situations where he could take advantage, such as marrying a woman whose father handed him 3 franchise restaurants, hiring teenagers for his construction business, etc. Even the volunteer work that he did in the community served to assist in hiding his true nature by providing a sort of moral alibi – far from a selfless act. All of these things combined allowed him to gain not only the approval he so desperately needed but to further bolster his powerful public persona. My point (I swear to God there is one!) is that there’s a self-serving braggart and constantly scheming underachiever in there that shines through. You can see it in interviews with Gacy; this is an important piece of the man that Dennehy just couldn’t sell.

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Clocking in at 182 minutes this movie isn’t bad but I found myself getting tired of hearing about the cop’s personal and professional life and the bureaucratic struggles that were faced trying to bring Gacy to justice. Perhaps if it was watched in several parts as intended I would feel differently, but after 3 hours of this I was struck by a few standout scenes with Dennehy (he quotes Gacy verbatim at a particularly creepy moment that is very effective) and the accuracy of specific details. Overall, a bit long-winded and tame for my taste but if you’re interested in facts more than dramatic license; this little opus is essential.

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Dear Mr. Gacy (Svetozar Ristovski; 2010) This film is based on the book “The Last Victim” by Jason Moss who formed bonds of varying degrees with several serial killers. The plot centers around a naïve but cocky college student who decides to write a term paper on Gacy by using himself as bait to lure information and gain more insight into the mind of a killer. The movie basically chronicles their courtship over a period of several months with things progressing to the point of almost-no-return. I can’t say that I found Jason’s character to be a very sympathetic one, although I can’t imagine that I would be inclined to think too much of the flesh-suit version of him either. That’s not fair to say, I know, but from what I’ve read a lot of things don’t add up and saying that he had some issues might be putting it mildly. That bullshit aside, the movie is fairly well done and William Forsythe (Out for Justice, Stone Cold) absolutely kills as Gacy. (ha!) Honestly, I’d have to say that he’s probably churned out my favorite embodiment of the man, at least as far as being simultaneously terrifying and seductive. Am I romanticizing a bit here? Yes. Ok, ok, truth be told I absolutely LOVE William Forsythe. He brilliantly portrays the dreamy, idealized, cinematic madman that we all imagine; he cups a hand and whispers what you need to hear in one ear while gutting you with his other.

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The big difference between this film and the others is that it’s based on one man’s personal interaction with Gacy and isn’t focused on the crimes so much as on their relationship. It’s important to note that some of these details can’t be authenticated; Gacy was long dead when the book was released and the movie was made another 10+ years after that. Since I’ve not read the book (& don’t know that I find Moss to be terribly credible to begin with) I don’t know how much dramatic license was taken when making Dear Mr. Gacy.

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I included this in the biopics because there’s no question that Moss and Gacy had a well-documented relationship; you can read some of their letters online and Moss (in classic media-whore fashion) did the talk show circuit for a while. The film is well made and interesting and actually raises a lot more questions than it answers. There’s quite a bit of mystery surrounding Moss considering that he was obsessed with serial killers, contacting them and playing dual roles while attending law school, doing internships with the ATF, Secret Service and eventually becoming a criminal lawyer. After purportedly being involved in Satanism he killed himself on June 06, 2006. (ookie-creepy 666!) Bottom line – he led an interesting if not fractured life & some of the fruits of that can be enjoyed here.

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COSDS - Dear Mr Gacy (5)As far as the movie goes – Forsythe is fucking incredible as always. The level of discomfort you feel watching this is palpable, particularly knowing that these things could’ve very well happened. Check it out if you have even a passing interest in Gacy or serial killers in general. It doesn’t flinch in the face of discomfort, it flirts back. Highly Recommended!

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Well kids, that about wraps up the decent stuff out there. If anyone knows about other Gacy films that I neglected be sure to let me know! If you have any serial killer biopic suggestions shoot em to me here: thechurchofsplatterdaysaints@gmail.com! Now go sharpen those knives & stock up on quicklime you sick little shits!

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Jocelyn lives on 35 acres of woodland in an undisclosed Appalachian location. When not boozing it up or fighting the power she's tending her organic garden or collecting punk/soundtrack albums. Her best friends walk on 4 legs. She does not own a cell phone.

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