Sunday, November 18, 2007

THE MIND IS A PLACE OF ITS OWN

DAVID JACOBSON ON BRINGING LIFE TO JEFFREY DAHMER

Released in 2002, David Jacobson's Dahmer is a haunting, harrowing and endlessly fascinating journey into the psyche of a truly twisted and irreparably disturbed mind.Anchored by a restrained, impressive performance by Jeremy Renner in the title role (who unnervingly nails the character, despite the lack of physical similarities), Jacobson tells his story by intercutting the present (just prior to Dahmer's crimes being revealed) with select scenes from his teenage years and early adulthood, which helps gives the film an appropriate sense of duality, and although it doesn't go as far as to try and explain or pinpoint the roots of Dahmer's psychosis, Jacobson does achieve the seemingly unimaginable, by eliciting a degree of sympathy for this most reviled of true-life monsters.

While we in no way excuse Dahmer for his actions, these flashback sequences powerfully demonstrate that the young Dahmer was a boy clearly in need of help, yet too scared to call out for it, and stuck in a world of parents too self-absorbed with their own problems to notice (or care) until it's far too late.

Although Renner dominates the film, Dahmer also benefits from strong performances by Artel Kayaru as Rodney (a potential victim whom Dahmer picks-up while buying a hunting knife) and Bruce Davison (best known as Senator Kelly in the X-Men films) as Jeffrey's father Lionel. Renner and Kayaru work wonderfully off each other, making good use of Jacobson's intelligent screenplay. Jacobson also uses music and lighting to great advantage, creating a strange but effective ambiance, and manages to piece together some highly effective sequences which range from the unbearably tense (Lionel demanding that Dahmer unlock an old chemistry box in front of him, which we know contains something grisly) to the almost poignant (Dahmer sitting alone in a chair at a party in his own home, while his 'friends' dance and laugh, oblivious to his presence).

Somewhat overlooked during it's initial release (heading direct to the video store shelves in many countries), Dahmer is certainly not a film for everyone, but hopefully the passage of time will place it alongside such other landmark serial killer films as Silence of the Lambs and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (yes, I believe it's THAT good).

DAVID JACOBSON: DAHMER INTERVIEW

Can you start by giving us a little bit of background on yourself? Where did your interest in film and filmmaking stem from?

I have always loved movies and come from a movie-loving family. For me it was a great escape when I was growing up. I didn't like to talk to people. It was a great way to be alone. I also loved stories of anti-heroes, which there were a lot of in the seventies. It made me feel less alone to know there were other people who hated their lives.

When did the idea of doing a film on Jeffrey Dahmer first occur to you? What do you think sparked your initial interest in the project?

My initial interest in Dahmer came from reading a book about him written by his father. It was a very interesting book to me, because it told the story not from a sensationalistic, journalistic point of view, but from an emotional point of view, the point of view of a father.

I like movies that don't conform to conventional genres, that come at subjects from an unexpected angle. I also felt in the story of Dahmer some emotional themes that I have experienced in my own life. This made it very personal. I think the things he did, cannibalising, mutilation, etc. came from emotional places that exist in all of us.

I also felt that the horrifying secrets he had to bear made him utterly alone and that is also something I think we all feel to a degree.I think we all bear secrets and those secrets cut us off from others.

What did you use as the basis for your research when writing Dahmer? Was there any particular books or documentaries that you relied upon more than others for insight?

After reading the book written by Dahmer's father, I went to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where his trial took place.There I read through a 160 page police confession by Dahmer and read through hundreds of pages of psychiatric analysis by the forensic psychologists who interviewed Dahmer for his trial. This gave me most of the material in the screenplay.

I believe that you wrote the first draft of the screenplay within two weeks. Do you normally write in a frenzy like this, or was Dahmer an exception?

I rarely write that fast and even that was just a draft. I went through many more drafts after that, and thinking and discussing. The writing process for me is pretty excruciating, but I do it because it makes the project so personal to me.

How did you go about raising the finance for the film? Was their much opposition to the project, given its subject matter?

I sent the script to numerous independent producers, none of whom showed any interest. Many people were just appalled that I would want to do a film on Dahmer, especially the ones who didn't read the script. I wondered myself if it was the right thing to do. He did atrocious things to people. He treated people like objects, which to me is the worst sin you can commit.

But somehow I kept being compelled to make the film. I knew that there was something that would affect people and perhaps make them see the world a little differently that it gets presented on TV or in big budget films.

After the many rejections, I finally committed my own money to make the film and that got the ball rolling. Eventually my producer Larry Rattner found the rest of the money and we made it through production. But we did it for around 200,000 USD.

One of the aspects of Dahmer that I find really works is its structure, the balance between flashbacks and the present. To me it really balances out the horror and even in some scenes a twinge of sympathy which you feel towards this character. Did you always feel during the planning and writing stages that this was the most effective method of telling the story, rather than opting for a straightforward chronological plot?

The structure was always under question from the first draft through the editing. I always had the flashbacks, but through the writing process I made them less and less expository and more narrative.

I don't like when films use flashbacks just to give some expository information to help you rationally understand the character. I always feel like that is a cheap shortcut. I also dont like films that answer all the questions for you.

The best films are like poems and allow for just as much connotation as denotation. In a sense I was just trying to weave together different parts of his life that related on an emotional level, not a rational biographical level. And I did want the audience to see him as a complicated, sick individual, not just a two-dimensional monster, or symbol of evil.

The film to me has a very sparse ambiance, and makes great use of sound (something which really comes to the fore when watching the film with headphones on). Are you an admirer of David Lynch? The atmosphere of Dahmer reminds me at times of some of Lynch's early works.

I am a very big fan of David Lynch. So much so I have to constantly struggle to keep my own voice. I think most artists are inspired by other artists, in part because they articulate a similar world view, but at the same time they form your world view. So it is hard sometimes to not just mimic them.

It is so hard to find your own voice.It doesn't come naturally to me. I'm still trying to find it. I also am inspired by David Lynch's willingness to still take risks even though he has been very successful.

How much room did you give the two leads to improvise? They seem to work very well together, and their on-screen chemistry certainly helps propel the film along....

We didn't do much improv in the production because there wasn't enough time, but in rehearsal we did do some.They are just both such incredible actors that they could open themselves to each other and the moment and make my writing come alive.

Critically Dahmer seems to have done quite well, and received a number of prizes at the 2003 IFP Independent Spirit Awards. How did the film fare commercially in America?

The film was self-released theatrically and therefore didn't do well at all financially, but the video was very promoted by Blockbuster video and did spectacularly for an independent film with no known celebrities in the cast.

I think the film's acceptance, after being so roundly rejected before production, will inspire me to listen to my heart and take risks.

(Note: Dahmer was released on DVD in the US by First Look Entertainment in a Special Edition that contains Director/Actor Commentary, Theatrical Trailer and a Making-Of Featurette).

FURTHER VIEWING:

JEFFREY DAHMER - THE SECRET LIFE
1992/Directed by David R. Bowen
Low-budget independent film put together not long after the Jeffrey Dahmer case first broke. Carl Crew not only portrays Dahmer on screen, but also wrote the screenplay (taking great liberties with the facts) and produced the project. Perhaps he should have focused on his roles behind the camera and cast someone else in the lead, as his lacklustre performance is one of the film's biggest drawbacks. Still, the film does have a certain sleazy appeal, being as it dwells more on the brutal killings than Dahmer's motivation. Released as a no-frills DVD in the US by Spectrum Entertainment in 2002. (Running Time: 100 mins. approx.)

DOCUMENTARIES

Although the definitive documentary on the subject has yet to be produced, there have been a number of television specials devoted to Jeffrey Dahmer, most of them produced by American cable TV networks like A&E to fill a one-hour time slot (restricting the actual content to a mere 45-50 minutes).

Among the best of these specials are Dahmer - Mystery of the Serial Killer (1993), Jeffrey Dahmer - The Monster Within (1996) and Born to Kill: Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy (part of the 20th Century with Mike Wallace). Many of these programmes are available to purchase direct from the A&E website at: www.store.aetv.com. Dahmer - Mystery of the Serial Killer was also included on the video release Serial Killers: Profiling the Criminal mind - Volume 1.

RECOMMENDED READING:

THE JEFFREY DAHMER STORY: AN AMERICAN NIGHTMARE
by Donald A Davis
1991/St. Martin's Press/USA/Paperback/ISBN 0312928408
The first Dahmer book was this quicky paperback that reads better than most, thanks to the flair of writer Davis and the sheer horror of the details of the case. Illustrated.

PSYCHO KILLERS No.5
July 1992/Comic Zone/USA/Comic Book
Controversial comic book series that gained notoriety and achieved respectable sales (it lasted 16 issues, not counting a number of one-shot specials), but the writing and artwork was usually more miss than hit, with minimum plot and characterisation, and often bland, uninspired layouts. Still worth picking up for its curio value.

THE SHRINE OF JEFFREY DAHMER
by Brian Masters
1993/Coronet/UK/Paperback/ISBN 034059194
The best and most insightful of the Dahmer paperbacks, from the author of the Dennis Nilson study Killing for Company. Illustrated.

MURDER IN MIND No.3
1996/Marshall Cavendish/UK/Magazine
Weekly serial publication with each issue (usually) devoted to a specific murder case (both famous and obscure). Originally published in 1990 as Murder Casebook, the breaking of the Dahmer and Fred & Rosemary West cases in the early-1990s no doubt spurred Marshall Cavendish on to repackage the series. This 38 page issue features a pretty good overview of Dahmer and his crimes, heavily illustrated with some rare colour and B&W photos.

MY FRIEND DAHMER: A TRUE STORY BY DERF
March 2002/Derfcity Comics/USA/Comic Book
Disturbing and at times even poignant one-shot underground comic book, written and illustrated by John Backderf, who recounts his experiences as a high school classmate (and superficial friend) of Dahmer's during the late-1970s. (My interview with Backderf which appeared inHeadpress 25 will be posted here soon).

REAL-LIFE CRIMES....AND HOW THEY WERE SOLVED No.3
2003/Eaglemoss Publications/UK/Magazine
Another limited weekly publication, in a similiar vein to Murder In Mind but not as thorough, with each issue given over to covering several different crimes.

Interview & Article Copyright John Harrison

(This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Volume 2 of the UK Headpress publication Creeping Flesh)

CH-CH-CH-CH-CHERRY BOMBS!



Like most great rock & roll bands, the Runaways were simply too good for the era in which they lived and breathed. They chose to exist in that murky, grey twilight zone which separated punk and hard rock, and weren't fully appreciated by followers of either genre until it was far too late.



The Runaways were formed in 1975, helped along in no small part by legendary Hollywood rock sleazemeister Kim Fowley. Aspiring rock goddess Joan Jett and her pal, bassist Kari Krome, responded to Fowley's ad in an LA music mag - the duo wanted him to help them form a band. Fowley was impressed with their raw energy and enthusiasm, and no doubt sensing dollars quickly agreed to help them out, provided a suitable line-up could be built around them.

Jett soon met drummer Sandy West in the parking lot of the infamous Rainbow Bar, while Fowley hooked up with lead guitarist Lita Ford and raunchy vocalist Cherie Curry (who was working at a teen club in the San Fernando Valley called the Sugar Sack). Unfortunately for her, Kari Krome missed out on a spot in the band's eventual line-up (Fowley felt her bass skills were insufficient), although she did stay on as a co-songwriter.



With the statuesque Jackie Fox coming into the fold on bass, the line-up was ready to begin work on their debut LP, The Runaways, which featured the classic teen rock anthem Cherry Bomb. The film clip which accompanied the song, featuring Currie strutting around in corset, fishnet stockings and stilettos, no doubt shocked a lot of middle-class parents, particularly those who were trying to raise a teenage daughter! Other standout tracks on the LP include You Drive Me Wild, American Nights, a cover of Lou Reed's Rock And Roll and the epic Dead End Justice (which plays like the soundtrack for a teenage Women-In-Prison film).

The Runaways' follow-up LP, Queens of Noise, was released in 1977, and it emphasised the increasing influence which Joan Jett was having on the band - she not only co-wrote most of the songs on the recording, but sang many of them as well, something which caused a lot of obvious friction between Jett and the band's designated lead singer, Currie. Although it lacked a standout single in the vein of Cherry Bomb, Queens Of Noise is arguably the band's strongest release, highlighted by tracks such as I Love Playing With Fire, Neon Angels On The Road To Ruin, Take It Or Leave It, California Paradise and Heartbeat.

Although they were gaining a lot of coverage in the rock press, and were building up a solid (though small) base of hardcore followers, the Runaways were never able to crack the big time record sales wise. Their biggest market was Japan, where they toured in 1977, and released a subsequent concert LP, Live In Japan. A fantastic document of the band's raw and energetic live sound, Live In Japan is an essential purchase for Runaways fans, particularly the original Mercury vinyl pressing, which features a luxurious gatefold sleeve, with the band looking resplendent in skin-tight leather and spandex.



Soon after the Japanese tour, Currie walked out on the band, allowing Jett the opportunity to take full creative control (particularly since Fowley had also by this time left the fold).

The Runaways 1979 recording, And Now....The Runaways, was a more slick and polished production, with bubblegum flavoured pop/rock tunes like Right Now and Little Lost Girls sitting alongside more traditional punk/glam tracks such as Saturday Night Special and Black Leather (the UK punk scene had created a huge impact on Jett, and that influence is clearly evident on this release).



Vicky Blue had by now replaced Jackie Fox on bass, but like their previous LP, 1978's Waiting For The Night, And Now....The Runaways performed miserably and in fact wasnt even released in the USA until 1981, when Rhino Records put it out as Little Lost Girls. The Runaways split soon after, with Joan Jett having the most successful solo career of all the band members, thanks to her worldwide 1982 hit I Love Rock & Roll. Lita Ford also found a degree of fame in the mid-1980s, when she joined the fledgling US heavy metal brigade, performing in skimpy outfits and big hair, and recording a number of moderately successful LPs, the best of which was 1983's Dancing On The Edge.

In 2004, Vicki Blue wrote and directed Edgeplay, an outstanding documentary on the Runaways which, despite not being able to use any of the band's original music, and the absence of Joan Jett (who refused to co-operate with the making of the film) provides an insightful, though-provoking and occasionally heartbreaking look into the history of the band (particularly the final moments featuring Sandy West, who tragically died of cancer in 2006).

Although I would have loved to have seen them live, I'm glad that the Runaways have managed to resist the temptation (so far at least) to do a reunion tour....something that I feel just wouldnt work. In many ways, however, the Runaways are still very much with us....not just in their recorded legacy, but in bands like the Donnas, and in the hearts of every teenage girl who dreams of picking up an electric guitar and rocking out.

Copyright John Harrison 2007

Saturday, November 10, 2007

FRED & ROSE WEST: THEIR SNUFF FILM CONNECTION?

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When the police car arrived at 25 Cromwell Street on the bitterly cold afternoon of February 24, 1994, its occupants could hardly have imagined the horrors which they were about to unlock from behind the walls of the three-story house in the drab, nondescript town of Gloucester, England.

The inhabitants of the house, Fred and Rosemary West - at first little more than suspects in the disappearance of their daughter Heather, whom had vanished seven years earlier at the age of 16 - would etch themselves into the ghastly record books as two of the most vicious and appalling serial killers in criminal history.

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For not only were the remains of Heather soon discovered under the concrete patio in the backyard of 25 Cromwell Street, but the bodies of eight other young girls would eventually be recovered from what the UK press would soon dub the 'House of Horrors' - two of the victims were discovered in the garden alongside Heather, while the remaining six were found buried in the dank, dark and foreboding cellar of the house itself (which had, ironically and chillingly, by this time been transformed into a childrens' play room).

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Within a short time, Fred and Rose West were implicated in a further three deaths - including that of Fred's first wife Rena and his stepdaughter Charmaine. While Fred West would eventually confess to the murders (a confession he was later to retract), his bespectacled, stony-faced wife has steadfastly maintained her innocence (all to no avail, as the damning evidence produced at her trial was enough to convince anyone of her guilt).

The vile crimes of Fred and Rose West made garish headlines around the world. How did they manage to get away with it for so long? The unfortunate girls buried at Cromwell Street had lain in their narrow, makeshift graves for nearly 20 years. The horrific picture that began to emerge was one of Fred and Rose West enticing vulnerable young girls into their cellar, where they would be subsequently trussed up, gagged and subjected to all manner of gruesome torture and degrading sexual abuse - often being kept alive for up to a week - before being viciously killed, dismembered (with Fred West keeping a number of the smaller bones as his own sick trophies), then unceremoniously buried in a small hole in the cellar dirt.

Apart from their abuse of the girls themselves, one of the most disturbing and mysterious facets of Fred and Rose West's murderous career was their rumoured involvement in snuff filmmaking. In An Evil Love (1996 Headline Books/UK), Geoffrey Wansell's riveting account of the crimes (by far the best and most comprehensive book written on the subject), the author frequently raises the likelihood of Fred West having filmed the torture, sexual abuse and murder of some of his victims.

The Wests had a love affair with violent pornography, and according to Wansell, they kept 'for their own amusement a videotape of a young woman, drugged and bound, whose captors inserted a clear plastic tube into her vagina, through which they encouraged two live mice to enter her one after the other*. Every videotape they kept reflected in some way their own depraved behaviour'. West also accumulated an extensive collection of pornographic videotapes featuring women being abused by animals, including both an Alsatian Dog and a boar pig, and suggested repeatedly that he wanted his wife Rosemary to make love "to a bull".

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Of course, video cameras were not a common household item in the early-1970s, when most of the Wests' victims were claimed. But Fred West did acquire an 8mm movie camera around this time, and bragged to his workmates that he had made pornographic films of his wife, which he kept "hidden under the floorboards".

Given his compulsive passion for both producing and watching pornography, Wansell reasons in his book that 'there must be a suspicion that he (Fred West) filmed the torture of some of the young women who died at Cromwell Street, hiding the film under the floorboards, and taking it out to watch with his wife after his children had gone to bed. Whether he actually filmed the death of his victims can now be no more than a matter for speculation, but there must be every possibility that he created what were later to become known as snuff movies - films of the deaths of his victims'.

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When describing the brutal death of Alison Chambers, who was murdered and buried at Cromwell Street in 1979, Wansell reports that 'This time the Wests may have pushed the boundaries of their humiliation still further: Frederick West may have filmed her death. West was well aware of the commercial potential of snuff movies. Only a few years after Alison Chambers' death, West even bragged to a young woman that he was "interested in them". There must be at least the possibility that one of his victims provided him with the chance to exploit what he would have seen as an opportunity to profit from this form of pornography'.

As the 1980s progressed, Fred West at one stage had 'seven video recorders, all of which he had stolen, and was duplicating pornographic videos for sale. At the outset, he simply offered them to his friends and workmates, but he then gradually extended his range, possibly to the extent of supplying them to local video stores for sale under the counter. West certainly suggested to a woman friend that he had made a profit from selling some that he had made himself, telling her that he had been paid 150 pounds a time for recordings which involved the humiliation and beating of women, adding that he "didn't understand how some of the women survived the beatings"'. Wansell also provides strong indication that West videotaped himself raping one of his own daughters around this time.

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Fred West's younger brother John may have also featured in some of the home videotapes: 'Among the collection of pornographic videotapes which Frederick West took such pains to collect over the years, was one which boasted a sequence called F*ck My Uncle. It specifically featured an older man with a beard - the type of beard John sported. The extract even included the line: "I always thought I'd have it off with my niece one day - I didn't think you were ready for it yet."'When John West was arrested on May 24, 1994 (in connection with the sexual abuse of his niece, Anna-Marie), his house was found to contain a large number of bondage and humiliation videotapes and magazines, which John West claimed to have picked up on his rounds as a dustman. In Wansell's words, 'The echoes of the pornographic discoveries in the top floor of Cromwell Street in the first days of the 1992 child abuse case are uncanny. They also lead to the suspicions that one person who would have been able to dispose of any incriminating videos taken by Frederick West would have been his brother John. Pornographic videos, perhaps even tapes of Frederick West's victims themselves, could have found their way into the assorted black bags that John was asked to collect (from Cromwell Street) from time to time' (to dispose of on his garbage route).

Whatever debauched acts Fred and Rose West committed to either film or videotape may now never be known. Amid strong speculation that he may have been responsible for an untold number of other deaths, and having been spurned by his wife Rose in the courtroom docks, Fred West hung himself in his cell on January 1, 1995. His brother John followed suit a year later. 25 Cromwell Street was torn completely to the ground. Many of the pornographic videotapes seized from both Fred and John West were destroyed by police without having been watched all the way through.

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The only person left who's capable of coming clean is Rosemary West, destined to spend the rest of her days languishing in a British prison - and so far, she isn't talking.

*The video which Wansell refers to is Kilroy Was Here, a very grotty and brutal 17 minute short made in Europe in the mid-1970s by H.O.M Productions. The film, shot without dialogue, has a young woman tied and gagged in a low-rent, dirty room, where she is subsequently raped by two lecherous men who let mice crawl all over her body before making them run up a plastic tube that has been inserted into her. The men also have sex with each other, before leaving the girl tied up with a lit cigarette inserted into her vagina. Although disturbing and violent, the film was legitimately available from European mail-order sources, both as an 8mm short in the 1970s, and as part of a compilation video released by Videorama in the 1980s.



(Above: Another of the several books written on Fred and Rose West. I will be adding reviews of many of them on this page soon, along with some more background and essays on snuff movies and their mythos).

Copyright John Harrison 2007