The idea of making a movie about a real-life serial killer doesn’t raise an eyebrow today. Indeed, such movies have become their own subgenre, a sort of true crime/mondo-shocker/psychological study amalgam that uncomfortably straddles the gap between the thriller and the horror film. Every killer has gotten their own cinematic treatment, some racking up more than one. The story of Jeffrey Dahmer rates as a morbid marquee attraction in the serial-killer subgenre — and fittingly, The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer is one of the earliest entries into this subgenre.
The Secret Life plays like a feature-length version of a crime-reenactment television show, albeit one that adds narration from its main subject. Using his 1991 arrest as a loose framing device, the script walks the viewer through an episodic string of incidents as Dahmer (Carl Crew) begins his killing spree by killing a hitchhiker under the floorboards of his mother’s home. Fascinated by this first killing, he continues with the occasional murder after he moves to his grandmother’s home in the early 1980’s. His alcoholism and inability to come to terms with being gay only fuel his obsession.
However, Dahmer’s homicidal urges go into overdrive when he is kicked out of his grandmother’s house and moves into his own apartment. As he struggles to deal with dead-end jobs and probation, he loses himself in his fascination with killing. The modus operandi is almost always the same: he finds a down-on-his-luck type, lures the man to his apartment with the promise of quick money for nude photos, drugs the victim and murders him there in the apartment. Dahmer’s ability to keep it together frequently falters but local law enforcement fails to take notice until he finally picks the wrong victim.
The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer has an equal number of strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, the script — penned by star Crew — stays close to the facts and the film manages to portray his crimes in a way that is unflinching without relying too heavily on gore or lurid shocks. Crew’s performance is rough around the edges but his total commitment to the role keeps the viewer paying attention — and as the film progresses, he develops an ability to make Dahmer seem pitiful and terrifying all at once.
On the downside, the obsessive focus on the crimes inhibits the film’s ability to paint a three-dimensional portrait of its title killer. His family relationships and the failings of local law enforcement only get a sketchy surface treatment. As a result, the film is long on facts and short on insight or context. David Bowen’s direction is too pedestrian to give the film’s episodic narrative the drive it needs. The supporting performances are sometimes weak (example: Lisa Marks as a probation officer who is too young to convince) and the period detail is hurt by the low budget.
Despite the aforementioned problems, fans of straight-to-video horror fare will still find this film compelling. The combination of the narration and the emphasis on Dahmer’s killing spree gives the film a claustrophobic, deadpan creepiness. The threadbare budget and matter-of-fact visual style just add to that feel. Crew’s performance is the grease that keeps the film’s wheels moving, particularly in the second half: his work reaches bravura levels during the final attempted killing and the arrest that follows.
The end result is more serious and powerful in its own raw way than a lot of the other straight-to-horror films of its era. The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer might not be the best of its type but it represents an import evolutionary step for the serial killer bio. For that reason, it’s worth a look to anyone with a serious interest in this subgenre.