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.

The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer TRAILER from Intervision Picture Corp. on Vimeo.