Society has a grim fascination with serial killers, mass murderers and spree killers. It’s a fact of life that we are more interested in the life and times of our worst than our best. Victims rarely mean much to us as a society, perhaps sadly, and we have even less interest how it affects their families.
No matter the story, when it comes to films based on true events there will always be controversy, which is why perhaps sometimes writers and directors opt to use a criminal as a jumping off point, but ultimately using a fictional version so as to avoid unwanted claims of insensitivity and other conversations around ethics.
Famously, Ed Gein was the inspiration for both Norman Bates in Psycho and Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but neither are biopics of him, while Ted Bundy and Gein also formed the basis for Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. Similarly, but more on the nose, Gus van Sant’s Elephant, a film dealing with the events of a school shooting, is not a film about Columbine, though both main characters dress and look almost exactly as Harris and Klebold did on the day of the crime.
But there are films that do want to take on the events head-on; generally they are terrible straight-to-DVD horror films with some D-list wrestler as BTK or something similar, but Hollywood and actors can be attracted to certain stories. Perhaps the most famous example is Australian horror film Wolf Creek, which claims its title as true events but fictionalises things, with disgusting results.
With Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, we are shown the life outside of the murders of Ted Bundy played brilliantly by Zac Efron, but he’s not the first nor will he be the last to be in a film about a notorious killer. The question that inevitably gets raised is: is it ever okay, or agreeable to make a film or TV show about a real-life serial killer, or will it always be considered salacious, and in poor taste?
Films such as Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile as well as a film like 2003’s Monster focus on the trial and actions of the killer in question – looking into the motives and personal psychology of those who committed terrible acts. Monster, about the crimes and trial of Aileen Wuornos, was always a difficult proposition given her notoriety — which was based pretty much solely off of her gender. But Charlize Theron’s transformative performance means that there is a chance to see Wuornos for who she is, which is a disturbed individual, a victim of abuse at the hands of men, in a society that is indifferent. It also helps that Patty Jenkins offers a female director’s perspective.
On a different end of the spectrum is something like My Friend Dahmer which examines the beginnings of a life of crime, looking into the strange semi-friendship between young men and if that could trace the events that lead to shocking and evil crimes. There is a common link between My Friend Dahmer and Extremely Wicked, in that it is taken from a work by someone who had a personal relationship with the killer. Liz Kendall wrote the memoir The Phantom Prince while John “Derf” Backderf wrote and drew the graphic novel My Friend Dahmer. The difference is that the film about Dahmer doesn’t deal with the business of the murders, instead examining exactly what goes into a person who is disturbed.
Yet there are films that examine the lives affected around the killings, which perhaps is a truer reflection of what a serial killer’s legacy is. David Fincher in his 2007 overlooked gem Zodiac doesn’t tell a story about the killer, owing to the killer never being caught, but from the perspective of the people is affected the most. Based on two accounts by Robert Graysmirth a man involved in trying to catch the killer who wrote two books about the case (Zodiac and a revised version called Zodiac: Unmasked). Fincher’s film employs a technique of using witness testimony of what the killer looked like and making the actor look that way, whereby each time the killer appears he is physically different playing on ideas of memory bias.
Perhaps something like this, and to a lesser extent, is the Nicholas Cage starring film The Frozen Ground, a portrayal the killings of Robert Hansen, because that shows the length and time it takes to hunt down someone who is doing these things. Zodiac is a long film, but one that shows the toll such a series events had on the people around, in particular the lives of Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Melvin Belli (Brian Cox) four men who faced trouble when they dared to look into the situation.
It’s a difficult line to tread since it’s impossible to tell the stories of the innocent lives lost since they cannot give testimony, and by and large their family will want a positive take on the actions, as well as certain cases taking the work of many many people instead of just one driven cop in the way movies are often so eager to portray.
There is another way, one taken by both Spike Lee and soon Quentin Tarantino, to use the crimes as a backdrop for a fictional story – though this can also be tricky. Spike Lee’s 1999 film Summer of Sam is not by and large a film about David Berkowitz or The Son of Sam, but it is set during the height of his crimes when tension, fear and violence was in the air. Instead, it looks at a diverse culture of the time, as Lee makes comments about social, sexual and racial while using the mounting tension that anyone could be the next Son of Sam victim. Although the Son of Sam case actually has a very interesting investigation – it involves parking tickets, and a yellow car – there is a clear choice to make the killer a plot point and not a very big one at that.
Similarly, soon Quentin Tarantino will release Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a film about a TV actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double (Brad Pitt) as they attempt to break into movies, however, this is set to the backdrop of the Manson Family Murders, most importantly around the time of the murder of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Not only does it seem a little insensitive in general to use the horrific murder of a pregnant woman as a backdrop point of your film but sadly, knowing Tarantino, it’s not like he’s known for the most sensitive of writing when it comes to important moments in history.
It raises a question about if it’s possible to do justice to something such as these events, and what the approach should be. Do you exploit it for horror? Do you tell hard facts? Examine the route to catching them? Or tell a fictional story about what the events were doing to people? It comes down to a matter of personal taste, because there will always be those who consider it too soon after events to tell the story, and those who think entertainment based on murder is distasteful. But, when has taste ever concerned the film business?