“If you were going to tell a horror story, you would write something like this.” So says a woman in the documentary The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, which played to a full house at the Milwaukee Film Fest, a reminder of our endless fascination with serial killers. Sometimes reality is far more frightening and disturbing than what even the best genre filmmakers concoct. Such is the case with Jeffrey Dahmer, who murdered 17 young males between 1978 and 1991.
Avoiding sensationalism, director Chris Thompson goes micro and focuses on three lives directly affected by Dahmer: Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen, the medical examiner at the time; Pat Kennedy, a young homicide detective and the first law enforcement officer to speak with Dahmer after his arrest in July 1991; and the aforementioned woman, Pamela Bass, who lived next door to Dahmer in the Oxford Apartments in Milwaukee.
Thompson blends interviews with Jentzen, Kennedy, and Bass with news footage, crime scene photographs, and fictional re-enactments. It’s a captivating, mostly somber, and somewhat clinical film that briefly covers the gory details but is more concerned with the way Dahmer will forever be tied to those three people and what they remember about him and that time period.
Jentzen never had any direct contact with Dahmer. In an unwavering, measured tone, he recounts how unprepared Milwaukee was for something of this magnitude and what transpired at the crime scene: gathering evidence, removing boxes, freezers, and other containers, and examining the remains found in the apartment. He is very matter-of-fact and provides valuable insight into how the evidence was gathered and analyzed (he covers the case in his college courses at the University of Michigan).
As Dahmer’s next door neighbor, Bass talks about frequently chatting with him in the building. She remembers him as being introverted but friendly and considerate. She even shared the occasional beer with him. After Dahmer’s arrest Bass was hounded by people offering $50 to sit on a couch he had given her or those looking to cash in any way they could. For years people recognized her as the neighbor of Jeffrey Dahmer.
Making the most lasting impression of the trio is Kennedy. His outsized personality threatens to overwhelm the movie. A massive man, he is loud, often profane, and near-exuberant as he discusses interviewing Dahmer for three days after his arrest and the notoriety the case brought him in Milwaukee. But it also took a severe toll on his personal life and he still struggles with the fact that after spending a significant amount of time with Dahmer, he empathized with him.
Meanwhile, the re-enactments initially cover very mundane activities (going to the store, seeing an eye doctor, buying fish) before gradually getting into the more sinister, like buying bleach and a suitcase used to transport human remains. We never see Dahmer commit murder, and that is just as well. Jentzen’s stories of the ways in which Dahmer attempted to create a human zombie are alarming.
Just as unsettling is hearing Bass recall the shock of learning what her neighbor had done right under her nose. Some of the victims’ family members confronted her once and wondered why she didn’t do something to stop Dahmer sooner. She could never have imagined that her seemingly harmless neighbor was a human monster murdering and eating people in his apartment. He was just Jeff.
An incisive and disquieting true crime story, The Jeffrey Dahmer Files will be released by IFC Midnight, the genre arm of IFC Films, sometime in early 2013. It’s worth keeping an eye on.