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Raising Jeffrey Dahmer

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Release Date: 
Serial Killer
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Rich Ambler
Scott Cordes
Rusty Sneary
Bo Svenson
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 This low budget drama debut from first-time director Rich Amber attempts to cast new light on well-worn serial killer subject matter with the latest movie trawl through the past history of the notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. There have been several previous films that have attempted to tackle the subject, neither of them particularly distinguished; the prolific American novelist Joyce Carol Oates also wrote a novel, Zombie, which attempted to explore the deranged mind of the Wisconsin-born killer. The "twist" here is that the focus of the story has been shifted away from the killer himself, and turned instead on to the immediate parents - Dahmer's father, Lionel (Scott Cordes) and his stepmother, Shari (Cathy Barnett) - as well as his frail Grandmother, with whom he lived during the years when the real warning signs first began to emerge, and when he first started to kill with regularity. The Jeffrey Dahmer case particularly fascinates those who take an interest in the tawdry lives of serial killers - these insignificant people who have somehow come to perpetrate unfathomably terrible crimes - since there seems no tidy explanation for the development of his macabre psychology. Raised in relatively normal circumstances by stable, loving, traditional God-fearing parents ... if your average member of the public finds it difficult to understand the man, just imagine the numb astonishment these closest kin must have experienced when they first discovered their quiet little boy was a cannibalistic, necrophiliac serial killer with a fetish for making his own zombies (he drilled holes in the heads of some of the corpses of his victims, injecting them with hydrochloric acid in the belief that this could reanimate them)! 
This is the kick-off point for Amber's film, which mainly then concentrates on the experiences and thoughts of Jeffrey's dad as he thinks back over his son's life - from his difficult birth to his first wife, Joyce - to various significant events in his childhood and young adulthood. Could Lionel have spotted the "signs" earlier; maybe in his son's fascination with dissecting road-kill and the mysterious decapitation of a local dog, for instance? Could Jeffrey's withdrawn, antisocial persona be the result of genetic inheritance? Lionel himself had always been excessively shy as a child, his own mother claimed the two of them were very similar at a young age. Most chilling of all, should Lionel have taken more heed of his second wife when she cautioned that there might be something indefinably important behind Jeffrey's increasingly odd behaviour while living with his Grandmother? The stolen shop store mannequin hidden in his closet; the strange putrid smells issuing from his Grandmother's basement? 
The film fills in the general biographical information of Dahmer's life - most of it familiar to general audiences by now - using this flashback method, as Lionel attempts to scour the past for clues. But it also deals with the experiences of both parents once the media circus begins upon Jeffrey's initial arrest and after the more terrible facts begin to emerge: the body parts and the skulls, and the bodies stored in acid-filled vats found in his Milwaukee apartment. The film depicts the parents and Jeffrey's befuddled Grandmother besieged by the press, confused and shell-shocked by the revelations while the press pack camped outside their door harass them for "their side of the story" and detectives associated with the investigation start to look upon them with suspicion. Even worse, they watch in horror, over the ensuing weeks, as people claiming to have at one time been friends with, or just to have met Jeffrey in the past, come forward on TV chat shows with lurid tales; even claims that Lionel abused Jeffrey as a boy, or that Shari was a "Stepmother from Hell"!
This is all, indeed, a genuinely interesting angle from which to tackle this subject, and one not usually pursued by conventional movie portrayals of the lives of serial killers. But unfortunately, Ambler's film fails to grapple with the material in anything like a convincing fashion. There are many factors working against the film, not least the very minimalist budget which shows itself on every conceivable level. The film looks like a twenty year old cable tv soap opera, and with a similar standard of acting - although Scott Cordes gives a believable performance as the portly, gentle-mannered, small-time scientist whose homespun view on life is bust wide-open by the awful facts he has been hiding from himself all these years. But he's not helped at all by a poorly thought-out screenplay which veers from stark clumsiness (take a seemingly interminable early scene in which Lionel first finds out about his son's arrest, which consists of nothing but static shots of Cordes making and receiving a series of phone calls in which all the information the audience needs is lugubriously delivered over what feels like ten minutes or so!) to unintentional hilarity; the conversation Lionel has with his wife when he rings her to tell her of Jeffrey's arrest, is priceless. 
She asks the reason for the arrest:
'No,' whispers Lionel.
'Kiddie porn?'
'Then what?'
' ... Murder.'
Yeah - as though the other two options mentioned wern't worth breaking into a sweat over!
The film's attempt to mix the telling of the son's life story as told in flashback and the melodramatic tale of the harassed parents, just doesn't work terribly well. The two elements don't gel together. It's all a bit of a mismanaged hotchpotch which would struggle to find a place on one of those "True Life Movie' afternoon film channels, despite never really reaching above the kind of risible melodrama one expects from such material. Even the DVD from Revolver Entertainment is a cursory affair, featuring absolutely no bonus material whatsoever!

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