“It’s the smell, Jeff. I keep getting complaints.”
– Landlord of convicted serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer
In the first episode of the clunkily titled Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, the new 10-part Netflix series created by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, a Milwaukee cop sits down in one of those windowless little rooms at the police station with Jeffrey’s dad, Lionel (Richard Jenkins), who’s been called in to learn the truth about his just-arrested son.
“You’re aware,” the cop asks, “that your son is homosexual, yes?”
Lionel doesn’t reply.
The cop goes on: “Allegedly he lured a man to his apartment and tried to kill him. The man got away, and when the police came to arrest your son, they found various items around the apartment that indicate that your son has committed multiple murders. There was a human head in his refrigerator. Two plastic bags in the freezer, one of which contained two human hearts and another that contained a set of male genitalia. In the bedroom there were five more skulls, knives and hammers and saws, and Polaroids documenting the dismemberment. In another drawer we found a complete human skeleton. The bones had been bleached. And then a 57-gallon vat filled with acid. Inside were three torsos in various stages of decomposition as well as other body parts that he was attempting to dissolve.”
Lionel says, “He’s gay?”
Just kidding. Sorry, but when you’re watching something as lurid as this — and more than 10 hours of it, mind you — gallows humor is unavoidable.
And boy, is this lurid. We see Jeffrey drink blood. We see him kiss a severed head. After running across a newspaper article about the death of a handsome young man, he heads for the cemetery and tries to dig up the body so that he can take it home and lie next to it in bed. Glenda, his next-door neighbor, hears screams and the sounds of power tools coming from his apartment and complains about the disgusting smells that drift into her living room through the ventilating system.
To be sure, one difference between Monster and American Psycho is that the latter maintains a darkly ironic distance from the main character, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale). It never invites us to feel even the slightest sympathy for him. That the film pulls this off for 102 minutes, while still engaging our attention, is a very impressive coup.
In terms of sheer gruesomeness and gore, this series makes American Psycho look like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
That’s not true with Monster. The series devotes a lot of time to Jeffrey’s friendless boyhood. We see him come home from school, aged 9 or thereabouts, to find his neurotic mother almost dead from a drug overdose. How can we not feel sorry for him?
There are even moments when we find ourselves feeling sympathy for the older Jeffrey (Evan Peters). At one point, before he’s gotten into the habit of murder, Jeffrey, who still can’t make friends, steals a male mannequin from a clothing store and keeps it in his bedroom to snuggle with. Sheer pathos, reminiscent of the scene in The Talented Mr. Ripley in which Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), after killing Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) in a rowboat, lies down beside him and hugs him tenderly. Later, Jeffrey befriends a sweet deaf guy named Tony (Rodney Burford) and has some almost human-seeming moments with him before finally adding him to the death toll.
So yes, it’s exploitation. Is it ever. But it’s not just exploitation. At some points, this series rises — dare one say it? — to the level of art. The first sequence in the first episode, in which Jeffrey takes a young black guy, Ronald Flowers (Dyllón Burnside), home from a gay bar with plans to kill and dismember him, sustains a high level of suspense for well over a half hour — a coup that brings to mind both the closing sequence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious and the opening sequence of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.
Equally effective is the series’ depiction of the notorious incident in which Jeffrey brings home a 14-year-old Laotian boy, Konerak Sinthasomphone (Kieran Tamondong), who then escapes. The kid seems home free when he falls into the hands of Glenda, who calls 911. Unfortunately, the numbskull police officers who turn up buy Jeffrey’s story that the child is his 19-year-old live-in lover and allow him to return to his apartment with his victim. The most chilling part of all is Glenda’s real-live phone call to the police station, which is presented here as simply as possible — just the voices and a transcript thereof, white words on a black screen.
Other parts of the series are less successful. Like co-creator Murphy’s previous Netflix offering about a real-life serial killer, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, this series eschews a linear narrative, choosing instead to shuttle back and forth in time. In the first few episodes, this approach works quite well. Later on, however, one has the feeling that the show has covered certain territory at least once too often. Over the course of its second half, it loses focus, eventually spending too much time on peripheral characters and the race issue.
A lot of this, in short, could’ve been cut. Six hours in the company of Jeffrey Dahmer would have been plenty.
As noted, we get flashbacks to young Jeffrey. When we first see him, he’s a cute little bespectacled moppet, sitting alone in the back of a school bus. Arriving at school one morning, he gives his teacher a present — a jar of tadpoles — that shows he’s already something of a budding weirdo. When she re-gifts the tadpoles to another kid in the class, Jeffrey steals them back and murders them with motor oil. Later, his father, a chemist, finds a dead opossum under the house, then inspects the corpse carefully with his son while telling him some extremely grisly facts about dead animal brains.
Young Jeffrey is played by a child actor whose name I won’t mention. Now, it’s pretty well known how dangerous Hollywood has always been for youngsters. Only a few weeks ago I read about what happened when Shirley Temple, the top star at 20th Century–Fox, went over to MGM Studios at age 13. During her first meeting with producer Arthur Freed, who later won two Oscars for Best Picture (for American in Paris and Gigi), he exposed himself to her. Since then, the abuse of children in Tinseltown has only gotten worse. Why, then, would any responsible parent put his or her child in movies?
Monster takes this question to an even higher level. What parent would ever want his kid to play a young Jeffrey Dahmer? I assume this boy’s folks read the script and understood that he’d be exposed to some really creepy stuff while filming this thing. Did it ever occur to them that there might just be a chance that, as a result of the trauma of appearing in this series, their son might end up living in an apartment with a strange smell?
The gay angle. Upon its initial release, according to Hello! magazine, Netflix gave Monster the following tags: “ominous,” “psychological,” “horror,” and “LGBTQ.” In response to backlash from gay viewers, the tag “LGBTQ” was removed. Still, there’s no escaping the gay angle. The guy was gay. So were the victims whom he killed, chopped up, and ate.
The race angle. The series wants us to understand that if those numbskull officers are so quick to let Jeffrey take that Laotian boy back to his apartment — and to dismiss Glenda’s urgent concern — it’s because the cops, two straight white guys, aren’t particularly concerned about gays or about the darker races. The series also wants us to understand that this is why Jeffrey got away with his murders for so long — his victims were all black, Latino, or Asian. When the cops finally do arrest Jeffrey, Glenda explodes at them: “I called you for months! You came too late!” She’s not alone in her anger. Blacks everywhere are outraged; inevitably, Jesse Jackson (Nigel Gibbs) gets involved, and for more time than it should, Monster turns into Bonfire of the Vanities.
The identity angle. It’s 2022. In the name of “affirming gender identity,” surgeons cut off the breasts of teenage girls and the genitalia of teenage boys. Jeffrey does pretty much the same thing to his victims. He’s a murderer, necrophile, and cannibal. Hey, it’s his identity. Who are we to judge? If he were doing all these things nowadays, his pronouns would be “I,” “eat,” and “guys.”
You may recall that Monster is also the title of the 2003 movie about Aileen Wuornos. Now the word has been resurrected for the title of this story about another serial killer.
I guess I’ll have to change the title of my Hillary Clinton screenplay.