The title of the new true crime documentary “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files” is evocative and provocative. And it suggests a couple of things. One, the word ‘Files’ insinuates that this is going to be a probing documentary, something that reaches into the storied history of one of America’s most infamous serial killers and dregs up new details or possibly even secrets, locked away in the titular files until just now. The title also suggests a certain amount of scope – that this will be a coalition of all of the files on Jeffrey Dahmer, maybe featuring interviews with dozens of the people who touched his life (investigators, neighbors, family members, friends). Instead, “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files” is neither; it’s an incredibly small documentary that often feels less complete than one of those hour-long specials they run on a loop on the ID Channel, often cripplingly hampered by a series of clumsy reenactments that do nothing but distract. The definitive Jeffrey Dahmer documentary is out there, but this isn’t it.
Jeffrey Dahmer was an American serial killer who operated in Milwaukee in the late ’80s and early ’90s, eventually sentenced to almost a thousand years in prison for the murder of seventeen people. A child molester and alcoholic who would eventually try to turn his victims into semi-conscious sex zombies by injecting acid into their brains, Dahmer was arrested after one of his victims managed to escape his apartment (where dismembered body parts languished in his refrigerator and in a large plastic tub in the corner of his living room). Soon gory details emerged about severed heads and penises strewn about his home, and about how Dahmer took to eating bits of his victims’ flesh. In the early ’90s, in which tabloid media reigned supreme and famous serial killer trading cards were printed, the case was a sensation.
“The Jeffrey Dahmer Files” takes a more subdued approach. It focuses on the summer of 1991, in which Dahmer was captured, and interviews only three participants – the lead detective (a bushy mustached man named Pat Kennedy), the medical examiner (Jeffrey Jentzen) and Dahmer’s next door neighbor in the low income apartment building where he lived (Pamela Bass). All three are lively interview subjects, deeply affected by the case in their own unique way. And they all have amazing stories to tell that you probably haven’t heard before.
Bass, in particular, does much to illuminate the class issues involved in the case. The apartment building where Dahmer and Bass lived, she explained, was on the wrong side of the tracks, and many of his victims were undesirables that the police failed to properly investigate. Had these been affluent white kids Dahmer had been picking off (and eating), would he have been caught before he killed almost twenty people? Bass thinks so, and it’s hard to argue with her. She also talks about what happened to the apartment building after Dahmer was arrested, how it went from a kind of media-fed swap meet, where people would offer her $50 to sit on the same couch that Dahmer one rested on, to a grim haunted house that had to be bulldozed to the ground to maintain societal propriety.
Also fascinating are some of the stories Kennedy tells, like how, on the day of his arraignment, Dahmer was wearing a shirt that Kennedy’s son had donated because he found it hopelessly out of style. Kennedy recounts how, after the arraignment, Dahmer tried to give the shirt back, which Kennedy rejected. Even better is when Kennedy talks about how, at the time of the investigation, his marriage was falling apart, and Dahmer’s stories about stalking and killing oddly seemed to line up with Kennedy’s predatory womanizing. For him to reveal this is almost more shocking than any of the gristly details of the crime that Jentzen tells, like about how they had to try and reconstruct entire skeletons out of bones and miscellaneous material retrieved from Dahmer’s apartment. It makes him sound like a modern day paleontologist, trying to get a sense of what dinosaur they’ve just discovered by reassembling various dirt-covered bones.
But often it’s not enough; entire sequences go by without anything truly remarkable or invigorating. And the greater, nationwide fascination with serial killers at the time (exemplified by those trading cards and by popular movies at the time like “Silence of the Lambs”) goes largely unexplored. Instead, we get the talking head interviews, which aren’t exactly Errol Morris quality and sometimes either drag or are hopelessly repetitive, interspersed with bizarre historical reenactments that seem like something out of an old episode of “Unsolved Mysteries.”
These reenactments are clumsy and often painfully low budget, with little regard to the period setting or general historical details. Andrew Swant isn’t a terrible Dahmer, exactly, but he’s given so little to do (unless wearing awkward glasses and a terrible moustache is something). Oftentimes we just watch Dahmer limp around various drab settings that are loosely coordinated to what one of the interview subjects is talking about. For example, Kennedy talks about Dahmer’s first murder — a young man in a low rent hotel. Director Chris James Thompson doesn’t show the murder, nor does Kennedy go into particular detail about the case. Instead Swant-as-Dahmer stumbles around a hotel (he’s drunk, you see! And just murdered a guy!) and then walks around some more. If this was meant to be insightful, well, it wasn’t.
Thompson does throw some nice flourishes in there, like some expert use of a couple of songs by haunted Swedish electro-poppers The Knife, and there are some occasional instances of gallows humor (no doubt provided by executive producer Chris Smith, director of “American Movie”) but it ultimately proves frustrating and disappointing. Quite frankly, “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files” would have been better if it had a little more meat on its bones. [C+]