Ed Gein, 2001. 8/10

Much better than the 2007 version of this true crime story. Steve Railsback does a thoroughly good job portraying Ed Gein, the Wisconsin small-town loner who killed at least two women in the 1950s. This guy had some of the most evolved, demented obsessions imaginable; the movie fittingly works in Gein’s horrific upbringing, mostly through flashbacks–which are often his hallucinations.

Since viewers might well know the outline of Gein’s doings, the drama comes in the gradual work up to his killing of the bartender Mary (Sally Champlin), and the hardware store owner, Colette (Carol Mansell). We don’t even need to get to the murders to have a lively horror story. And, Gein’s overly-strict, hateful, and abusive parents aren’t as awful as what we see in his life after their deaths.

Faces of dug-up corpses, vertebrae repurposed as lampposts, lampshades made of other patches of skin, noses, sexual organs–displayed, or in boxes–is there such a hobby as ghoulish collecting? It’s bad enough when two kids get a peep at the “shrunken heads” (he explains them as ‘war souvenirs’). What’s worse is telling a very jittery prospective home buyer not to look into an upstairs room; she tries to make light of it by saying “is that where the shrunken heads are?” Oh, “no,” replies Ed, laconically, “they’re in the basement.” Of course.

That kind of kills the deal for her. One device that’s not macabre, but merely delusional, is the consistent reappearance of his dead mom (Carrie Snodgrass). She pops up at opportune moments, we might say, to target victims, and urge him on. Maybe the weirdest of those scenes occurs when she manifests herself as a burning bush. On the one hand, it’s a pseudo-biblical touch; but also, a reminder of the brush fire Ed used to mask the earlier murder of his brother.

Seeing all the other locals going about their business, no different than people have before or since, reflects simultaneously on how a guy like Ed Gein can more or less fit in, and yet, stand completely apart. We never really know what someone is like; unless, of course, that person destroys our placid community. Had Gein managed to contain his demons so that he did nothing more illegal than grave-robbing, we’d still have a bizarre psychological study.

In a movie with a lot of surprises, Ed’s ‘dance’ under the full moon, outfitted in complete female skin–a real-life paper doll–is more horrific than anything a mythical monster, Dracula included, could dream up. If that’s not enough, Gein, at once sure of himself and wanting to boast, talks about abducting Mary so loosely that he actually gets his audience to laugh. Railsback’s ability to mimic Gein’s haunting grin is worth the viewing experience all the more memorable.

With a few exceptions, the period detail is excellent. I watched this as a double-bill with The Legend of Lizzie Borden. Both very good, and very different true crime dramas. A creep-fest, yes, but a guilty pleasure. Thankfully, the filmmaker doesn’t dwell on the gore per se–this is realistic with being obsessive about it.

Of course, the hallucinatory stuff is there courtesy of poetic license. It’s impossible to know what someone was thinking or feeling; and, for that reason, why not make some assumptions/interpretations about Gein’s mental state? The best impression that this movie leaves with us is that as heinous as Gein’s crimes and preparatory actions were, it’s hard to hate him.

If nothing else Ed Gein (2001) will set you up for Halloween. Farmermouse is getting lost real quick from this gross-fest, but he liked all the old pick-em-up trucks. Eight flatbeds. 8/10.

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