Even though beautifully-acted, there is the nagging question about whether we needed another show on Jeffrey Dahmer, the cannibalistic serial killer who killed 17 young men between 1978 and 1991. One is reminded of Jordan Peele’s Nope, which also looks at our relationship with spectacle and our need to look at and away from it.
Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story
Dahmer— Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is as clumsy as its title — why are there two Dahmers in it? Unless it is to signify there are two people — one is the polite, well-spoken young man who lives with his grandmother, and the other being the one who preys on young men, drugging, killing, dismembering, and eating them, without the accompaniment of fava beans and a nice chianti. Incidentally, The Silence of the Lambs featuring Sir Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal the Cannibal was released in 1991, the year Dahmer was arrested.
Ryan Murphy’s limited edition series which like Hollywood, he co-created with Ian Brennan, is not particularly limited. Over 10 hours, it purports to tell the Dahmer story, from the victims’ POV, but it seems like another attempt to dwell on all Dahmer’s ghastly perversions.
Starting at the end, Dahmer begins in 1991, with Tracy Edwards (Shaun J. Brown) running down a street. He flags a police car and tells of a man who was going to kill him. The police come to Dahmer’s (Evan Peters) apartment to find the little shop of horrors and more.
The show moves back and forth from there, going back to Dahmer’s childhood and his abandonment issues with his mother Joyce (Penelope Ann Miller), her depression and pill taking and his father Lionel’s (Richard Jenkins) long absences from home.
Dahmer’s heavy drinking sees him flunk out of college and get discharged from the Army. Lionel, a research chemist, seeing Jeffrey’s interest on the effect of bleach on tissue and bone as a scientific curiosity, taught him how to preserve bones. Jeffrey and Lionel’s trips to collect and dissect roadkill (ewww... no TV dinners with this one) are intercut with the use he put his training to — first in his grandmother’s fruit cellar and later in his apartment.
Incidentally, the fruit cellar references that other serial killer who wouldn’t even harm a fly, Norman Bates. There is mention also of Ed Gein, the inspiration behind Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, Psycho, which Alfred Hitchcock made into that fine little black and white film in 1960.
The strongest episode in this rather uninvolving series is the sixth, ‘Silenced’, which is told from Tony Hughes’s (Rodney Burford) perspective. Though as his friends say, as a deaf, gay, Black man, Tony has three strikes against him, he does not let the world get him down. He is optimistic, looking for love rather than a hookup, and aspiring to be a model. The sound fading in and out helps us see and hear the world from Tony’s lens.
The series follows the aftermath of Dahmer’s arrest, the trial, Rita Isbell’s (one of the victim’s family played DaShawn Barnes) outburst, the publicity hounds, Dahmer’s incarceration, the fan mail and his death in prison. The effect on the victim’s families is dwelt upon superficially as is the racism that let Dahmer prey on people of colour.
When one of the victims who got away, Ron, (Dyllón Burnside) asks the police, “you are going to take the word of a white man with a criminal record over that of a black guy with no criminal record?” it is left hanging in the air.
Even more tragic is the fate of the Laotian family, whose 13-year-old son was attacked by Dahmer in September 1988. Later, in May 1991, he attacks the younger son, Konerak, (Kieran Tamondong). Horrifically, when Konerak escapes, the police escort him back to Dahmer’s apartment after Dahmer convinces them that they were lovers. Dahmer then kills the 14-year-old. In court when Konerak’s father says “We believed in the American dream but are living in a nightmare,” there is no again no solution, or way forward.
The acting is excellent as is the recreation of an earlier time right down to the advertisements (Head &Shoulders among others) and music, Joel Adams’ Please Don’t Go is used to chilling effect. Molly Ringwald as Jeffrey’s impossibly understanding stepmother Shari, Michael Learned as Catherine, his long-suffering grandmother, and Niecy Nash as Glenda Cleveland, Dahmer’s persistent and plucky neighbour provide excellent character studies.
Peters kills it (pardon the pun) as Dahmer, creating a sympathetic portrait of a mass murderer and necrophiliac. Jenkins as Lionel, Jeffrey’s father, makes us see his struggle to wrap his head around the monster his sweet, timid, curious child has become.
Nietzsche’s famous warning of not gazing into the abyss, for “the abyss gazes also into you,” should be heeded despite Dahmer being presented as a Hamlet (he even has a Yorrick moment with one of his victim’s skulls).
Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is currently streaming on Netflix