The new documentary, The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, doesn’t waste much time with the infamous serial killer’s backstory, and it doesn’t really need to – most of us are familiar with at least the sketchiest details of his lurid crimes. Cannibalism, body parts and severed heads in his apartment, grisly dismemberment and murder; Dahmer pretty much ran the gamut on despicable acts. Instead the film focuses on his arrest and interrogation by interviewing some of the key players involved at that point – namely, former Milwaukee medical examiner Jeffrey Jentzen, former detective Patrick Kennedy, and former neighbor Pamela Bass.
The subjects are not identified with subtitles stating their names and occupations. Instead, the viewer comes to find out who is speaking through their recounting of their experiences with Dahmer. Kennedy is particularly charismatic and interesting, a garrulous bear of a man with a sharp Midwestern twang who talks in depth about interrogating Dahmer right after he was arrested. He reveals some interesting tidbits. For example, the clothing that Dahmer is wearing in photographs of him in court actually belonged to Kennedy’s son; he loaned them to Dahmer after he told him he needed something to wear. Jentzen talks about examining his apartment and uncovering gruesome discoveries like heads in the refrigerator and penises in bowls, describing it as being like “dismantling someone’s museum.” And Bass talks about the horror of realizing that your neighbor, someone you talk to and see on a regular basis, is actually a prolific serial killer. Interspersed throughout the interviews are Errol Morris-style reenactments of Dahmer, played by Andrew Swant, going about his business, buying bleach and large canisters, riding the bus, and shopping at the grocery store. At first it feels a bit cheesy, but that soon gives way to a low-budget indie film aesthetic that works in this context.
Near the end of the film, Bass expresses her disappointment that it took the police as long as it did to catch Dahmer, and that if his crimes had occurred in an affluent, white neighborhood, perhaps they would have caught him sooner. This seems particularly relevant, as the cops actually returned a naked and bleeding boy who fled from his apartment to Dahmer after he explained it as being a lovers’ quarrel. Another revelation comes when Jentzen talks about small holes that he found in some of Dahmer’s victims’ skulls that indicated that he tried to turn them into subservient sex zombies while they were still alive.
The Jeffrey Dahmer Files is an effective and slightly unconventional documentary. It’s full of grotesque tidbits but never lingers on the sensationalistic particulars, instead choosing to tell a story of the deeds and downfall of next-door evil, which makes it all the more frightening.