Twenty years after he was caught red handed, Jeffrey Dahmer continues to be a storytelling gold mine, but for newbie doc helmer Chris James Thompson, he was merely a demented center of a much bigger storm. His culturally struggling hometown of Milwaukee was sent into a frenzy after Dahmer’s story hit national news, but behind those fifteen gruesome murders was a rather mundane man who’s affect reached far beyond the poor families of his victims. From the African-American neighbors he befriended, to the police officers that were forced to sort through the horror that was recovered from his apartment, all were touched by evil. With suitably grainy 16 mm reenacted footage, and startling candid interviews from the people that were closest to the case, The Jeffrey Dahmer Files is a hybrid doc that delves into the affect of a serial killer on the community he was a part of while showing just how exceedingly normal he was to those around him.
Thompson set out to make a Super 16 fictional film about Dahmer’s final week before being caught, but he found a much more interesting story while researching for the film. He managed to track down Jeffrey’s former neighbor, Pamela Bass, Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen, who had to try piece together the victims’ body parts, and detective Patrick Kennedy, the man responsible for Dahmer’s full confession. Through standard interviews, each gives their personal account of the night of Dahmer’s arrest with eerie detail. Two of them developed empathetic relationships with the man, though one was destroyed upon his discovery, and the other followed in its wake, but the effect Dahmer had on these people is distinct. The apartment complex where both he and Bass lived was eventually torn down after its remaining residents were forced to move out. Jentzen received an abundance of gruesome on the job experience that seems to have hardened the man. And Patrick Kennedy, he now wrestles with a fear of enclosed spaces, and the remnants of a torn family. Each will forever carry haunting emotions about the man forever.
Blending fact and fiction, The Jeffrey Dahmer Files rides the line with re-enactments staring fellow filmmaker Andrew Swant that are fabricated events based off of found factoids from news articles and biographies. These fictionalized events intermingle with interview footage, but rarely overlap narrative-wise. Not enough can be said for Michael T. Vollmann’s adept editing, which seamlessly blended the two divergent storylines into one enveloping tale of unhinged villainy, insidious racism, and harassed homosexuality. Thompson’s feature length debut is one of visual craftsmanship, intelligent editing, and personality, thanks to a trio of vibrant characters who had to live it. Tales of serial killers are rarely uninteresting, but The Jeffrey Dahmer Files actually tries, in a sense, to make him just that, and luckily fails.
Reviewed at the 2012 Hot Docs Film Festival – Nightvision section (formerly titled Jeff).