Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Ed Gein (2000) review


Modern American horror began on November 16th, 1957 in a little farming community named Plainfield, Wisconsin: This movie gets a lot more criticism than it generally deserves. Indeed, it is extremely low-budget, but it basically nails the whole point of Ed Gein better than anyone ever has, or possibly ever will. What seems to disappoint most people is the fact that the film sticks so closely to the story of what actually happened, rather than the speculations and additions. Not that Eddie didn't kill anyone, mind you...

The reality is, Ed Gein was not a serial killer in any respect, and murdered only two women whom he may have felt resembled his dead mother. It's unknown factually beyond that, though he might have killed his brother in an argument when both men were hunting. The photograph to the right is of the body of his second victim, Bernice Worden. What he is most remembered for, in reality, are the ghoulish excavations he committed, and his "articulations" of dead bodies.

It's very difficult for us to imagine in our current era how much of a bombshell Ed Gein was in late-1950s America. People didn't talk about mental illness or domestic abuse in those days. In fact, it's my own humble opinion that we still haven't entirely coped with the knowledge of such aberrant-behavior.

Why do people do such things? There really are no answers here, which can a very disturbing reality in a modern world that appears to have explanations for nearly everything. But sometimes, there are no clear answers. The makers of "Ed Gein" have shed some much-needed light on what is really known about Gein's metamorphosis into a full-blown ghoul. Surprisingly, a great deal of the psychological subtext of his life has leaked-into films "based" on his "true story."

Most successful of all--naturally--is Hitchcock's "Psycho," but Steve Railsback and Chuck Parello have shown us a very clear scenario into why Ed Gein became the man we know-of today. Gein was basically bisexual and had a strong desire to BE a woman, like his domineering mother. Gein's real problem was being schizophrenic, however. The addition of the strident religious fanaticism of his mother probably didn't help, as many sufferers hold a fascination with the cosmological.

As stated in "Psycho" so well, he wanted to "...become his mother," in a sad-attempt to "bring her back to life." His father was a pathetic drunk, and as is well-known, his mother had a god-like dominance (coupled with religious-fanaticism and sociopathological attitudes) over the young boy. Ed was also deeply traumatized by an incident on the family farm where he saw his parents slaughtering a pig--Ed was unable to assist them, and was often called a "panty-waist" by his mother.

The incident, and a few others, are reenacted convincingly by Parello and company, and much of the film takes-place in Gein's head (where it belongs). Feeding his insanity with detective pulp-magazines, published accounts of cannibalism and head-hunting in the South seas, and a deep fascination with the Holocaust and war crimes committed under the Third Reich, it was clear that Ed Gein was obsessed with death. In time, he would attempt to embrace and control it, wearing the tanned-skins of cadavers that he had stolen from a nearby cemetery. Ed Gein was a ghoul, not a serial killer, and he sometimes wore the skins taken from these bodies so he could be a woman. Insofar as anyone can tell, all the "parts" came from deceased women.

Also interesting is the story behind Gein's brother Henry and his mysterious death. While it could be viewed as speculative, it's known that Henry was found dead (allegedly of a heart attack while hunting) with bruises to the back of his head. A fire had been started around his body, pointing-to Gein again, as he must have panicked after murdering his brother and either tried to dispose of the corpse or create a scenario that would explain-away his involvement.

The film also speculates on whether Gein fed human flesh to people he knew--this is unknown, but some of the stories around Plainfield attest that he did, and that hunting deer was repugnant to him. The detail is pretty amazing, with some incredible asides by Railsback that add to our understanding of Ed Gein. One scene has Gein at the local watering-hole mentioning how he'd like to have a sex-change, which was explosive news at that time, from Sweden.

This event --like nearly all others in the film--really happened, and Gein's comments were taken as they often were: a joke, that he was pulling everyone's leg. That's how Ed Gein was viewed--a leg-puller, an oddball flake and a shitter. He wasn't taken seriously, which is why it was so hard for people in Plainfield to comprehend what he was up to out at the farm.

There are a few continuity errors: the headlights of a car are clearly from the 1990s in one insert-shot, and there are a few moments where the production design could have been closer to what 1950s America looked like. But, all-in-all, what you have here is the definitive film on Ed Gein. It's all here, in all its pathetic glory. This is what happens when someone is neglected by family and society, both spiritually and medically; this was simply a sick man who needed help. Nobody did so until it was too late, leaving just another example of how we are not a very proactive culture.

It's telling that Augusta never had her son taken to get help, and one has to assume she was also deranged in a way that found expression in the sickest, darkest pages of the Bible--especially her fixation on the Book of Revelations, a tome that should be read as metaphor only. None of this is sexy and exciting to gorehounds and thrill-seekers who come to a film like this, not to learn something, but merely to stimulate their hunger for viscera. Grow-up.

An excellent film! How can you lose with ole' Steve Railsback, anyway? He bankrolled this one, and it was a wise move, they got a lot of bang for their buck. If the movie says anything, it's how insensitive we were as a culture at that time. Hardly anyone thought it that strange that Ed Gein had shrunken-heads hanging from his bedroom walls. His excuse was taken at-face-vaule: he'd gotten them from a relative who had fought in the Pacific during WWII.

Trophies of this sort were common, but should have been taken as a good example of the sickness and psychopathology of their owners. During the late-1950s, people might have thought it odd, but rarely would have blinked over it. That's how sick a culture we were at that time, and we aren't out of the woods surrounding Plainfield yet. We haven't coped entirely with Ed Gein as a culture yet, let alone Jeffrey Dahmer. Pity poor Ed, he's earned it.

Postscript: It seems possible Mr. Railsback was a target-for-death of Robert Blake at one time!