MOVIE REVIEW: SERIAL KILLER CULTURE (2014)
Independent Chicago filmmaker John Borowski, most famous for his “somewhat recently” completed trilogy of “historical horror” of which includes H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer (2004), Albert Fish: In Sin He Found Salvation (2007), and Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance (2012) has moved away from the subject of profiling individual serial killers themselves to focus on the collectors of serial killer “artifacts” and items acquired from crime scenes and the serial killers’ themselves. Some might think this to be a very morbid direction and subject-matter to focus one’s collection on, but whether one agrees with the collection, the reason for collecting, or the collector him or herself, the curiosity of the subject-matter and the people associated with this small but seemingly growing sub-culture is a very interesting topic to explore in a documentary.
SERIAL KILLER CULTURE talks with a selective handful of people who are themselves collectors, authors, publishers, artists, and musicians to paint a vary vivid, yet dark picture, of what the culture of serial killers is and what type of people collect this stuff. As I always say, anything in the world can be the focus of one’s collection and everyone has a reason for collecting something. This film explores those collections by giving the viewer a history of sorts of the particular item in the collection, as well as some in-depth interviews with various collectors about how they acquired certain items and in their own words, the history of the item and the serial killers’ murders. I think it was crucial for Borowski to have the various collector’s tell the devious deeds of the murderer and his/her crimes to the camera in his or her own words, validating the collection to the viewer and showing that they know exactly what this serial killer has done and how they have done it.
Beginning the documentary with Stephen J. Giannangelo, author of Real-Life Monsters: A Psychological Examination of the Serial Murderer and The Psychopathology of Serial Murder: A Theory of Violence (as well as criminal investigator), giving his thoughts on the serial killers in interviews edited into the feature throughout the film and more so on the clinical side of things and then moving on to avid John Wayne Gacy art collector and Gacy’s art dealer Rick Staton. Staton himself a mortician by trade and a collector of the macabre by nature, talks about how he got interested and involved with John Gacy and selling his artwork for him, what some critics call selling artwork by serial killers, Murderabilia.
Knowing how some people think that collecting things from an individual who has taken multiple lives of innocent victims, possibly torturing, raping, and mutilating them in the process is reprehensible, Borowski takes care to allow each purveyor of the morbid collectibles to explain how they came about collecting these type of things, as well as their reasons why. I think most people have a hard time accepting the fact that people that collect artwork, personal belongings, letters, and other forms of “memorabilia” from a man or woman who has only gained any sort of notoriety or “fame” based solely on the fact of how many innocent victims he or she killed or the manner in which they were killed in.
Talking with Staton, one whose story and collection is extremely interesting due to the fact that he visited John Gacy in his cell and even after meeting him found out he hated him and that he was a liar. Yet, Staton still sold his artwork for him and mailed him money from it as a “gift”. The insight into Staton and Gacy’s relationship was fascinating, even more so hearing that Gacy took every chance he could to grab Staton’s genitalia and pinch his ass, obviously showing signs of attraction to his visitor but even more appalling knowing the sexual nature of many of his crimes on young men. Staton himself a fan of horror and grindhouse films, named the center of Gacy painting acquisitions Grindhouse Graphics (now closed). Staton shows viewers his large collection of collectibles from such notable serial killers such as Henry Lee Lucas, Richard Ramirez, Kenneth Bianchi, and Ed Gein.
Complementing the collectors’ various stories and histories on collecting serial killer items are a plethora of pictures from the actual crime scenes and actual items found at the crime scenes. Dean Corll and Elmer Wayne Henley, Jr.’s double-headed dildo, penis insertion pins, and handcuffs along with the toolbox they were stored in when the two would (along with another accomplice) abduct, rape, torture, and murder a minimum of 28 boys known as the Houston Mass Murders. Why would one want to collect items such as these that were used in supreme acts of heinousness? SERIAL KILLER CULTURE explores this questions and others in great detail.
As Staton said, after spending years collecting and selling Gacy’s artwork, “When I die, I could care less what they do with this shit.”
Maybe that is just it: satiating an urge and appetite for what some would consider taboo, or maybe one just chooses to focus on the dark history of life, and death, in general. Sort of like when one passes by a car accident and slows down to get a peek. The film moves on to a musical act of two brothers, The World Famous Crawlspace Brothers, who make country and folk songs inspired and all about serial killers. They simply use their creative outlet in making music and write lyrics and songs that explore various serial killers. Artist Rich Hillen, Jr., creator and artist of “The Unofficial Serial Killer Coloring Book” and “Best of the Serial Killer Coloring Book” as well as member of the World Famous Crawlspace Brothers, asks himself on camera, “Is it sick to a certain degree?” His answer is, “Yes.”. I guess that does not stop him from writing songs like “Every Retarded Hooker Has A Purpose” though. Hillen’s explanation as to why people are drawn to serial killers is this:
“The world is a fucked up place and fucked up people do fucked up stuff…Obviously, you’re attracted to that and want to talk about that.“
Hillen goes on to say that, “A lot of women get into this.” Along with interviews of serial killer collector’s Borowski tosses in some footage of interviews with actual serial killers, such as Ed Kemper, the Co-Ed Killer and some of his thoughts. Mixing in crime photos and actual archival “news footage of various serial killers spices up the pacing of the documentary, as some documentaries can tend to get “stale” when flipping back and forth between narration and interviews, but Borowski keeps things moving along nicely, exploring a company that conducts tours of key locations Jeffrey Dahmer visited, hung out at, and murdered victims in. Calling this quirky bit of unusual tours The Dahmer Tours, part of the historic tours division in Milwaukee, WI, Amanda Norden talks about the type of people that take the tour and the community’s reaction when learning about the tour itself. It looked as though Borowski took the tour himself with a group of young ladies and men (more ladies than men), filming the whole time. Tour Guide Nicholas Vollmann, armed with only his notes, walks to various spots and stopping to talk about what nefarious deeds serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer committed. Some of those taking the tour are interviewed, giving the film a perspective taken from casual citizens whose curiosity may have just been piqued and themselves are not collectors of serial killer artifacts and collectibles. The film does not entirely focus on the more extreme end of the culture of serial killers.
As the various mediums of SERIAL KILLER CULTURE are explored, an animated interview and portion of the documentary on artist and publisher Hart Fisher is up next. Himself growing up on the southside of Chicago, a fan of Son of Svengoolie, and founder of Bone Yard Press and best-known for creating Jeffrey Dahmer: An Unauthorized Biography of A Serial Killer (appears to be sold out) tells a very sad and painful story about what things he personally went through that might give some insight into why he is drawn to serial killers and has published comic books about them. Unlike some of the collectors, Hart Fisher’s business and comic books came under fire when police came to his home and told him that they wanted him to leave town. Fisher’s story, as well as stories from others immersed in the culture, paint a vivid and somewhat compelling picture of the mass media creating large media sensations through news stories and editorial pieces that bring the public viewers into the scene and through some misguided news stories and guerrilla journalism ignite a frenzy of outrage and misguided anger, giving serial killers a rockstar persona, one that victims’ family and friends, rightfully resent. It just asks the question: Do collectors create interest in serial killers or is the news and media creating much, if not most, of the interest?
After all, no one would know about all these heinous crimes in sensational detail if their stories were not written in the newspapers, magazines, and posted online on various websites. Cut to a picture of Charles Manson on the cover of LIFE magazine. If Manson and his followers are so evil, why would one plaster his face all over the cover of a hugely mainstream well-read magazine with great numbers of circulation. The film asks those watching is it really the fault of those collecting serial killer collectibles, or is the culture of serial killers have a strong ally in the mass media?
I found that SERIAL KILLER CULTURE paints neither a pro nor con viewpoint in its unbiased presentation of the facts and opinions. The film simply explores the subject matter and tries to represent a good cross-section of those deeply implanted in its subject matter. Along with the various artists like David Van Gough who is a very talented painter who cites there are some similarities in the Manson Murders and the Black Dahlia Murder case (both cases had murdered women and acts of mutilation for effect), the film explores some metal bands whose acts and songs have been influenced in some way, shape, or form by the culture of serial killers. The Swedish metal act SPARANZA, who used Tony Jay’s narration audio from Albert Fish: In Sin He Found Salvation (2007) for their song, Mr Fish. Interviews with band members explaining why they were influenced by Borowski’s film Albert Fish, as well as their interest in serial killers.
Uniquely, director John Borowski features himself in the documentary on serial killer culture, which is only fitting since he has directed three films on specific serial killers, as well as producing a book on serial killer H. H. Holmes (The Strange Case of H.H. Holmes– Produced by John Borowski and Edited by Dimas Estrada), as well as even aiding the Wichita Police Department in 2004 when Denis Rader (BTK Murderer) resurfaced (had disappeared for over 25 years) and sent letters to the Wichita Press. The police subpoenaed the names of those in Wichita who had ordered the Holmes dvd. All this is talked about in the documentary by Borowski, as well as a little tour of where he edits his films in the studio, as well as some of his serial killer items he has.
One of the final segments of the film contain some interviews with Chicago’s very own murder metal band MACABRE, containing clips and portions of live concerts and interviews with their tour manager Erik Cevallos. The entire band is present for interviews and talks about some of their songs and why the serial killer theme is present in all of their songs.
How can one make a documentary on serial killers without including Joe Coleman, collector and artist, who is well-known for his collection surrounding serial killers. His Odditorium contains many “odd” things, one of his prized possessions being the letter that the cannibal Albert Fish wrote to the mother of his last victim. Joe Coleman has been featured on some of Borowski’s other films, as an extra feature to the film itself. In the Albert Fish film, he was interviewed because of the letter Coleman possesses, telling the story of how he came to “acquire” it and what the letter itself says.
The film I reviewed was a digital screener, so as far as the dvd extra features go, I at this time, cannot comment on, but it is available for download to buy on Amazon.com, as well as rent. One can buy the dvd for about $20 at the film’s official website, www.serialkillerculture.com. The DVD contains Borowski’s Mime Time short film and trailers. The running time is 110 min. and is 16×9 Standard Definition. One can also stream the movie via the website for about $3.
I cannot recommend SERIAL KILLER CULTURE highly enough, as an aficionado of True Crime, as well as a huge fan of horror films and metal. The documentary is as interesting as its subject-matter is. John Borowski has grown as a filmmaker and only continues to make more interesting films. Will Borowski deviate from the deviant subject-matter of serial killers and true crime? Probably not. Let’s hope not! I, personally, will be waiting for a film on The Black Dahlia Murder done in true Borowski fashion! There, the seed has been planted. I will leave readers with one particular epic quote from the film.
“Serial Killers are human and their acts are monstrous.”