The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer (1993)
By: Sam Bowron on January 24, 2012  | 
Intervision Pictures Corp (USA) | All Regions, NTSC | 4:3 | English DD 2.0 | 99 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: David R. Bowen
Starring: Carl Crew, Cassidy Phillips, Donna Stewart Bowen, G. Joe Reed, Jeanne Bascom
Screenplay: Carl Crew
Country: USA
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The serial killer biopic is a genre all its own. A controversial cinematic archetype by its very nature, the very notion that a filmmaker would possess the creative will to make a movie centered around the life and crimes of a convicted killer has and continues to publically enrage not only conservative organizations but also many audiences on grounds of morality and artistic principal. For this reason alone it is quite unlike any other genre in existence and will forever possess an inherent subjective challenge for potential viewers.

Having become a household name since his capture and arrest in 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer's crimes have been documented in almost every form imaginable, everything from books, comics, television specials and several feature films. The most contentious of these was the 1993 memoir The Secret Life (aka The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer), made and released just mere months after Dahmer's highly publicized trial and subsequent imprisonment to a more than hostile reaction from victim's families and critics alike. However, unlike the admirable yet conventionally confrontational portrayals seen in 2002's Dahmer and 2006's Raising Jeffrey Dahmer, director David R. Bowen's film is uniquely devoid of any predisposition or judgment whatsoever and deftly presents the man and the murders in a light so frighteningly candid and honest that one cannot help but re-evaluate their discernment for the genre and its genuine potential for compelling storytelling.

For those unfamiliar with the notorious Jeffrey Dahmer, consider this a brief rundown of his life and criminal legacy. A social misfit and loner for most of his youth, Dahmer began indulging a fascination with anatomy by dissecting dogs, cats and other small animals. Through his teenage years he drank heavily, primarily to elude the pain of a broken home and the feelings of alienation he experienced when struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality. In an almost inescapable twist of fate, his sexual urges began to merge themselves with thoughts of violence – an amalgamation that would ultimately lead to an uncontrollable urge to kill again and again for the purposes of erotic fulfillment. After living with his grandmother for several years he would eventually move into his own apartment and commit the majority of his killings, in most cases engaging in necrophilia before and after dismemberment of the bodies. He would also preserve body parts, whole skeletons and occasionally engage in cannibalism. He was later caught and convicted of killing a total of 17 young men.

In an effort to generate a willing alliance between viewer and material, most serial killer biopics strive to structure a significant back story surrounding the killer and a particular set of circumstances by which the individual in question was made prone, thus producing a state of psychological dysfunction. In the case of The Secret Life no such detail is ever presented, as the film commences deep into Dahmer's late teenage years with the events that unfolded around his first known murder, following through with almost every subsequent slaying thereafter until his capture. This unconventional narrative design gives way to what is effectively a screen confessional of murder - an unembroidered journalistic illustration of one man's crimes and the manner in which he was to successfully realize almost every fantasy embedded within his mind upon the most naïve and unsuspecting members of society. This uniquely documentarian approach is unquestionably the films' strongest aspect and makes A Secret Life one of the most strangely persuasive viewing experiences you're ever likely to have. Narrated by lead actor Carl Crews, the majority of the voice over is sampled directly from Dahmer's actual police admissions and media interviews conducted at the time and makes for an especially candid and disturbingly matter-of-fact admittance of guilt, something that would have been completely lost had director Bowen opted for a more scripted and lyrically pretentious interpretation of the crimes. One victim after another we are made privy to Dahmer's process of elimination: the gradual seduction, the calculated drugging, the systematic slaughter and finally the ensuing sexual gratification. Rarely, if ever, are the exploits of a serial killer honestly portrayed on screen in the manner they are here; it's as if you're watching a feature length A&E true crime special told as an exclusive recollection through the eyes of the perpetrator.

Mention must also be made to Crews for his guilelessly brave performance in the titicular role. While the majority of the films' screen time focuses on the murders themselves, Bowen and Crew never present Dahmer as a raving lunatic or some frenzied sociopath devoid of pathos or identifiable reason. Granted, this is not to say they never passed judgment during production but rather it is obvious from simply watching the film that every effort was made to have the facts be the main driving force behind Crew's characterization. Confident, calculating and always unnerving, it is a near-faultless portrayal and arguably a role no actor would have easily signed on for.

Produced so soon after Dahmer's conviction and for a considerably small amount of money, The Secret Life is ultimately a micro budget effort and if the film were to fall victim to any misgivings it would be the occasionally amateurish technical hiccup. In many instances the supporting actors are dubbed, however the post-audio implementation is often dreadfully stifled, not to mention a good portion of Crew's voice over work. Some of the editing decisions are also bizarrely nonsensical with sporadic shots that lead nowhere and horrible freeze frame inserts in place of standard second unit pickups, making the film look as if it were produced by junior year high school students. In the end these glitches are easily forgivable, as most films made with limited funds tend to fumble the ball from time to time. And let's be honest, if you're the kind of person who gets completely put off by a few audio hitches here and there, it's probably best you steer clear of this bad boy.

As a film dealing with the darkest and most repressed of human behaviors and the horror with which they bring if made a reality, A Secret Life is one of the finest examples out there. As a moody, biographical study of the crimes committed by one of the most infamous serial killers in American history, the film is an unheralded success in need of serious admiration. As a piece of entertainment? Well, let's just say the more casual viewer may want to be in an appropriate mood before taking this trip down nightmare lane.
Retro distributor Intervision Picture Corp (who have gradually been making a name for themselves as a prime mover in releasing forgotten cult titles) deserve a congratulatory pat on the back for unearthing A Secret Life from the abyss of cinema obscurity. Unfortunately, the resulting quality of the presentation leaves much to be desired. The film is shown here in its original 4:3 aspect ratio, however for the most part it is smattered with nasty artifacts, cue dots, dirt, scratches and almost every other celluloid imperfection under the sun. By no means is it unwatchable, in fact much of the transfer is more than acceptable, but every now and then you may have a tenancy to scrub your glasses, only to realize the problem doesn't lie in your prescription. With that said, we should be thankful the film has a release at all given its rarity over the years.
A basic, mostly flat 2.0 mono audio track is supplied.
Extra Features
A minor but worthy package, Intervision have provided an audio commentary track with director Bowen and Crews, detailing much of their motivations for making the film as well as the experience of the production itself. It proves for a very insightful listen and will definitely provide a more grounded context for those curious to learn more about the history of the case. An original trailer is also featured.
The Verdict
What more is there to say? Ulli Lommel should be ashamed. This is what a real true crime film should be.
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score

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