Murder Movie Makers:
Directors Discuss Their Killer Flicks
Richard Gough Thomas reviews Matthew Edwards' Murder Movie Makers, a collection of interviews with filmmakers and screenwriters who have tackled real-life monsters in their work...
They lurk in the border between horror and true crime, pushing at the boundaries of censorship, good taste, and the definition of “based on a true story”.
Serial killer movies deliver thrills – and sometimes art – on a tight budget, forcing filmmakers to think creatively about how they show violence and lending an air of grimy authenticity to the nasty stories they tell. Matthew Edwards’ Murder Movie Makers collects years of the author’s interviews with the directors and screenwriters who have worked to bring (real and fictional) serial murderers, spree killers, and associated criminals to the screen.
Over seventeen interviews, and discussing twenty or more films, Edwards reveals some common themes: claims of authenticity that stress the importance of an artist’s research and look down on fictionalised, sensationalised, retellings of real crimes; the insistence (even from the directors of cinema’s most notoriously violent films) that ‘less is more’ when it comes to horror; and the cynicism and frustrations of working at the low-budget end of the movie business. The interviews span decades of cinema, from Tom Hanson’s 1971 The Zodiac Killer (conceived as a ruse to catch the then still-active murderer) to John R. Hand’s Joel (2018).
Though the interviewees often talk about the centrality of their lead actor’s performance, the real heroes and villains that emerge from these stories are the producers: the best protect the artist from interference but step back to let them create, the worst meddle and then appropriate the rewards. Perhaps one of the book’s most interesting episodes is with Clive Saunders, director of Gacy (2003). A still bitter Saunders recounts how his film was taken away from him and re-cut into a very different form for its public release. The director, however, retained a working cut of Gacy – the work-in-progress of his own edit – and transferred it to DVD for Edwards to watch. The author’s rapport with his subjects is remarkably engaging, his description of watching a lost film with its director over a bottle of wine is as interesting as his critical judgment of the film itself.
Edwards’ prose is lively. The author is not afraid to dismiss the most exploitative examples of the genre (“tawdry”, “tosh”, “embarrassing”, p.8), or the attempts of the BBFC to shield us from it. His language is unflinching but shows a well-developed critical eye for both narrative structure and mise-en-scène. Edwards’ enthusiasm for the material can sometimes come across as fannish, but having chosen his line-up of notable murder movies, the author is passionate in their defence: his anger at the BBFC’s cuts to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) is palpable; he describes the studio’s cut of Gacy as having “ripped out [its] heart” (p.131). If Edwards stumbles into being overly partisan it is in prefacing his book with a foreword by screenwriter Stephen Johnston, which treads on the toes of the author’s bouncy but more authoritative introduction.
The disposability of the foreword suggests that Murder Movie Makers would have been a greater book, had it been shown a firm editorial hand. Chapters seem like standalone essays, each with its own preamble. Some chapters use their preamble to summarise the key points of the interviews that follow. Equally, the book betrays a lack of effective proofreading. There are typographical errors throughout, errors of transcription, and confusingly idiosyncratic phrases that leave the reader guessing. The criticism here lies squarely at the door of the publisher.
Edwards comes across as a great curator of genre cinema. The author puts the best-known examples to one side and clears away the dross to reveal films that deserve our attention. We may not agree with all of his critical judgments – not every film in his selection is a neglected classic – but Edwards’ picks are always interesting. John Aes-Nihil’s Manson Family Movies (1984) is a case in point. A largely amateur ‘re-creation’ of the Manson cult’s activities, shot over the course of eight years on 8mm film (that is, without a soundtrack), the work illustrates the subversive potential of guerrilla filmmaking but was little more than a cinematic curiosity until its rediscovery in recent years. In some cases, it is Edwards’ line of questioning that reveals a film worthy of our notice. We might, not unfairly, regard Chuck Parello’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part II (1996) as a cynical cash-in on a critically-acclaimed predecessor, but the story of its creation illustrates the workings of the movie business (and humanises their makers as creative artists).
Murder Movie Makers is a collection of very human stories, told by people telling stories about monsters. Edwards is their advocate. There is plenty of anecdote here, and many of the interviews are enhanced by the artefacts that the interviewees have shared with the author (few collections of movie memorabilia can top a feedback card purportedly signed by the Zodiac Killer), but the book is at its best where it demonstrates why these films matter. Serial killer cinema can be nasty, seedy, and prurient – Edwards succeeds in showing us how it can be violent, ugly, art.