Whenever the horror of a mass killer is unmasked many wonder how someone could get away with such evil for so long. The answer is depressingly the same: they pick on the vulnerable.
Dozens of young men, mostly homosexual, went missing between 1972 and 1978 in Chicago, Illinois. The police chalked it up to teenage angst. The reality was much darker.
From documentary maker Joe Berlinger (The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel) comes another series purporting to dig into the mind of a serial killer. Following his previous Ted Bundy series, this time comprehensive archive footage is wound around police interview tapes with notorious killer, John Wayne Gacy.
Unlike the Ted Bundy tapes – which were a comparatively low percentage of that show’s content – here there is an abundance of material stemming from extensive interviews with Gacy whilst he was being held on suspicion of murder.
They reveal an arrogant and pompous man who seemed convinced he could bluster his way out of the stacks of bodies that were being methodically dug up from under his house.
As a narrative builder, Berlinger does a great job of tying all the material together. Interviews with various investigators, lawyers, and a survivor are threaded through footage structured to tell Gacy’s tale.
Berlinger starts with the disappearance of teenager Robert Piest in December 1978 (the investigation of which would uncover the extent of Gacy’s violent murders) and uses this as an anchor point to revolve around whilst exploring Gacy’s past up to that point.
Shortly into episode 2, the content becomes depressingly similar, with only really the details to keep filling in the edges.
Gacy was highly active in the community in such a way as to feed his ego, including working as Pogo the clown for local functions.
He sought authority and power, and used this self confidence to lower the defences of either the young men he hired for his construction business, or the young men he picked up off the streets while cruising. The vulnerable were always his target.
Aside from a morbid fascination with learning the facts, this series of Conversations paints a more detailed picture of its subject thanks to the amount of material to work with, as Gacy strings out on tape a long series of excuses or justifications for his actions.
Similarly, an interview with a surviving near-victim is horrifying, displaying an example of the techniques Gacy used.
Is Conversations With A Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes Worth Watching?
The series is let down by some odd editing decisions. Frequently the ‘empty space’ between archive and interview footage is filled up by quick shots designed to represent the subject matter.
Thus when Gacy is discussing his bisexuality, someone decided it was necessary to chop into the edit shots of writhing naked bodies or simulated sex positions.
Such gaudiness is unbecoming the subject matter when surely other choices were available that could’ve highlighted the lurid nature of Gacy’s individual behaviour. Have we not moved past bisexuality equals cheap titillation?
Conversations With A Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes presents with the typical Netflix barely disguised sensationalism dressed up as sincerity. It makes little points of its own besides presenting the interviewed material.
A deeper critique of the failings of the police to investigate disappearances therefore isn’t attempted. Considering the better quality of source material and the handful of enlightening interviewees, the ‘take it as it is’ approach is a missed opportunity to tell a wider story.
Regardless of the above, The John Wayne Gacy Tapes is a compelling watch for fans of true crime Netflix, even if Gacy himself is a monster nowhere near as inscrutable as Ted Bundy was.
If anything, the Gacy Tapes are further proof, if ever any was needed, that the most vulnerable in society deserve always to be heard.
Words by Mike Record