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Movie Review

Ed Gein

Reviewed by: Brett Willis

Extremely Offensive
Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Horror, Biography
1 hr. 29 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
May 4, 2001 (LA)
Relevant Issues
Poster art for “Ed Gein”
Featuring: Steve Railsback, Carrie Snodgrass, Sally Champlin, Carol Mansell, Steve Blackwood
Director: Chuck Parello
Producer: Hamish McAlpine, Michael Muscal
Distributor: USA

The crimes of Ed Gein have been used as a partial basis for many psycho-killer films (the “Psycho” series, the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” series, the series beginning with “Silence of the Lambs”, “Deranged”, “I Dismember Mama,” “Motel Hell” etc.). Gein has also spawned one or more namesake rock groups, an assortment of fan clubs and Internet sites, and an endless stream of amateur and professional psychoanalysis. Finally, there’s a film that claims to tell the real story. Does it succeed? Not quite.

Since this is a purported documentary and there’s no three-act plot to be given away, these notes will chronicle the high points and will contain some spoilers. The film uses flashback to effectively relate Gein’s adult life to his childhood influences. The family is dysfunctional; the strong mother (played by Carrie Snodgress) is the actual head of the family, is “very religious” and warns her sons about “bad women” and sex before marriage; the father is distant when sober and abusive when drunk. There’s a feeling that the outside world (everyone except the family) is corrupt, and that no one is really their friends. Gein’s father dies, followed shortly by his older brother, then his mother. At 39, Eddie (who was over-attached to his mother) is left alone in the world. He claims that people don’t pay him for his work or for leasing his land, and borrow his things and don’t return them. His house and farm fall into disrepair and most of the house (except his mother’s bedroom, which is sealed off) fills with clutter. Shortly after his mother’s death in 1945, Gein (Steve Railsback) begins robbing women’s graves and using the body parts as trophies to try to recreate his mother’s presence. Eventually, he turns to murder as well. he’s arrested in November 1957, and spends the rest of his life in a mental institution.

I’m “used to” this story; I was raised and still live a short distance from Plainfield, Wisconsin where these events took place, and was 7 years old when Gein was caught. My mother, like parents around the country, was forced to help an impressionable child make sense of the Gein news reports and the outbreak of schoolyard gallows humor. Later, as an adult, I read serious treatments of the case including a book by the trial judge, Robert Gollmar. If the story is new to you and you’re sensitive to this type of material, you may want to not only avoid the film but skip the rest of this review as well.

There’s very little profanity (one or two instances of each common expression). Three murders are shown on-screen or implied, but they’re handled quite tactfully. There’s just one instance of real female nudity, and it lasts for only a second: Gein looks up from reading a book on Nazi war crimes and fantasizes that he sees young blonde woman, nude except for an SS cap. However, there are special effects props representing female body parts. A female bartender exchanges some innuendo with her customers and lets them play with her bra (she somehow removes it while leaving her blouse in place).

The above would only warrant a PG-13 rating; but there’s more. The element that makes this film (and the story that it’s based on) offensive and unsettling is the gruesomeness of Gein’s “special activities.” Everything in this paragraph is in the film AND is true-to-life. Gein kills two women (played by Carol Mansell and Sally Champlin) whom he perceives as “bad;” most of the details of those murders are shown correctly. He jokingly admits to the first murder, but no one takes him seriously. His interests include Nazi crimes, cannibal/headhunter tribes, and sex-change operations. He carefully studies a medical text on female anatomy. His house is filled with skulls, shrunken heads, face-skin masks, and furnishings made with human body parts. He has a collection of female genitals, and is seen fastening a ribbon to one specimen. He sometimes gives neighbors packages of “venison” [the film hints at what these packages really are; when Gein acknowledged after his arrest that he’d never shot a deer or any other large animal, many people developed stomach problems]. He sometimes dances in the moonlight wearing female skin and organs. When he’s caught, his last murder victim is found decapitated, gutted like a deer and strung up by the heels; her heart is in a saucepan on the stove.

This film was copyrighted in 1997, but not released in final form until 2001. Preliminary versions (with the titles “Under the Moonlight” or “In the Light of the Moon”) used the real names of Gein’s victims. In this version, the last victim and her son have been renamed. Presumably there was a behind-the-scenes legal battle.

There are some inaccuracies in the film that could be forgiven: Some of the terrain is not authentic Wisconsin. In a 1950s night-driving scene, an oncoming vehicle has rectangular headlights. A vigilante incident during Gein’s arrest is fictitious. The arresting officer tells Gein “I hope you fry for it,” which makes no sense since Wisconsin hasn’t had a death penalty since the mid-1800s (unless he was referring to the afterlife).

I wouldn’t recommend this film to anyone as entertainment; however, if it weren’t for tampering with the facts on one particular theme, it could have been worthwhile for the serious student of history. Ever since Robert Bloch (also from Wisconsin) used the Gein case as the basis for his novel Psycho and that story was translated into the famous Hitchcock film, there’s been an overblown image of the domineering mother in movies of this type. Now, that caricature has been transplanted back into the original story. The fictitious elements of the film paint a very negative picture of Christianity; an uninformed viewer could get the impression that believing the Bible literally and reading it too much will drive you crazy. (Why doesn’t that surprise me?)

To the best of my knowledge, all the following elements are NOT true-to-life. Gein’s mother is shown endlessly lecturing her sons (as children and as adults) with out-of-context judgment passages from the Old Testament Prophets and from Revelation. The mother whips one of her teenage sons when she catches him masturbating with a detective magazine (according to psychiatric testimony, the mother was actually more lenient on that issue than on premarital sex). it’s implied that Gein had an incestuous relationship with his mother, and he’s shown killing his older brother in a fit of anger over an accusation about that relationship [if he did kill his brother, which is likely but was never proven, it was probably a premeditated act designed to make himself the sole heir]. After his mother’s death, Gein sometimes imagined that he heard her voice (many people experience that); but the film goes way beyond, showing his mother’s “spirit” appearing and telling Gein that he’s been chosen to do “God’s work” by killing evil women. Gein did try to raise his mother from the dead by “willpower;” but the film goes beyond that and shows him praying for/commanding some of his victims to rise. The film correctly shows Gein as sane enough to loot the cash registers of the two businesswomen he kills; but since it included one likely-but-never-proven murder (that of his brother), it should also have shown him killing at least two teen girls kidnapped from the far reaches of Wisconsin, and two vacationing men who were flashing a big roll of bills. Of course, those totally random or robbery-motivated crimes would interfere with the portrayal of Gein as “God’s Avenger.”

Images we see while our adrenalin is up are remembered most vividly. here’s a film that will have a profound emotional effect on people, and an anti-Christian theme which is not supported by the facts is woven throughout. The result isn’t hard to predict. If you’re just curious about the Gein case, I strongly advise avoiding this film and consulting the factual literature instead.

Viewer Comments
Positive—This was okay… I definitely do not want my children to see this, because it was violent, and there were sexual themes in it. Adults only.
My Ratings: [Extremely Offensive / 3½]
Mary Edwards, age 36
Negative—I didn’t like this film. It was too dark and raunchy. The Bible says to focus on good things. This film, although educational, is very graphic and morally degrading. I found it to be a disturbing experience at best. Ed Gein was a man who most certainly needed Jesus in his pitiful life. Skip this film for your own sake.
My Ratings: [Extremely Offensive / 1½]
Mrs. Sandy O’Neill, age 43