Thursday, July 26, 2007

Oh, Ed, We Hardly Knew Ye

Like lots of other folks, I'm interested in Ed Gein. Whether it's the cannibalism, the graverobbing, the box of salted vulvas in the closet...there's just something fascinating about the guy. I've been hooked on his story for many years, since the day (yeah, I couldn't put it down) I read Harold Schecter's wonderful Deviant, probably the best book ever written about Gein (a must read for anyone interested in our skin-wearing Wisconsin farmer, or interested in abnormal psychology in general).

So the other day I decided to have a Gein filmfest. No, I don't mean I rented Psycho or Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Maniac, or any of the other myriad films based somewhat on Gein's exploits. No, I sat down and watched two films about Gein himself.

The first was 2000's In the Light of the Moon (retitled simply Ed Gein), starring Steve Railsback, and I must say I enjoyed it immensely. Railsback is an underrated actor, with a history of playing...ahem...marginal characters (you may remember him as Charles Manson in the classic Helter Skelter), and he really gives a tour de force performance. His portrayal of Gein is not some over-the-top drooling madman, but rather a depiction of just what Eddie Gein really was: a really, really troubled human being. He deftly keeps the character from becoming a caricature, and instead gives us a peculiar little man who alternately becomes the target of our sympathy and revulsion.

Railsback doesn't have to carry the project on his own, however, as both the scripting and production values are sharp, and quirky enough for the material. I was especially taken by the amount of research that went into the film. For example, there's a scene where Ed sits at his kitchen table, trying on noses. Yes, human noses. Most impressive, though, is that we see that it's FOUR noses, a detail the average person wouldn't know. I really admire that kind of accuracy in a film based on a real-life event, as it gives me confidence that I can accept the rest of what the movie depicts.

And gods...I watched 2007's Ed Gein, the Butcher of Plainfield, starring...Kane Hodder???!!! What in the name of J. Fred Muggs...???

Yeah, it's Kane Hodder, the big galoot under the Jason mask for a handful of the Friday the 13th movies. Now, even if we put aside the fact that Hodder's never had to do more acting than it takes to swing a machete, it's kind of hard to ignore the fact that the actor playing the 5'7", frail Ed Gein is in actuality a 6'4" hulking monster!

Don't get me wrong. If they decide to make a movie where Joey Buttafucco is irradiated with gamma energy, then Hodder is the ONLY choice. But Ed Gein? This is nothing but stunt casting. They must've figured Hodder's name on the DVD box would hook at least a few fans who didn't know any better (god, I hate that kind of cynicism).

And how is his performance?'s there. I mean, he plays a satisfactory crazed killer. The problem is, Ed Gein wasn't a crazed killer. He was a sick little man who robbed graves and wore skin panties and ate human organs and made kitchenware out of skullcaps and had one of the worst mother fixations ever. But he wasn't a Richard Speck or a Ted Bundy, and certainly not a Leatherface.

And as much as I loved the accuracy in Railsback's movie, that's how much I hate the "fast and loose" playing with the truth in "Butcher." Hodder's Gein runs around killing folks left and right. If someone gets in the way, wham! Hey, that may work for Mrs. Voorhees' little boy, but it's NOT what happened in the case of Ed Gein.

And therein lies the main problem with the more recent film. Y'see, Ed Gein's life was FASCINATING. Few people can hear his story and not be drawn into it, provided they have a strong stomach. And the most compelling element of it all is that it's completely TRUE. But the makers of "Butcher" didn't have enough faith to do what Railsback did, to tell a fact-based account of Gein's life, knowing that the reality of his bizarre escapades is enough to keep the viewer transfixed.

Folks, we don't NEED a guy running around slicing and dicing everyone he runs into. Have some faith in your audience. Yeah, Ed Gein was a seemingly meek little man who largely kept to himself and tended his own business in his little farmhouse. But he was also a MONSTER unlike just about anything we can imagine. And that's all we need to keep us riveted to the screen.

Keep your damned pitchforks and machetes and Ronco Vegematics. I'll stick with a diminutive fella from Wisconsin who wore a crooked smile and a bra with real nipples.


NuclearToast said...

Ok, you've convinced me, I totally have to rent "In the Light of the Moon". Assuming, of course, I can take the judgemental looks of the clerk at the counter when I do...

Will Pfeifer said...

Hey Troy, nice blog! I've been a bit of a Gein buff myself since college, when I picked up a copy of a sleazy paperback about ol' Ed. Here's a strange twist of fate -- my mother in law was a nurse for years at Mendota mental health hospital up near Madison, Wis., where Mr. Gein spent his autumn years. Apparently he was just a quiet old man who never gave anyone any trouble -- somehow, that makes things even creepier.

Troy Hickman said...

Hiya, Will! Yeah, it's his demeanor that really makes the story. If he were a crazed, chainsaw-wielding maniac, we'd just say "Yup, there's another crazed, chainsaw-wielding maniac," but he was more like someone's slightly offbeat old uncle...if your uncle made furniture out of femurs...

And mine did...