Saturday, September 16, 2023

Psycho: The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein

Robert Bloch is overdue for a retrospective film series somewhere, but for now, we’ll just have to keep waiting. At least viewers are reminded Hitchcock’s Psycho was (relatively faithfully) based on Bloch’s novel, which was largely inspired by the case of Ed Gein, a.k.a. “The Plainfield Ghoul.” Gein is considered the first modern American serial killer, even though he was only directly connected to two murders. For the first time ever, several forensic experts (and a few podcasters) finally hear Gein’s own voice on newly discovered police recordings in the four-part documentary special Psycho: The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein, directed by James Buddy Day, which premieres tomorrow on MGM+.

In 1957, the crimes Gein committed were truly shocking. Even in the jaded 2023 of today, they are still plenty disturbing, but we have been somewhat conditioned to their nature, by the movies he inspired.
Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were directly modeled on Gein and there is a little bit of him in Hannibal Lecter too.

Consequently, you might be able to imagine some of the horror investigators found at the Gein house. They were there because of his impulsive and not well-thought-out murder of Bernice Worden. What they found was a horror show of body parts, either strewn about his apartment and as well as housewares and clothing crafted out of skin and body parts. However, most of gruesome materials were plundered from the local cemetery. In fact, several of the talking heads understandably make a big deal that there was never a proper accounting of what Gein took from where.

Frankly, Gein’s voice on the titular long-lost tapes is rather underwhelming, in a maybe predictably banal way. Arguably, it is more interesting listening to his primary interviewer, Judge Boyd Clark, a nearby authority figure, who happened to own a portable tape-recorder. As a jurist, he might have found his questions to be leading. On the other hand, he remains remarkably calm, despite the absolutely ghastly circumstances, drawing out Gein to a surprising extent.

The empathy and respect for the victims expressed by several contemporary forensic experts and Gein biographers is also quite notable. In an awkward contrast, the jokey banter of the “Last Podcast on the Left” true crime bros often feels inappropriate. Generally speaking, the dramatic recreations are competent and sometimes evocative, with relatively little tackiness. However, some of the ironic archival stock footage incorporated to make the 1950s look silly and sinister reflects a questionable bias. We remember Gein because he was the first and a shocking anomaly. When someone commits similar crimes today, they barely rate a
Dateline special, so let’s stop pretending the 1950s were an era of terrifying violence.

Regardless, it is nice to see a fair amount of screen-time devoted to Bloch. (Again, a film retro including films like
Psycho, The Skull, The House that Dripped Blood, and Asylum would be a ton of fun.) Hitchcock’s classic is duly covered, but Day and company rightfully ignore Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake, as we all should. Chuck Parello’s Ed Gein gets more attention than you would expect, but there is no time or love for Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield, starring Kane Hodder.

Day’s talking heads clearly establish similarities between Gein’s personality and that of Norman Bates, especially in terms of their mother issues. However, Gein’s deviant crimes more closely compare with those of Leatherface. There were definitely painful repercussions resulting from Gein’s horrors, which
Psycho: Lost Tapes is mindful of, particularly the tragic health implications for Sherrif Art Schley. Given the challenges, Day fuses true crime and pop culture history fairly successfully (making it much more interesting than his previous MGM+/Epix series, Blumhouse Compendium of Horror). Recommended for true crime audiences and fans of the movies the case inspired, Psycho: The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein starts streaming tomorrow (9/17) on MGM+.