The best two compliments I can give the first episode of the new Netflix mini-television series, Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, is that a.) at least so far, it clearly isn’t glorifying Dahmer; and b.) they leaned into the slow burn aspect of the story for episode one. The moment his would-be victim enters his apartment, which is somewhere around 10 minutes in, the next 30 or so minutes are a white knuckling affair on my end. The tension was claustrophobic, as claustrophobic as that apartment must have seemed.
Based on the real-life late 1980s and early 1990s serial murders by Jeffrey Dahmer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Dahmer would lure gay men back from bars to kill them, dismember them and eat their body parts, the fictionalized series opens with what is essentially Dahmer’s capture. We know at the start of the series that he’s killed a number of people — missing person signs are on nearby telephone poles, Dahmer is seen cleaning blood off of a blade, and his neighbor notices a foul smell coming from his apartment, one she’s been complaining about for more than week — and so, when he goes prowling a local gay bar, it is all the more ominous.
Dahmer is played by Evan Peters, who seems to take inspiration from 1978’s Halloween and Nick Castle’s portray of The Shape, as Dahmer possesses that creeping shuffle about him. He also adds a semi-mumble to his Wisconsin accent (at least, I assume that is the accent!). Peters also has a masterful dead-eye glaze about his stare, as if Dahmer isn’t quite all there. He himself seems zombie-ish in the way he moves, talks and acts, almost blaming the would-be victim for “making him do it.” The “it” being killing him.
As I said, the tension once Dahmer lures a man back to his apartment under the guise of taking modeling photos and paying him $50 — the man is Tracy, played by Shaun Brown — is palpable and something you can’t unsee once you see it, sort of like the bloodstains on Dahmer’s bedroom mattress. Or uh, the freaking vat of … something in the corner of the room. They sit watching The Exorcist III, which Dahmer said he watches every day, and he tells Tracy not to be scared of death, it’s just a part of life. Then in a haunting scene, he tells Tracy he wants to listen to his heartbeat, and we as the viewers listen along; Dahmer said something like, “I want to listen to it because I’m going to eat it.” That’s when Tracy is fortunately able to make his escape and get to the police, who take him seriously enough to go to the apartment and confront “Jeff.” No, it isn’t the bloodstains or the odd vat in his room that tips them off to something amiss, but the photos of dismemberments, or his trophies, they find in his bedroom drawer.
From there, we meet Dahmer’s father, Lionel Dahmer, played by Richard Jenkins. Jenkins is one of those actors you know when you see them: They’re in everything and they’re one of those background actors who make movies and television shows that much better. It was no different here. After he is told of what his son did by two detectives (more on that in a moment), he tries to keep himself together, but breaks down in sobs — the sort of sobs a man not prone to crying would do, where they’re trying to hold it in, but the sobs escape anyway. I found it masterful acting, but also sad from a character standpoint.
So, in that aforementioned scene, it is a little heavy-handed by series creators and writers on this episode, Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan (Janet Mock also has a writing credit), to have one of the lead detective literally just spell out everything they uncovered thus far: A severed head in the refrigerator, hearts and male genitalia in the freezer, bones, torsos trying to be dissolved by acid in the vat, and more human skulls in the closet. Maybe that is how it happened in real life, I don’t know. But it felt like a rather unnatural way to throw out a lot of exposition at the viewer. The detective even remarks, “I know that is a lot to take in right now,” or some such. Yeah!
Nonetheless, with Peters as Dahmer and Jenkins as his father, the first episode promises the following nine episodes will be worth viewing for their acting alone. As I understand it, though, the series is told through the perspective of his victims, so I’m certainly curious to see what the other actors can do to bring this horrific story to life. Thus far, Shaun Brown has already been impressive in conveying the utter horror and desperation of the Tracey character — the one fortunate enough to survive with his life.
Has anyone else checked this new mini-series out yet? What did you think without telling me about the other nine episodes?