Monday, September 24, 2012

Your Loss is Our Gein: "Ed Gein" (2001)

In Plainfield, Wisconsin, a local oddity put the town and state on the map. He was the inspiration for "Psycho" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," and although his body count was small, Ed Gein has reserved a place for himself in the history of crime in this country.

Ed (Steve Railsback) lives alone in a filthy farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Years of abuse from a drunken father and religious fanatic mother (Carrie Snodgress) have socially retarded Ed to the point that he has few friends. Any companionship he needs, he digs up from the local cemetery, trying to resurrect the dead before turning their remains into horrific household items like bowls from skull caps and a suit made completely of female skin. Soon, Ed tires of digging up the dead and decides to find a victim.

Mary (Sally Champlin) is the local tavern bartender who likes to joke with her regular customers. Ed's now dead mother tells Ed of Mary's sin, and Ed decides to take vengeance by shooting and kidnapping Mary. She is still alive and tied up in Ed's isolated home, but not even the investigating sheriff thinks Ed is much of a danger. Mary dies from her injuries, and Ed's mother's spirit breaks free from her boarded up room, egging Ed on into locating a second victim, the town saint and local hardware store owner Collette (Carol Mansell). As some around the tiny town become suspicious, Ed seems propelled by outside forces to do God's bidding, in his twisted way.

Ed Gein is typical of a lot of people in small towns in the upper midwest. Even though this takes place fifty years ago, a drive down a dirt road outside of town even in my home state of North Dakota will show you houses that have not seen a visitor in months (which is why we have a huge meth lab problem at the moment). No, not all isolated farmhouses have bodies hanging in the basement, but Gein's case makes more sense to people who have witnessed the isolation up here firsthand.

Steve Railsback resembles Ed Gein so much, it is creepy. Real footage of the real killer is shown at the end of the film, and the resemblance is there. Railsback plays Gein like I imagine Gein really was- no criminal mastermind, no silent Jason or Michael Myers, just a certifiable nut molded from parental abuse. If you ever check the case histories of Ottis Toole or Henry Lee Lucas, you will find the same thing, and how adults can treat any children, much less their own, like this is a question that will never be answered but will always be dealt with.

Carrie Snodgress, an actress who peaked early in her career with an Oscar nomination, then seemed to fizzle out, is very good as Ed's mother, Augusta. Her performance is what true character actors do. She immerses in the part and does not turn it into her own personal showcase.

Parello's direction is effective, the set design for Gein's house is a triumph. The final discovery of Gein's last victim is chilling. I wish the film makers would have been able to shoot some winter scenes since cold and desolate isolation is a big part of Gein, and life up here (the real footage features snow). So why am I only giving "Ed Gein" three stars? My all-time complaint about most of the films I review- the screenplay.

While showing the audience Gein's childhood in flashback, there is not build up to the murders he committed. We know he killed, so editing the film by putting the events in the order they occurred may have resulted in some suspense. Slasher fans may be disappointed, there are no nubile pot smoking teens getting hacked to death, so a straight forward telling may have been more effective. Also, the gore effects are gross and work, but the "visions" Gein sees do not. The burning bush, the television that shows him murdering his brother, are all poor attempts.

"Ed Gein" is an average film, perhaps coming too late in a country where "Freddy vs. Jason" is a movie eagerly awaited. I wonder what Gein's reaction would have been to a movie world that has become more violent that its own inspiration could have imagined. (* * *) out of five stars.