Friends for Life…
My Friend Dahmer is, directed by Marc Meyers) is an adaptation of John “ Derf” Backderf’s graphic memoire that tells of his high school friendship with Jeffrey Dahmer, who a mere three weeks after graduation, began a series of killings, rapes, mutilations and acts of cannibalism that claimed the lives of 17 young men, one aged 14. Others, including a 13-year-old escaped imprisonment, although, notoriously, one victim was returned to Dahmer by the police after he persuaded them that the victim was merely drunk.
So, it would seem that My Friend Dahmer isn’t the usual kind of American high school movie. And yet, strangely enough, a lot of it is. The characters, rituals and rhythms of high school life presented here are similar to those in films such as Heathers, Napoleon Dynamite and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (boring lessons, cliques and casual bullying); so much so, in fact, that I feel these movies should be treated as documentaries. Derf’s friendship with Dahmer is not that different to Bueller’s friendship with the dark, brooding, up-tight Cameron – except Cameron only destroyed his Father’s car instead of collecting road-kill and dissolving the flesh in acid so that he could examine the bones.
The film eschews the first person perspective of Derf’s graphic account to position the audience as observers of Dahmer’s life. It offers voyeuristic and even prurient pleasures as we watch Dahmer struggling with his impulses to control and kill the objects of his desire and become intimately acquainted with their internal organs. When Dahmer shares the room with an African American student, he asks if the student is black on inside and, when Dahmer becomes infatuated with a local doctor, he plans to batter the doctor to death and sleep with his corpse.
My Friend Dahmer is neither a horror movie, nor particularly gory, it is, instead, a coming of age drama. We see Dahmer coming to terms with his homosexuality, his longing for sex and simply friendship. But even friendship is beyond Dahmer’s abilities.
Actor Ross Lynch plays Dahmer as a young man frustrated by his own inability to make human contact except at the end of a baseball bat. Sometimes the teen seems to be screaming inside his skin. Eventually, Dahmer discovers that he can gain apparently positive attention by making grunting noises and then escalates this to fake seizures. Dahmer’s detachment from the norms of behaviour allows him to become something of a legend at his school and soon becomes the focus of his own fan club for which ‘Derf’ (played by Alex Wolff) becomes publicist, drawing cartoons of Dahmer in double-edged situations that are part celebratory and part dehumanising.
Serial killers have often inspired fans and film makers alike even before the term came into widespread use in the 1970s. Jack the Ripper was the subject of fantastical theorising in From Hell (based on the graphic collection of the same name) and Ed Gein inspired Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs. Neil Gaiman first came to prominence in the press with his Sandman story (collected as Sandman: The Doll’s House) which featured a convention of serial killers and the serial killer as a cultural ‘type’ came to be interpreted as the dark side of Eighties’ individualism and acquisitiveness.
My Friend Dahmer offers an abundance of clues to the nature of Dahmer’s developing psychopathy, although at trial he was judged to be sane. I would guess that his drug addicted mother and the consistent bickering arguments between her and her husband would have made a significant contribution to the young boy’s need to control people, but few of us would go as far as drilling holes in our people’s heads to turn them into zombies by pouring in acid to dissolve their brains.
Sometimes, there are overabundance signs passing as portents of things to come. What, for example, is the ominous significance of Dahmer likes for dark meat; or that he had his own pet cemetery as a child; or that instead of freeing a fish that he has caught he cuts it open to see what its insides look like? At times like those, I could hear the voice of Sam Waterston as District Attorney Jack McCoy in Law & Order saying “But I had a pet cemetery, liked dark meat and had a drug addicted mother but I don’t go around killing my friends and eating their flesh!”
Like many people who lack social skills, Dahmer senses that there is something else going on beneath the surface of human relationships but can’t figure out what. Opening up corpses seems to be his way of getting at the reality of the lives around him. The title is therefore ironic.
Dahmer’s explanation for his first killing, of Steven Hicks, was that he just wanted a friend. I don’t think that it was possible to be a friend of Dahmer without also being his prey.
A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide. His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip. He reviewed comics and films in posts and podcasts for the Mindless Ones until he became a net diva and forgot to name check the rest of the team at a San Diego Comic Con. panel. The Mindless Ones gave him the nickname ‘Tymbus’.
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