Netflix presents ‘Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story’: What’s that smell?!

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Reviewed by Alicia Glass

The story of the Milwaukee Monster, notorious serial killer and cannibal, the infamous Jeffrey Dahmer, and the repeated police incompetence that allowed him to continue killing, largely told from the point-of-view of his victims.

The whole entire show can be summed up in a single word – bleak. The colors are washed out of every last scene (with one exception, which Moxie will get to shortly), the scenery itself is practically rotting and wilting, the segments of Jeff’s formative years are full of little but utterly debilitating loneliness, the outlook of the police and general society for the early 90’s gay menfolk of Milwaukee is fearful and usually ignored, and of course just about anyone that isn’t lily-white is automatically assumed to be a troublemaker. Which is a glorious irony, given what the very-white man of the story is known for. Dahmer himself (Evan Peters) looks practically jaundiced every time we see him, like the evil on the inside is leaking to the outside and coloring his very skin every time he killed, a brilliant choice on the part of director Ryan Murphy. Indeed everything, from the neighbors’ impatience with the weird odors and noises emanating from Jeff’s apartment, to the sufferance of his too-trusting grandmother Catherine (Michael Learned) and her killing-grounds of a house, the insistence of Jeff’s father on not giving up his son despite Jeff continually screwing up, and the cynicism of the cops every time they actually bother showing up; it’s all rotting and sending up one hell of a stink, a lot like the trophies Jeff kept – aside from the ones he ate.

The single bright spot in the entire series, Episode 6 ‘Silenced’, is actually made so much worse because we know quite well what will happen, what has already happened, to the lovely soul that was Tony Hughes (Rodney Burford). Despite three large strikes that would have stopped lesser men – being a black man in America is never easy; being a gay man in the early 90’s makes you a target; and being a deaf man makes all of this infinitely harder – Tony insists on moving to the larger city of Madison to try and break into the modeling biz, where his lustrous spirit catches the notice of an actual monster haunting the gay bars.

The soundtrack of Dahmer – Monster, comprised mostly of poppy love ballads and happy dance tracks inspired from the 90’s gay club scenes, provides a strange tilt to the desolate atmosphere, especially when Jeff throws on seductive music for his bizarre love scenes … with corpses.

A good deal of the show is dramatized for, well yes, dramatic effect, emphasizing odd details and expounding on things that never actually happened, but by and large the show is pretty damn accurate. It is noted that Dahmer went into military service and got dishonorably discharged for it, but never why (excessive alcoholism and violence towards fellow soldiers, among other things), how Jeff as a youngling was considered at best odd and at worst a freak-o for wanting to do roadkill-hunting and taxidermy with his dad (dad was a bit of an odd duck too), and how he drank a lot but not how bad it actually was (medical standards would have pegged Dahmer as an debilitating alcoholic in his early teens). These details could have come from close inspections of Dahmer himself, but the one thing director Ryan Murphy insisted on was that the show would never be made from the POV of Jeff Dahmer himself. So, onward we go.

Jeff’s father Lionel, brilliantly played by Richard Jenkins, runs the whole gamut of emotions a parent feels for their wayward child – disgust at his terrible killing actions, resignation at Jeff’s inability to hold down a job or any kind of normal life, hesitancy and avoidance of the subject of his sons burgeoning homosexuality, shame at his own paternal inadequacies (and there are several), culpability in the monster his son became, and somehow still love, all hopelessly tangled together. Lionel’s second wife Shari (Molly Ringwald) does her best to remain a calm center of their disintegrating world after Jeff is arrested, whereas first wife Joyce (Penelope Miller), portrayed here as a mentally-unstable pill-popping ex with abandonment issues (at least as far as Jeff goes, she up and took Lionel’s second child David, Jeff’s brother, when she originally absconded), keeps popping up and furiously denying any culpability in “what Jeff did”.

Lionel in his agony searches high and low for answers, for reasons, insight into the horrific actions of his eldest son, offering up his mother’s popping pills during her pregnancy and Lionel’s own supposed “dark urges” like a penitent sop to his imprisoned son, blissfully unaware of Jeff’s apparent disinterest in such things. Lionel tries writing a book about his experiences, tries going on talk shows to tell the story in his own words with his own pain, but very little of it seems to help. Lionel dutifully visits his son Jeff in prison, even encouraging Jeff to get baptized, and his sorrow at Jeff’s own killing seems genuine, though it is very likely there was an under-the-breath sigh of relief in there somewhere too.

Rather than focusing solely on Dahmer’s victims, and there are many not even counting the men and boys he actually murdered, but also their surviving families and his neighbors and the entire gay community were traumatized by the actions of a single, very white, man, the show pins down Dahmer’s next door neighbor Glenda Cleveland (Niecy Nash) as the main bothersome factor, at least according to the police. Cleveland calls the cops repeatedly, complaining about the smell coming into her apartment through the pipes connected to Dahmer’s place, the late-night screams and other inexplicable noises, and of course the night one of the youngest of Jeff’s victims, Konerak Sinthasomphone (Kieran Tamondong), was actually released from police custody back to Dahmer, who claimed that the dazed drugged 14-year-old boy was his too-drunk boyfriend. The cops’ reluctance to get involved with anything even partially homosexual-related is evident in every single interaction with them, and how they treat everyone who isn’t paper-white-skinned demonstrates clear bias against the entire BIPOC community that sadly continues in the USA, even today. Glenda Cleveland herself, after talking with Reverend Jesse Jackson (Nigel Gibbs) and being awarded a community service medal while fighting her own demons in the aftermath of Dahmer’s murder spree, gave the impression that while apologies after the fact are fine, it’s no kind of excuse on the parts of the cops, or the bosses that enabled them, or the bureaucratic red tape that has never once cared about the victims, and still doesn’t, to this day.

The insistence by Murphy to entangle Jeff’s killer lore together with the execution of fellow gay killer John Wayne Gacy, and Dahmer’s apparent fascination with the Psycho-inspiring Ed Gein, seems strange, but it is the kind of twist American Horror Story, another of Murphy’s projects, loves to toss at its audiences. The controversy that ensued after the premiere of Dahmer – Monster on Netflix, how none of the real-life victims and their families still living today were consulted for the making of the show despite being portrayed as exactly as Ryan could manage from court tapings and the like, only caused a rise in viewership.

Most everyone now knows who, and what, Jeffrey Dahmer was. The true-crime enthusiasts, the gore-hounds, the seriously deluded, and the downright sick like him, already bothered to read up on what happened to Jeff after the horrific events that transpired that landed him in prison and to a rather ignominious death while still inside prison. Beaten to death by a fellow inmate who was “divinely inspired to be the vengeful hand of God” just a little while after Dahmer’s prison baptism, has a delicious, almost righteous, irony to it. And to those folk decrying the casting of a “pretty-boy” as the notorious Dahmer have obviously not seen Peters’ other acting roles – Charles Manson, Jim Jones, Marshall Applewhite, David Koresh to name just a few – where he beautifully demonstrates that “pretty boy” face and charm often hides the most monstrous in plain sight. Jut like Jeffrey Dahmer did.