- Movie Rating -

Conversations With a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes (2022)

| April 20, 2022

I never really thought much about John Wayne Gacy.  That’s largely because I don’t spend a lot of time delving into the lives of serial killers – when you’ve seen one serial killer documentary, it seems like you’ve seen them all.  Gacy in particular is troublesome to me; not just his crimes but his legacy.  I once stood in line in a bookstore behind a twenty-something kid who was wearing a shirt with JWG’s picture on it – a photo of his famous Pogo the Clown and underneath was a Facebook font that read “Have a nice day.”  It is hard to know where to go with something like that, but that’s what John Wayne Gacy is to me.  He’s just a T-shirt, a piece of merchandise, a cheap book cover.  I now see that he has his own action figure.  That just shouldn’t be.

Needless to say, I didn’t enter into the Netflix three-part docu-series Conversations With a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes with a lot of enthusiasm for it’s subject.  I was here because I admire the work of Joe Berlinger, a documentarian who has made great work in the past like Brother’s Keeper, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, and previous to this film Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.  What I admire is Berlinger’s approach.  He dispatches omniscient narration and lets the story be told by the people who were there.  In the case of John Wayne Gacy, it is the people who investigated the crimes, the people who knew the man and the families whose lives where forever thrown into chaos.  With that, the film becomes not only an informative narrative of Gacy’s crimes but also an emotional one.  Berlinger spends a lot of time tracing the cause and effect of this man but doesn’t back away from the ever-lasting disaster that he left in his wake.

The film is bookended, not by Gacy, but by one of his victims.  The film begins with the 1979 disappearance of Robert Piest, a 15 year-old from Des Plaines, Illinois who was working part-time at a pharmacy and who overheard that Gacy was looking for people who could help out with his contracting business making more money then the pharmacy was paying.  After leaving to meet with the man, Piest disappeared.  When the family filed a missing person’s report and police began to investigate Gacy, it slowly began to expose what Gacy had been up to years prior.  Police began to pressure him by following him and staking him out night and day,  Eventually, it would bring him down.

Interspersed are clips from a series of audio recordings, almost 60 hours of confessionals made by John Wayne Gacy himself while he was on death row.  The tapes, needless-to-say have never before been released to the public.  Personally, I had never heard his voice before and what I heard didn’t surprise me.  This is a man who manipulated and killed 33 young men (that we know of) and I wasn’t all that surprised that his recounting of these crimes sounded as cold and casual as if he were talking about a fender bender.  Not surprisingly, he is often contradictory.  He is very frank about the crimes but then later he backs away and tries to retract his statement by claiming that he never killed anyone.

What did surprise me was how caught up I got in his story, much of which is recounted by the police and investigators assigned to the case.  Often the film is edited so that we hear an analysis by an investigator and then we jump back to something that Gacy said on the tapes.  The self-contradictions are part of what makes them interesting.  He was so casual about his crimes that often he forgot or retracted details – he wasn’t a criminal mastermind, just a manipulator who liked what he did and moved on like it was nothing.  He targeted young man because he was a bisexual and, through his own bizarre reasoning, said that gay men and gay women are attracted to the same sex but for bisexuals “it’s all about having sex.”

Given the nature of Gacy’s ramblings, the film wisely stays with the investigation.  There isn’t much biographical information beyond Gacy’s own strained relationship with his father.  There’s some business about how his father would put him in the basement, much like he would later bury his victims in his own basement but that’s pseudo-analytical hearsay.  The point is made over and over that Gacy committed his crimes without rhyme or reason simply because he enjoyed the manipulation.  He had an obsession with pressing down on people psychologically until he weakened them enough to get them to do what he wanted – a first-person testimony from survivor Steve Nemmers, then 18 and now in his 60s, yields the film’s most bone-chilling confessional, about how he woke up in the middle of the night with a knife to his throat.  

It is also refreshing that the film doesn’t make Gacy into a criminal mastermind.  He wasn’t exactly challenging himself.  Rather than abuse stable-minded people, his targets were exclusively young men, some of whom were runaways, many of whom where homosexuals who had been thrown out of their homes by their parents.  The cultural indifference to young gay men in the 1970s made it easy for them to find themselves on the streets, embroiled in prostitution and doing whatever they could to find a meal and a warm place to sleep – easy pickings for someone like Gacy.

Away from this, he was living a double life.  He was an independent contractor who was extremely active in his community, most notably performing at children’s hospitals as Pogo the Clown.  His home was reasonably lavish (as lavish as it could be for the late 70s) in a way that always looked ready to entertain community dignitaries – he had a tiki bar in his living room.  You got a sense of comfort, especially for a young teenager who was cold, broke and starving.  There is, again, a lot of emphasis on the negative outlook of the gay community in the late 70s and the point is made, not so subtly, that if things were different, then Gacy might have been caught sooner.

The last episode is largely about the trial, about how the defense team failed to bring about an insanity plea that would save Gacy from the death sentence.  What is interesting is that Berlinger isn’t interested in the whereases of the trial.  He turns the third act back to the victims and after Gacy is executed, the film ends with a roll call of his victims mixed with the recent attempts to try an identify the half-dozen young man whose identities remain unknown.  It’s an overturning of Gacy’s last moments when he boasts that “I’ve killed 33 men, you can only kill me once,” and the questionable claims that his last words were “Kiss my ass.”  By ending the film on the victims, their pictures, their names and their identities, it brings them forward as people and not just victims.  By recent efforts to identify those men who haven’t been identified, it pulls them out of the anonymity of Gacy’s basement and reveals them as human beings.  By that, we feel more for who they were, the incomplete lives that were lost, the devastation on their families and just how wrong-headed the Gacy T-shirts and action figures really are.



About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2022) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary