If “Ed Gein” offers proof of anything, it’s that fanciful fictionalizing can be truer, and more potent, than the true story. The titular character, a perennial cult figure (especially in the Midwest) who garnered headlines in 1957 when authorities exposed his spree of grave-robbings, murders and gruesome acts of beheading, skinning victims and making furniture out of victims’ bones, has lived on through several previous movie adaptations — all of them mythic, sometimes extreme exaggerations of Gein’s actual crimes. Gein is the inspiration and basis for “Psycho’s” Norman Bates, the ghoulish family in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and Buffalo Bill in “The Silence of the Lambs” — a kind of hall-of-fame of ultimate filmic whackjobs to which the Ed of “Ed Gein” cannot come close, no matter the efforts of Steve Railsback in the demanding lead. Beyond the cult crowd, the more critical horror aud will pass on what is a disappointingly mild re-creation of true events, though ancillary prospects are certainly stronger.
Black-and-white newsreel footage over the opening titles suggests an intriguing thematic and dramatic course that pic then promptly, and perversely, ignores. The clips show various townsfolk in the Wisconsin farming town of Plainfield reacting to Gein’s arrest and singing his praises (“He was more or less a pleasant fellow,” says one), the very picture of a community in blind ignorance to the horrors in the neighbor’s house. It isn’t too far a leap to connect this footage to that of Germans at the end of WWII claiming not to know about the Holocaust.
And yet director Chuck Parello and writer Stephen Johnston seem to go out of their way to make Gein as obviously weird as possible in public — and have the locals eye him warily, even with fear. Such scenes come after he’s shown doing a bit of grave-robbing and a kind of self-styled “resurrection” ritual over the corpse back in his dining room. (Here, and elsewhere, Parello fades out or uses an irritatingly repeated white flash-out transition before the body is sliced and diced.) Gein babysits a pair of boys, who end up seeing his shrunken heads and lampshades made of human skin and bone, but apparently tell no one.
Then again, maybe word did get out, because everyone from quiet, sweet Eleanor (Nancy Linehan Charles) to lusty barkeep Mary (Sally Champlin) to store owner Colette (Carol Mansell) look at Gein as if he has an eye in the middle of his forehead. With dark rings around his eyes, a permanent five o’clock shadow and a creepy, flat accent (a bit more Southern than Midwestern), Railsback’s Gein might as well be wearing a T-shirt proclaiming, “I EAT PEOPLE.” It’s the kind of broad perf that works for horror pics, but Parello and Johnston are so intent on telling the supposedly true story that they deny themselves and auds the kind of fun, cheap thrills in which Railsback loves to revel as an actor.
There’s also the most unfortunate agenda item, which is to provide a quasi-Freudian background to Gein’s mania, in the form of his late Bible-toting mom Augusta (Carrie Snodgress). As Gein tires of grave-robbing and can’t stop mourning over the death of Augusta, he first hears her speaking in a burning bush, and then sees her in person. Crude flashbacks at various stages explain that Gein was the mama’s boy of the family, with older son Henry (Brian Evers) less attached and father George (Bill Cross) ready to beat Ed at any moment.
Like the Son of Sam dog, Augusta rails away at Gein to act like a man and do away with all the hussies and female sinners in Plainfield; being the obedient, adoring son, he does. He shoots Mary in her bar, but keeps her alive for a while in his bedroom, even as the local sheriff (Pat Skipper) knocks on his door and inquires. Pic’s only blood-curdling moments pop up late in the action, when Gein cooks up Mary as steak and when Colette is found hung like a butchered pig in his basement.
Yet even as it’s obvious to many locals what Gein is up to, the sheriff and a few others remain laughably in denial. It’s the movie’s dilemma that by trying to hew closely to the facts of the case, it rules out any of the Grand Guignol excesses and humor that guided “Psycho” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which had the especially funny idea of expanding Gein into a feuding family. Trying to make the serial killer into a sympathetic headcase, as in an epilogue showing an older Gein in prison, makes pic smaller and more confused, not more profound.
Thesping is just as problematic, with perfs such as Snodgress’s in a crazed orbit of their own having nothing to do with the movie’s docudrama intentions. Only Champlin registers as something more than a hick or innocent victim; in a more fictionalized setting, he would have made a vital opponent to the serial killer.
All-important production design (by Mark Harper) creates a Gein homestead gone very bad, but even here, it can’t possibly compete with the Bates House or Leatherface’s happy home of bones. Makeup artist Dan Striepeke went to the bother of making an authentic-looking flesh-skinned costume for Gein, and then it’s only employed in one brief and not very scary scene. Other tech elements are clearly on a budget.