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Ed Gein - Head to Head film review

Horror Head-to-Head: Ed Gein (2000) versus Ed Gein (2007)

The life and times of the infamous Wisconsin graverobber and murder, Ed Gein, permeates the world of modern horror cinema. Devout horror fans with a morbid curiosity need no introduction to Gein. Ed lived in Plainfield Wisconsin. Long tormented by his mother’s unhealthy disgust towards women and her oppressive projection of this hatred, Gein developed an unhealthy relationship with the ladies of Plainfield… to say the least.

This psychosis manifested itself in the most morbid ways. He would develop a sort of twisted sexual confusion that leads him to cosplay in the leathered skin of recently dead Plainfield women. Eventually he would graduate from obtaining his skins from the graves of the recently dead as he evolved to procuring fresh materials from women that he killed himself. His fascination with the dead would lead to him fashioning macabre furniture and accessories from the bodies of his victims.

Sound familiar? It should, because much of this story has found its way into modern horror cinema. Everyone from Norman Bates to Buffalo Bill owes some sick twisted debt of gratitude to Gein. We have covered several of these including our all-time favorite The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). In the early 2000s a couple of lesser known versions of this story popped up. Rather than transposing Gein’s characteristics on a fictional character, these films attempt to tell the tale of the man himself. We thought it might be fun to review these movies in a country-cannibal double feature.

Ed Gein (2000) - Steve Railsback plays the role of Ed Gein
Ed Gein (Steve Railsback) reads bedtime stories under the gaze of severed heads

Ed Gein (2000)

Ed Gein (2000), directed by Chuck Parello and written by Stephen Johnstonattempts an honest retelling of the true crime story. The film stars horror veteran Steve Railsback in the titular role. The film came out in a rash of serial killer themed movies released in quick succession. In telling their tale, the writers largely avoid unnecessary Hollywood hyperbole and instead tell a rather even-keel, if not slow, telling of Ed Gein’s rise to infamy. While this has the benefit of presenting a factual (mostly) portrayal of the events, it also displays exactly how mind-numbingly mundane Ed’s life was outside of his crimes.

Also known as In the Light of the Moon, this film failed to capture the hearts of critics at the time of its release. Many criticized its failure to provide an entertaining experience. Others claimed that its desire for authenticity detracted from its ability to capture the sensationalism of the horrific crimes. Both are fair assessments, but there is a place in the world for historically accurate biopics. The legacy of Ed Gein is encumbered by a lot of myths and this film largely resists the temptation to revel in them.

Steve Railsback’s history in the serial killer genre deserves mention. Railsback famously took the emotionally charged role of Charles Manson in the Helter Skelter screenplay. His performance perfectly captured the insanity of that man. In this film, Railsback’s needed to find a more somber and sheepish composure for the role of Gein. Had it not been for his crimes, Ed Gein might not be discernable from his faded peeling wallpaper.

The juxtaposition of such a simple and non-threatening man with his heinous crimes begs for subtle dark humor. Railsback provides this effortlessly in way that doesn’t feel contrived or forced. Ed Gein is awkward and Railsback’s performance is accordingly awkward. Further playing the part, Railsback evokes sympathy from the viewer as they catch glimpses of his mother, played by Carrie Snodgrass, emasculating him.

Chuck Parello manages to pull off one truly horrifying moment in his film. As Ed descends further and further into his psychosis, he finally reaches the full realization of his terrible compulsion. In an appropriately brief and fleeting scene, Railsback runs out of the front door into the light of the moon wearing only the skin of the dead upon his face and torso. It appears that as he dances in the moonlight, a wave of shame washes over him and he scampers back into the house. The scene is truly horrifying, and provides an exclamation point on the depravity of the situation.

Overall, Malevolent Dark agrees that this could be a more entertaining movie, but someone needed to make an authentic attempt at the real story. In that goal, Chuck Parello and Stephen Johnston succeed greatly, much to their own peril. In a final touch, the directors portray Gein as he sits in the mental institution. Railsback delivers a fitting monologue as he says, “It’s a good place… a good hospital… people treat me real nice. Some folks are pretty disturbed though.”

Ed Gein (2007) - Kane Hodder even looks menacing when looking over his shoulder
Kane Hodder could only be described as menacing

Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield (2007)

Not satisfied with previous renderings of the Ed Gein legend, writer / director Michael Fiefer takes another cut at telling the tale. This time he enlists the services of eternal horror icon, Kane Hodder. Most know Kane Hodder from his extended run as Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th Series. In attempt to avoid the pitfalls of Parello and Johnston, Fiefer chooses to add a bit of spice to the story, while also paying some homage to the real story of Ed Gein.

Ed Gein (2007) gets into trouble almost immediately with its characterization of Ed Gein. As mentioned before, the real Ed Gein could probably fade in the backwoods of any small rural town in America. No disrespect to Kane Hodder, but that is one thing he can’t pull off. Hodder is a mountain of man that clearly looks out of place among average people. At 6’4″ and a lean 230 pounds, Hodder commands attention. Immediately, anyone that knows anything about the real backstory should question the casting decision.

The problems go deeper than that. For as much as we appreciate the things that Kane Hodder excels at, finely nuanced acting fails to rank among them. Rather than present a farm-house simpleton, Hodder has only one mode; menacing. Rather than this compulsion being a curse, it’s a strange profession to him. In one scene he even employs a fellow Plainfield reseident, played by Michael Berryman, before killing him in a disagreement. This is a rather egregious departure from reality.

Notably, Fiefer also injects a scene where Kane Hodder wears the skin of women. The scene dwells more on the anatomy of the flayed skin and it avoids the exposition displayed by Railsback. It came off as less impactful at demonstrating the mental state of Gein.

The deviations only detract from the real story without sufficiently adding any real excitement to the film. Fiefer’s insistence on telling a police whodunnit in parallel to the murders only increases the cinematic surface area that his middling cast must cover. The whole thing culminates in a giant cathartic moment where the arresting officer must decide whether to invoke cowboy justice, or fall in line with the law.

All said and done, this film simply fails to do anything well.

Gein Versus Gein

Neither of these films will replace your favorite characters inspired by the story of Ed Gein. However, we felt like Ed Gein (2000) did something that no other film had done to date, tell the real story of the Plainfield Butcher.

Well, give Ed Gein (2000) a score of: 2 1/2 stars simply for doing a public service.

We have Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield (2007) coming in a distant second with a score of 1 1/2 stars. It simply wasn’t effective at anything it tried to accomplish, least of all tell the tale of the real Ed Gein.

Before wrapping this one up, we would like to call out that our actual favorite “nearly” true to life telling of the Ed Gein story comes in the form of Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile (1974). The names are changed to protect the innocent, but the Roberts Blossom’s portrayal of Ezra Cobb as The Butcher of Woodside provides the most entertaining version of the tale.

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