True Crime Docuseries Review: Conversations With a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes

 When Netflix released director Joe Berlinger's Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, I had no clue that this was going to be an ongoing series.  I found the series on Bundy to be incredibly interesting, as hearing audio recordings from interviews provided a small glimpse into his mind.  With The John Wayne Gacy Tapes, the door into the heart of an absolutely evil person creaks open for brief moments that are both compelling and terrifying.

Gacy was a prolific serial killer who murdered more than thirty young men and teenagers.  The majority of the bodies were buried under his house until there was no more room and he had to get rid of them in other ways.  The backbone of the series is the investigation into a fifteen year old teenager's disappearance that led to Gacy's arrest in December of 1978.

The audio recordings featured in this series were recorded by defence lawyers, and the series claims this is the first time they have been made public.  Clips from Gacy are spaced apart by a lot of conventional documentary making aspects, such as interviews with people involved and affected by Gacy's crimes.  If there is one thing that Joe Berlinger can do, it is securing informative and important people to appear as talking heads.

One issue that I had with The Ted Bundy Tapes was the use of some overly stylized montages of stock footage with eerie music that was all for dramatic effect.  During these sequences, there would be quick flashes of images that had absolutely nothing to do with anything being presented or discussed.  These severly impacted my experience and would zap me out of the moment, although I realize this is a personal preference thing, and others may feel differently.  The style of these montages still exists in The John Wayne Gacy Tapes, but now almost most of the footage is on topic, although I still have to wonder what a close up shot of a dripping faucet has to do with the narrative.

There are two aspects with this series that make it compelling.  The first is the traditional use of talking heads to lay out the story.  Their perspective makes the content extremely disturbing.  And then there is the audio of Gacy himself, which validates everything the interviewees say, but also takes the series into much darker territory.

With Gacy, he bounces from denying everything to flat out admitting his crimes and describing how he did them.  He had confessed everything to the police with the confidence that he would be able to talk his way out of ever getting convicted.  When it was becoming clear this wasn't the case, his story changed multiple times.  Disturbingly, he seemed to view himself as the victim in this situation, something that he shared with Ted Bundy.

The level of arrogance and self belief in manipulating people is very apparent and is more illuminating than many other series on serial killers.  His defence attorney, Sam Amirante, is interviewed, and it is made very clear just how much he hated Gacy.  Not only could he not stand his client, but he also admits to what the prosecution did effectively, which is not something I had ever seen before.  Normally the subject's legal team won't share their own feelings or admit that they hated their client, and I understand why they wouldn't do that.  Amirante's emotions are not held back, and it is so refreshing to see.

A lot works in this series, and the good outweighs the overly dramatic and sensational aspects.  It is the words of Gacy that really stick with the viewer.  When talking about picking up people were willing to perform sex acts for money, he says, "It's like going to the store.  If you buy something, you bring it home, and you decide you don't like it and want to break it, it's yours to break 'cause you paid for it."

It is incredible and disturbing to hear Gacy's different versions of the truth as he tries to manipulate people.  He honestly believed that he was always the smartest person in the room, which was his downfall.  He didn't seem to realize that he could not say whatever he wanted to and then be able to erase that further down the road.  The moments of his honesty solidify the crimes and character of Gacy, and there was no way he could ever talk his way out of it.

This is a very chilling and interesting series, and another win for Berlinger.  One of the reasons I watch true crime is that I have no clue how anyone could ever do these horrific acts, and I want some insight.  Well, sometimes I get just that.  When talking about the police digging up the bodies buried under his house, he angrily said, "Those are my bodies.  That's where I wanted to keep them, and they had no right to touch 'em."  Comments like that illustrate that perhaps I do not actually want that truthful insight into evil.

Rating - 3 out of 4 stars