Somber Look at Serial Killer ‘Ed Gein’


“Ed Gein” is as plain as its title, which will strike revulsion in the hearts and minds of anyone who remembers that this is the name of the lonely 51-year-old Wisconsin farmer, whose murder of a woman in his tiny town of Plainfield in 1957 revealed a schizophrenic who carried necrophilia and cannibalism to such extremes he inspired “Psycho,” “The Texas Chainsaw Murders” and the Jame Gumb-Buffalo Bill character in “The Silence of the Lambs”--among some 40 other movies.

Written by Stephen Johnston, who has stuck relatively close to the facts, “Ed Gein” was directed by Chuck Parello, the director of the not-bad, if redundant “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part II.” Steve Railsback, who has played Charles Manson to acclaim, is a most convincing Ed Gein, whom he somewhat resembles physically.

As the film portrays him, Ed Gein never had a chance. He was born of a brutal father and an abusive, religious-fanatic mother (Carrie Snodgress), who insists that all women, herself presumably excepted, are whores and that sex is dirty. Unlike his older brother, who saw their mother as a crazy shrew, Ed believed her to be a disciple of God and loved her deeply, no matter how badly she treated him. Clearly, not overly intelligent to start with, Ed began disintegrating mentally upon her death in 1945.


The film suggests that Gein had incestuous longings and was so obsessively lonely that he tried to bring Augusta Gein back to life. In time he would imagine her commanding him to kill, and he may have even wanted to become his own mother.

Quite possibly, Ed Gein inspired the term “serial killer,” but he was a piker alongside a more recent Wisconsin death tripper, Jeffrey Dahmer, credited with 11 murders. He struck horror with what he did with the corpses of the two local women he was known to have killed--and those of about a dozen more women he dug up in the local cemetery. Ed may have loved his mother, but he must have also been very, very angry with her as well, even though he may not have been aware of it.

What emerges most vividly here is, thankfully, not Gein’s grotesque dismemberments, which are presented with some discretion, but rather how vulnerable Plainfield was to a demented man like Ed. The film shows that on the whole the community’s some 640 citizens treated Gein kindly even though they considered him weird.

People extended hospitality, and Ed, quiet and childlike himself, was a popular baby-sitter. Almost no one saw the interior of Ed’s increasingly filthy and cluttered farmhouse, and since almost everyone had known Ed for years he was regarded as harmless. But what if someone, over a period of time, had begun to perceive Ed as potentially dangerous? Surely, especially at that time and place, it would have been difficult for such an individual to have done something about it.

As is so often true in such cases, Ed didn’t attract any attention until he killed, and he was institutionalized until his death at 78 in 1984.

Railsback makes Ed Gein, a man with haunted yet vacant eyes, a figure of pathos, and Snodgress’ Augusta is scary in the sheer intensity of her madness. Ironically, the professionalism of these two veteran actors with their concentration and focus tends to allow them to be overshadowed by two unfamiliar actresses so unvarnished as to seem the actual women whom Ed Gein knew for years and who treated him decently.

Sally Champlin’s Mary Hogan is a tall, middle-age bottle-blond, the hearty, randy proprietor of a local bar, who for all her forward earthiness with her customers is not unkind to Ed. Carol Mansell’s storekeeper Colette Marshall--in real life her name was Bernice Worden--is a pretty, older woman with a high voice, a sweet nature and a consistent sensitivity to Ed.

The filmmakers imagine these women’s terrible final moments persuasively, but suggest that their deaths came one right after the other when in fact they were separated by three years, which would explain why Gein, not having fallen under suspicion in Mary’s December 1954, disappearance, continued to live in the community without undue attention. In any event, it’s easy enough to see how Ed would be intimidated by bawdy Mary and attracted to maternally kind Colette.

“Ed Gein” resists cheap humor in favor of moments that are inherently darkly comic, and tries for a seriousness of purpose, yet is at times awkward and under-inspired, creating a question as to whether so gloomy and repugnant a tale was worth telling simply for its own sake.

The devastating forces that shape an Ed Gein are scarcely unfamiliar, and the film does not evoke the enduring darkly mythic impact that Gein and his gruesome deeds would have on the public imagination.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: violence, extreme instances of cannibalism and necrophilia.

‘Ed Gein’

Steve Railsback: Ed Gein

Carrie Snodgress: Augusta Gein

Sally Champlin: Mary Hogan

Carol Mansell: Colette Marshall

A First Look Pictures release of a Tartan Films presentation. Director Chuck Parello. Producers Hamish McAlpine, Michael Muscal. Executive producers Karen Nicholls, Steve Railsback. Screenplay by Stephen Johnston. Cinematographer Vanja Cernjul. Visual effects by Michael Muscal. Editor Elena Maganini. Music Robert McNaughton. Makeup Dan Striepeke. Costumes Niklas J. Palm. Production designer Mark Harper. Set decorator Christopher Larsen. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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