Archive for March 30th, 2018

by Dennis Polifroni

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that, in the process, he does not become a monster.  And, if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

-Friedrich Nietzsche

When considering Joe Penhall’s TV series, MINDHUNTER, and the books, by F.B.I. Behavioral Science groundbreaker John Douglas, that the show is adapted from, one has to wonder if that famed quote doesn’t loom heavily in the minds of both.

For Douglas, fighting against monsters became an everyday occurance.  For Penhall’s work, like Thomas Harris before him (he was the author of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), it was the fighting against said monsters that became the basis for obsession that can thrust the inquisitive intellectual into a pit of success that consumes them till it breaks them.

Hannibal Lector, the famed, cannibalistic psychiatrist, criminal mastermind of many of Harris’ books came from a very real place.  Though he is an amalgam of several different psychopathic maniacs that have plagued the United States over the past seven decades, the monsters that inspired his creation come from very real places that Douglas investigated during his tenure with the F. B. I.

In 1977, with the capture of David (“Son of Sam”) Berkowitz, Douglas (at the time, a fledgling investigator who grew tired of teaching the ins-and-outs of effective hostage negotiation) began to see unusual patterns in the modus-operandi of what were called “sequence” killers (Douglas is said to have changed that, and coined the term “serial killer”).  No two killers were alike, none were after the material gain that “traditional” killers (like “Baby-faced” Nelson, Al Capone or Jesse James) of the past were known for, and most were so good at covering their tracks that finding them was a pipe-dream at best.

MINDHUNTER shows us how Douglas (re-named Holden Ford for the show), green with inexperience, yet inspired by the prospects of doing something no one else ever had the gumption to attempt, broke into the thought processes of some of the worst maniacs roaming the cities and suburbs of America.  Through interviews with captured murderers, he was able to deduce how the killers on-the-loose may be planning the work of their “vocation” and, if correct, beat them to their finish lines.

You’re probably saying “we’ve seen this all before”, in the various screen adaptations of Harris’ best known works (Michael Mann’s MANHUNTER and Jonathan Demme’s multiple Oscar winning THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), and, in a way, we have.  However, one would be remiss in saying that Harris’ fictional accounts, on how the F.B.I. profiler begins to think like the killer he’s chasing, was the finite word on the subject. In reality, they rarely, if ever, think like the killer.  They do, always, look to the past for sameness. What one who has been caught did, might be the inspiration for one that is out there. The events and the procedures that MINDHUNTER depicts, unlike Harris’ works, is based on fact and, the facts are, like that abyss that Nietzsche wrote about, so obsessive that they can be a destroyer.

In the case of John Douglas (aka Holden Ford), the obsession comes when the mormon-like investigator is steered to an interview with infamous “co-ed killer, Edmund Kemper.  Kemper, 6 feet-8 inches tall, weighing in at almost 300 pounds, and in possession of a personality that would normally be likened to a kindly librarian, longs for an ear. He’s a talker.  He loves TV shows about criminal investigations and considers Joseph Wambaugh a hero. He’s forever proud of telling anyone that will listen about his evasion of capture (Kemper was so good at it that, upon having a nightmare in which he was embarrassed by being caught, decided to give himself up), his methods in luring women into his traps and the gruesome ways, and reasons, behind the killings and dismemberment.

From there, it’s Ford, reluctantly assisted by his partner, Bill Tench (played by Holt McCallany-in real life this was Robert K Ressler) and willingly enthused by Dr. Wendy Carr (played by Anna Torv and based on psychiatric forensic researcher, Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess), moving from one maniac to another, using Kemper’s base outline on what, ultimately, drives an individual to serial murder (it is, 99.9% of the time, matriarchal humiliation), that fuels the investigators hypothesis and makes him a star in the world of homicidal deduction.

The series brilliantly chronicles Douglas’ many trial and tribulations, his head-butting with a conservative system that thinks psychological profiling amounts to nothing but alot of lofty speculation, and many successful encounters with seemingly ordinary people that just so happen to be the monster that hides in the shadows of normalcy before tearing your larynx out with a screwdriver and a pair of ice-tongs and weighing you down in the shallow bed of a lake.

The series has the great advantage of having director David Fincher (SEVEN, ZODIAC,THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) helm the first and last two episodes of the season.  No virgin to the territory and themes of serial murder in his theatrical films, Fincher immediately informs the shows visual presentation with an assured hand for period recreation and juxtaposes it with the directors famously slick efficiency for montage and MTV style editing.  MINDHUNTER may be set in the past, but it’s look and sonic landscape are that of a modern filmmaker at the heights of his talent.

Even with all of this, in the end, it all comes down to three key people.

Joe Penhall’s superb writing informs us as it entertains and it’s a perfect balancing act between the history of a genre we don’t know all the facts about and the foundations of what the genre of horror films does so well.  Like Hitchcock, Penhall presents us with the monsters immediately, and then draws back to let us sit on pins and needles as we guess what those monsters will do next.

As Holden Ford, the milky innocence of Jonathan Groff (HBO’s gay drama: LOOKING) perfectly offsets the growing fascination and life altering obsession that Douglas endured before the facts of his investigative quest nearly left him psychologically devastated and physically paralyzed.

Yet, it’s the giant Cameron Britton (all 350 pounds and 7 feet of him), a serial killer Edmund Kemper, that defines the context of the series.  Not only a dead ringer for famed mass murderer, Britton’s performance suggests the deep cunning and humiliated feelings that are, usually, at war in a deeply disturbed murderers mind.  You see him, you listen to him and you LIKE him. He’s a poor guy turned ugly by systematic, parental abuse. We feel his pain. But, then you look past the enormous, thick-rimmed Woody-Allen style glasses, into Britton-as-Kemper’s eyes and we see a darkness.  It’s a chilling hole of psychopathy and a perfect performance of sly manipulation and honest admission. I’ll go on record now and say Britton will be the big winner in the Best Supporting Actor category come TV awards time. He is the abyss that Nietzsche spoke of and, I fear, the hole that Holden Ford may never climb out of.


(USA 2017-?) Netflix Streaming

P. Beth Kono, Charlize Theron, Joe Penhall, Cean Chaffin, Joshua Donen, David Fincher  d. David Fincher, Asif Kapadia, Tobias Lindholm, Andrew Douglas w. Joe Penhall, Erin levy, Jennifer Haley, Tobias Lindholm, Dominic Orlando, Ruby Rae Spiegel  developed. Joe Penhall based on. MINDHUNTER: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John Douglas, Mark Olshaker photo. Christopher Probst, Eric Messerschmidt  e. Kirk Baxter, Tyler Nelson, Byron Smith, David Fincher m. Jason Hill


Jonathan Groff (Holden Ford), Holt McCallany (Bill Tench), Anna Torv (Wendy Carr), Hannah Gross (Debbie Milford), Cotter Smith (Shepard), Stacey Roca (Nancy Tench), Joe Tuttle (Gregg Smith), Alex Morf (Mark Ocasek), Lena Olin (Annaliese Stillman)


Cameron Britton (Edmund Kemper), Sam Strike (Monty Rissel), Happy Anderson (Jerry Brudos), Jack Erdie (Richard Speck), Sonny Valicenti (Dennis Rader), Joseph Cross (Benjamin Barnwright), Marc Kudisch (Roger Wade), Micheal Park (Peter Dean)



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