Ed Gein is an important figure in the study of American cannibalism, not because he ate a lot of people (we can’t be sure how many) but more for the inspiration his deviant activities furnished to some great books and movies, after his arrest and incarceration.
This film, called Ed Gein in the US and Australia and In the Light of the Moon in other markets, follows the life and crimes of the Wisconsin man who became known as “The Butcher of Plainfield”. Plainfield is a little town in Wisconsin, about forty miles from Chicago. Gein would haunt the cemetery at night to dig up corpses of recently deceased women, take them home and make all sorts of things out of their body parts. As well as chairs and lampshades covered in skin, bowls made of human skulls and belts made of nipples, ideas inspired by his fascination with Nazi atrocities, Gein would make women suits out of human skin (which inspired Jame Gumb – “Buffalo Bill” – in Silence of the Lambs) and then dress up as his Mama (which inspired the book and later hugely successful 1960 Hitchcock movie Psycho). His facemasks made out of human faces inspired the character Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Truly a seminal figure in cannibal studies!
The plot is pretty much an accurate retelling of his hijinks, as far as anyone can tell without asking him (and he claimed he couldn’t remember anything about the murders, plus he’s dead now anyway). Ed (Steve Railsback, who had played Charles Manson several years earlier) grew up with a mother (played by Carrie Snodgress of Diary of a Mad Housewife fame) who was a vituperative fundamentalist and beat the fear of God into her children.
Ed worshipped her and thought she was a saint, and went batshit crazy when she died.
But in a tiny little town like Plainfield WI, everyone was a bit weird (the film starts with some genuine interviews of the locals, and they look even stranger than Ed). Local people thought him odd but harmless, and even employed him to babysit their kids. He seems to have had no interest in women, until the ghost of his mother appears to him in a burning bush (I kid you not, this is how much he is Biblewashed).
Meanwhile, Ed spends his nights digging up recently deceased women and souveniring their parts, particularly their lady-parts, which he has researched pretty solidly.
His house if full of his trophies: lamps made from human spines, and shrunken heads.
But what he really wants is for Mama to return from the dead. He practices on his excavated corpses to see if he can command them to “AWAKE – AND ARISE!” and one seems to turn her head, but by now we are deep in his psychosis. He visits his mother’s grave and begs her to return.
He reads books about head-hunters, Nazis, and even the pulp detective comics that he used to get into trouble for wanking to in his younger days.
There are flashbacks to those younger days, including the funeral of his brother (whom, the movie tells us, he killed, which may also be true). Ed hugs his Mama, telling her it’s just the two of them now, but she pushes him away, feeling his overenthusiastic erection. Ed is a sinner, and he needs his saint.
So anyway, Mama’s ghost tells him that the women of the town are all sinners, whores, and he must visit God’s judgement upon them, then she will be able to return to him. Pretty clear to us, the audience, that he is having psychotic delusions, but to him it’s all very real, so he heads off to shoot, kidnap and eventually fillet and cook two of the townswomen – the one that runs the bar in town and the one that runs the general store. He also collects mementos like noses and breasts, and he particularly likes vulvas.
The rest of the bodies are not wasted either.
He has no neighbours within screaming distance, so he can get up to whatever he wants, including dancing in the moonlight in what Hannibal would call a “vest with tits”.
But bloodshed is not really his thing (even though he killed his brother, but that was for insulting their mom). The men of the town go off hunting deer as soon as the season starts, but Ed tells one of his prospective victims that he hates hunting.
But Mama has other ideas, and it’s clear that Ed has learnt, as a good Wisconsin carnophallogocentric man, how to dress a carcass. The men of the town are spending their nights inculpably slitting open harmless ruminant mammals of the family Cervidae, but are shocked and nauseated when the carcass in Ed’s basement turns out to be of another species. The word “butcher” has dual meanings – the butchers of Plainfield are horrified by activities of the “Butcher of Plainfield”. Put a capital B on the word butcher and it moves from blameless to shocking. But it’s hard not to notice that, until his psychotic delusions of mother take over, poor Ed is doing what everyone else is doing, but he’s doing it to dead bodies rather than living white-tailed deer.
Once the cops finally accept that Ed is not a harmless eccentric, they find lots of interesting things in his house.
This was a huge story in 1957!
So that’s Ed, our modern, domestic cannibal – a man (usually) who seems a bit odd but, everyone thinks, is apparently harmless. Think of the big names of modern cannibalism – Albert Fish, a sweet old man who took ten-year-old Grace Budd off to a purported children’s party, but really took her home for his dinner. Jeffrey Dahmer, who took young men home for photography and sex but then drugged them, drilled holes in their heads and ate parts of them. Armin Meiwes, who advertised on the Internet for someone who wanted to be eaten, and ate the successful applicant. Issei Sagawa, who shot a fellow grad student at the Sorbonne because he wanted to have sex with her corpse and then eat bits of her. Each of them were described by their neighbours as either “normal” or a bit odd but harmless.
Chuck Parello and Steve Railsback won Best Film and Best Actor respectively at the 2000 Sitges Film Festival, one of the leading festivals featuring horror and fantasy films. But the film scored a wretched 10% on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics calling it “dry and dull.” I beg to differ. Ed is played as dull, because he appeared to be so, right up until he imagines Mama riling him up to declare war on loose women. His dullness and misapprehension of social and religious conventions that are usually unquestioned, is the whole point of the film, and the two main actors, Steve Railsback as Ed and Carrie Snodgrass as Mama, do a superb and convincing job. The slow, rural pace makes the sudden appearance of violence and body parts all the more shocking, and there’s plenty of both. The deaths when they happen are slow and wretched, as they would no doubt be in real life. There’s a surprising amount of suspense, the soundtrack admittedly is incredibly annoying, but other than that it’s a pretty great cannibal film, with lots of interesting philosophical questions to chew on.