Ed Gein, as many horror fans can tell you, was the real-life inspiration for Leatherface (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Norman Bates (Psycho), and Buffalo Bill (Silence of the Lambs). In the ’50s in Wisconsin, he did creative things with human remains, including dressing up in women’s skins. He died in an institution in 1984. If not for this sick bastard, the horror genre would be minus three enduring icons.
Of course, Tobe Hooper, Robert Bloch, and Thomas Harris embellished a bit. Aside from his bizarre proclivities, ol’ Ed was a pretty dull guy. Which could make for a pretty dull movie; fortunately, Ed Gein is better than that. It tries for, and occasionally achieves, the same sort of queasy, drab, kitchen-sink realism as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. As well it should, since it shares that film’s music composer and editor; Ed Gein‘s director, Chuck Parello, also did the sequel to Henry.
Ed Gein isn’t quite in the same ballpark as Henry, but at least it’s playing the same sport. It does boast a peerlessly creepy performance by Steve Railsback, who embodies Ed just as indelibly as he portrayed Charles Manson in Helter Skelter 25 years ago. What’s good about the movie is essentially all Railsback (also a producer on the film): his blank amiability, his hapless attempts to connect with people, and especially a sequence of such ghastly black humor — Ed giggling like a kid while trying on a variety of severed noses — that I won’t forget it any time soon. On the minus side, the whole mama’s-boy thing gets tiresome (Carrie Snodgress plays Ed’s viciously religious mother in flashbacks — and hallucinations, egging Ed on to take care of those “filthy whores”). We’ve simply seen the Psycho Got That Way Because of His Nutty Punitive Bible-Thumping Mama thing in too many other movies.
Despite its subject matter (and lack of MPAA rating), Ed Gein isn’t all that graphic — not in terms of overt onscreen violence. You do see lots of aftermath, though — a woman’s body dressed out like a deer; a disembodied vulva lying on a kitchen counter; Ed dancing in the moonlight wearing his special costume. The murders themselves are bland gunshot affairs; the true horrors happen offscreen.
The film tries to be a serious movie about Ed Gein and, again, mostly succeeds (it’s not the movie’s fault, really, that everyone under the sun co-opted the Religious Mama thing). It has a low-simmering intensity, but there aren’t really any powerful moments like the original Henry‘s several bowel-loosening moments. Henry was unafraid to dive headlong into tabloid territory (think of the ugly montage of Henry’s trail of corpses in the first five minutes); Ed Gein mostly minds its manners. Certainly it’s the mildest biopic of a cannibalistic necrophiliac you’ll ever see. It’s far from a horror movie as everyone usually defines “horror movie.” You don’t see Ed going wacky with a chainsaw, or anything.
Because studios are populated by idiots, Ed Gein (whose working title, In the Light of the Moon, I much prefer) didn’t get a real theatrical release. Serious, artful movies like this and Ginger Snaps go straight to video in America, while studios are happy to roll out smegma like Valentine and Soul Survivors on 2,000 screens. Its lack of an MPAA rating probably didn’t help, either. Far from a freewheeling Saturday-night horror flick, Ed Gein is a clenched and (mostly) restrained effort, like its near-contemporaries Dahmer and Ted Bundy. If you’re looking for more of a guilty-pleasure Ed film, there’s always the 2006 attempt with Kane Hodder. But Steve Railsback gives us probably the definitive cinematic Gein, and the movie is eminently worthwhile for him alone.