This fall, The Verge is making a choice. The choice is fear! We’ve decided to embrace the season by taking in as many new horror movies as possible and reporting back on which ones are worth your time. We’re calling this series Hold My Hand, as we look at films you might want to watch with a supportive viewing partner. Get comfortable, put the kettle on, check the closet for ghosts, then find a hand to squeeze until the bones pop.
It’s no fun to enter a movie-viewing experience asking, “Does this movie need to exist?” and I would never prescribe it as a habit. But once in a while, there comes a film that raises the question so forcefully, it’s impossible to ignore. My Friend Dahmer, an adaptation of the 2012 graphic novel by Derf Backderf (a nickname, but it’s in the film credits, so my hands are tied here), is one of these. It tells the story of Jeffrey Dahmer’s adolescence, from suburban mall humiliation to prom-night disappointment. Off-screen, Dahmer raped, killed, and dismembered 17 young men between 1978 and 1991, and was sentenced to 16 life terms in the Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage, Wisconsin.
Backderf was Dahmer’s classmate at Revere High School in Richfield, Ohio, and was his friend in the way that compassionate, bland people are friends to basically anyone. As a fledgling illustrator, he drew a few pictures of Dahmer and tried to give them to him as a gift on the day they graduated from high school, a mistake that he believes nearly resulted in his becoming Dahmer’s first murder. The novel was nominated for an Eisner Award, and Time dubbed it one of the top five nonfiction books of the year.
In a review following My Friend Dahmer’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere in April, Variety’s Owen Gleiberman wrote of the film, “It sees Jeffrey Dahmer for what he was: a young man who could express himself only through the most hideous violence. Yet it shows you that what he had to express was real.” This charity is a little much. Certainly the review isn’t arguing that viewers forgive Dahmer’s crimes — which would be pointless anyway, considering he was killed by a fellow inmate less than three years into his prison sentence — but it does ask for a broad empathy for young men who internalize their peers’ callousness and their mothers’ neglect, and then externalize it as sadism. At its best, My Friend Dahmer makes some weak attempts to reckon with virulent homophobia in an Ohio suburb in the late ‘70s. But for the most part, it’s just a movie about the sick thrill of watching someone become progressively stranger and then a murderer.
If there ever were a time to tell this kind of story, this might not be it — right in the middle of a cultural moment of widespread stories about the sexual harassment and abuse powerful men visit on less powerful people. And if ever applying the question “Does this movie need to exist?” to My Friend Dahmer were going to result in an emphatic yes, it would be on an alternate planet, and before all the dozens of other careful, overwrought depictions of famous, violent men who did nothing to deserve such consideration.
But I’m not here to lecture you out of seeing My Friend Dahmer, if that’s what you want to do. There is at least one thing that makes this movie worthwhile: Dahmer is played by Ross Lynch, a young Disney Channel star and the lead singer of the boy band R5, a pop group that’s been presented as the logical successor to One Direction. (That marketing is incorrect, as One Direction briefly had one promising heir and now has a different one, neither of which have recorded songs called “F.E.E.L.G.O.O.D.”) R5 is made up of this improbably named cast of characters: Ross Lynch, Riker Lynch, Rocky Lynch, Rydel Lynch, and Ellington Ratliff. (What!?) Here is one of their music videos, starring Ross as a young man who wears a blazer and underwear into a bathtub.
I can hardly believe this video is real, which is fitting: My Friend Dahmer does not need to exist, but it’s a little funny that it does. Can you imagine Harry Styles, at the peak of One Direction’s success, accepting a film role that required him to dissolve a dead cat in a jar of acid?
Is it scary?
No. Were this movie not named after a widely known serial killer, and were you to skip the last five minutes, you could be forgiven for assuming it’s just a standard portrait of a troubled outsider. Dahmer fakes epilepsy for attention, swigs constantly out of a flask of gin, and picks up roadkill every time he happens upon it — all things outside the bounds of standard teen angst. But the primary root causes that Marc Meyers’ screenplay (by way of Backderf’s graphic novel) suggests for these bizarre behaviors are as timeless as adolescence itself. His mother is shrill and mean, welcoming him home one day after school by chirping, “Hey, guess what? The divorce is final!” Everyone thinks he’s weird, and he doesn’t have any true friends. The girl he asks to prom is, at best, reluctant to accept.
At one point, apropos of essentially nothing, his mother tells him, “We eat our mistakes.” In another movie, that could just be a funny throwaway line, but as foreshadowing of how her mild emotional abuse will, uh, turn her son into a cannibal, it’s downright ridiculous storytelling. Maybe My Friend Dahmer is scariest in the sense that it seems to suggest movies happen by accident, while serial killers happen because their moms are kind of rude.
Will I care about the characters?
You are supposed to, which is why this movie makes me a little uncomfortable and annoyed.
The young Backderf is played by another Disney Channel alum, Alex Wolff, who made his acting debut alongside his older brother Natt in the 2007 to 2009 series The Naked Brothers Band. He’s nice and boring, and I was incurious about him because he was so thinly written. A movie about Dahmer’s prom date, who was a freshman and therefore 14 or 15 years old, might have been more interesting, and could have had the fascinating takeaway message of, “If you’re ever feeling like you really don’t want to accept a boy’s invitation to a formal event at which you’ll be photographed together, just don’t do it, because maybe later he’ll turn out to be a serial killer. Trust yourself.”
I’m sort of joking. But movies about the experience of being in proximity to unfathomable evil are almost always more worthwhile than efforts to draw portraits of that evil that only indulge a human impulse for vapid, morbid voyeurism. This is why We Need to Talk About Kevin and Zodiac are moving examinations of fear and obsession, respectively, and classics of the serial killer genre, while Hannibal Rising has a 15 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Is it visually impressive?
No. It’s a movie about high school that was filmed in Akron, Ohio.
What’s lurking beneath the surface?
We’ve already interrogated the needlessness of this movie enough, so I’ll give it some credit for what it did well: making me laugh. Modern popular culture is so obsessed with high-low aesthetics and unexpected pairings that a casting director really chose a Disney Channel star born in 1995 to play a psychopath who was killed in 1994. This guy, interviewed about making the transition from boy band to serious actor, told Variety, “Believe it or not, I didn’t know who Jeffrey Dahmer was.”
Maybe what you want right now, more than being scared by another fall horror film, is to witness a rich, famous young man making a minor, kind of funny mistake. Maybe all you want is to watch My Friend Dahmer and thank your lucky stars that it’s not Harry Styles hammily slouch-limping across the screen. We have to count our blessings, and one of them is that not all boy-band members are being advised by doofuses.
How can I watch it?
My Friend Dahmer has been making the rounds at horror festivals, and will open in limited release on November 3rd.
Is it a hand-holding movie?
To answer this, I have to break with tradition here and tell you a true story about my personal life, which I have never done before on The Verge. The truth is, this is the first Hold My Hand film that I watched in the company of a breathing, sentient person, and we didn’t hold hands because I had to take notes for this blog post.
Are you happy? I’m not prepared to say whether My Friend Dahmer could have been a hand-holding movie, and I suggest you figure it out for yourself. Happy Halloween, and you’re ruining my life.