Ed Gein is an American icon: the original deranged serial-killer, the inspiration for movies as diverse and famous as PSYCHO, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, or THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and as unknown as Bob Clark’s much-underrated DERANGED. But though he’s served as a role model for countless grave-robbing, flesh-wearing, serial-killing weirdos, no one had ever thought to explore what made Ed Gein tick; he had never had his own bio-pic. Not, that is, until director Chuck Parello’s ED GEIN (aka, in some areas, IN THE LIGHT OF THE MOON). Released in 2001, the film starred Steve Railsback (best-known for his role in THE STUNT MAN or for playing Charlie Manson in the 1976 TV movie HELTER SKELTER) as Gein, and the late Carrie Snodgress (DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE) as his mother.
The facts of the Gein story are fairly well known. Ed was a somewhat slow-witted odd-job man who lived alone in the ramshackle farmhouse he’d inherited from his parents. In 1957, following the disappearance of general store owner Bernice Worden, her son, a local deputy sheriff, got a bad feeling about Gein. Following his hunch, he discovered his mother’s body hanging in Gein’s smokehouse, and, in the main farmhouse, parts of numerous other bodies, furniture made from skin and body parts, collections of lips and noses, and a skin mask and vest which Gein would wear while he went about his daily domestic routine. It transpired Ed had similarly murdered the local bartender, Mary Hogan, and also indulged in grave robbing.
Horror writer Robert Bloch, who lived only 40 miles from Plainfield, used Ed’s story as the basis for his novel PSYCHO, from which Hitchcock drew his film. But no one had ever portrayed Gein the way Parello and Railsback presented him, with a great deal of sympathy for someone left alone to pursue the inner drives which tormented him. Railsback may have learned some sympathy when he played Manson, a man with a similar detachment from the realities of death. And Parello came by his serial-killer sympathies in an interesting way. He first worked with director John McNaughton on the film HENRY, PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, in which Michael Rooker gave a chilling but understanding, interpretation of a psychopath. Parello then wrote and directed the well-received sequel, HENRY 2: MASK OF SANITY.
Parello himself cuts a benign figure, looking rather more like a researcher for documentaries than a successful director. I talked with him at the National Film Theatre, but the interview I did for Headpress got sidetracked to their newly-launched horror film mag, the suavely-titled Creeping Flesh. Sadly, CF lasted only two issues, so I never got the chance to include it in my CV. Instead, the interview is published here for the first time. Parello, since then, has co-written and directed THE HILLSIDE STRANGLER (2004), with C Thomas Howell as Kenneth Bianchi and Nicholas Turturro as his much-older cousin Angelo Buono, another film about a serial killer inspired, as it were, by an older family member...
MC: WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO ED GEIN?
CP: Well, I was asked to do it because of my first film, HENRY 2. The script gave me a definite sense of the creeps and I said ‘why not?’
YOU STARTED OUT ON THE ORIGINAL HENRY…AND JOHN MCLAUGHLIN CREDITED YOU WITH HELPING MAKE IT INTO A CULT SUCCESS
I was working as a journalist and publicist in Chicago, and got hired as a director’s assistant and did publicity for HENRY. Then I wrote the script for HENRY 2, and was offered the chance to direct it. That led to ED GEIN.
ARE YOU AFRAID YOU MIGHT BE TYPECAST AS A HORROR DIRECTOR?
No, I’m not. I chose these films because they were very interesting stories, not because they’re shockers…they don’t pay me enough to pander to audiences! ED GEIN stays really grounded in reality, and I’m supposed to do another true crime story, which I was attracted to for the same reason…it’s grounded in reality. But actually, the whole film industry seems to be serial-killer films now…so I should be golden!
WHAT WAS THE REACTION TO HENRY 2?
It got good reviews, but people seemed put off by the idea of a sequel to a film they’d liked so much, in such a unique way.
DID THAT MAKE YOU WORRY ABOUT THE EFFECT OF THE PREVIOUS VERSIONS OF THE ED GEIN STORY?
No, because there was so much not used before. As a true crime buff I knew there was lots of stuff. There are a few things we had to change because of legal ramifications, and we did indulge in some dramatic embellishment.
YOU HAVE REMARKABLE PERFORMANCES FROM YOUR LEADS. DID THE CASTING CHANGE THE TONE OF THE FILM?
Well, just like me the script attracted both Steve and Carrie, and I always meant it to be that way. In the beginning Carrie was cool, but when she said yes I was amazed because she’d been a favourite of mine ever since DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE. She didn’t care about being typecast, nor how bad she might have to look…her best gift was being able to inhabit evil people, and make it a revelation.
HER VENOM MADE IT EASIER FOR STEVE RAILSBACK, WHO CERTAINLY MAKES ED MORE SYMPATHETIC THAN AN AUDIENCE MIGHT EXPECT
That was not my intention. I saw Ed as an evil person, but Steve said people didn’t want to sit through such a relentless portrayal. He does it well. It’s like Michael Rooker in HENRY, he does what he can do. You always harken back to what you do well. I didn’t set out to make audiences feel sympathy for him, but seeing the result, I’m glad that’s the case.
IT’S ALMOST COMIC AT TIMES, THE WAYS HE TRIES TO SET HIMSELF FREE
I think he was trying to liberate himself from anger directed at his mother.
IT DOES THROW THE BURDEN BACK ON MOM, THOUGH
Well, Carrie was so great. You know, she looked to real people for her inspiration, which makes you wonder.
THERE’S ALSO THAT REPRESSED FEAR OF INCEST
Ed always said he never opened his mother’s grave. I think he didn’t because he was so freaked by her. Erroll Morris (the documentary filmmaker) was going to go to Plainfield and see for sure, I think.
YOU SAID SOMEWHERE THAT ED’S HEAD WAS FULL OF IDEAS BUT HE WAS CLUELESS
The way he killed the two people we really know he killed was so stupid I don’t really believe he was a serial killerThe body parts in his house were mostly grave-robbing. But they blamed every unsolved murder in the area on him, which was convenient for the authorities. But trying to understand why he did what he did, the aggression it expressed, is part of the fascination. I do want audiences to understand him, though. He was basically a guy who missed his mama.
ONE OF THE MOST FASCINATING MOMENTS IN THE FILM COMES WHEN WE SEE THE ACTUAL NEWSREEL FOOTAGE OF ED BEING LED AWAY, AND WE REALISE THAT HIS HOUSE WASN’T ACTUALLY A DESERTED FARMHOUSE, BUT IN ALMOST A SUBURBAN SETTING.
Yes, the house had close neighbours, but a lot of land. The citizens of Plainfield, Wisconsin have been bugged for years by people, academics, screenwriters, and they aren’t happy about it. When we were filming we were warned not to go near Plainfield, because there’s still lots of ill-will there. There’s even a web-site warning people about worshipping Gein. The film did play in Madison, Wisconsin, though.
THERE’S THAT SMALL TOWN POLITENESS TOO
Yeah, people are too polite to say ‘you’re off your rocker’. And Ed too, was so polite, so mild-mannered, and friendly. Just one of the guys.
YOUR SUPPORTING CAST IS GREAT.
Oh yes, they really got the nature of small town life. We did take some liberties. Sally Champlin is so good as the bartender, Mary Hogan, who Ed kills. But the real Mary Hogan was a real German cow, 200 pounds.
IT’S SO ROOTED IN THE 1950s. THERE’S A BRILLIANT MOMENT WHEN ED’S ATTACK IS COUNTERPOINTED TO THE RED SKELTON COMEDY SHOW ON TV
Yes, there’s a Wisconsin Death Trip kind of feel. Plus, I always thought the guy was funny. And we see comic books lead to masturbation and sin! But it’s also that small town thing, where we recognise the weird and patronise them. Maybe Ed would have got off today. Maybe he was just trying to draw some attention to himself.
THE FILM WAS MADE FOR $3 MILLION. WHAT MIGHT YOU HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY HAD YOU HAD MORE MONEY?
I would’ve added some salary for myself and more points for the crew! But basically this project really got done only through the bravery of one man, Hamish McAlpine at Metro Tartan films in England.
COULD THE FILM HAVE REACHED A WIDER AUDIENCE?
Well, I think older people want to see it for nostalgia…I’ve also found lots of women love the film, which is a good sign. I think women love true crime, they’re fascinated by stories at a safe distance. It’s vicarious. Look how well Ann Rule’s true crime books sell.
OR PATRICIA CORNWELL, WHERE THE AUTOPSIES MAKE HORROR ACCEPTABLE?
Exactly. I mean, look at the tabloid papers, or Lifetime Channel (a woman-oriented cable network in the USA), full of stories of women who’ve been brutalised, raped. ED GEIN is just like Oprah, but a little more graphic. I mean, we’ll get lots of criticism, but some rape story, if it’s in a package with Victoria Principal, well, that’s OK.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE OF THE PREVIOUS ED GEIN MOVIES?
Oh, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like PSYCHO. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is my least favourite. I just don’t get it, but again, it’s a lot of women’s favourite film. But I just love Psycho. Norman Bates, he’s a peach. But I think this film is a completely different experience from any of the ones that came before. Whenever we started to resemble TEXAS CHAINSAW, I’d try to move in the opposite direction. Some elements will seem the same, but sticking to the real story is what makes ours unique. That’s much more horrifying than whatever you can make up.