The Joe Berlinger series Conversations With A Killer on Netflix has had an immeasurable impact on the true crime documentary genre. Berlinger’s second series, The John Wayne Gacy Tapes (2022), widens the narrative scope of its predecessor The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019). The series gets its name from the fact that tape recorded interviews with these serial killers, some of which have never been made public before, narrate these portraits.
If you grew up in the seventies, eighties or nineties you were well aware of who John Wayne Gacy was and what he did. The 1992 television movie To Catch A Killer, starring Brian Dennehy as Gacy, had a huge impact on my generation. To Catch A Killer was The Executioner’s Song (1982) of the nineties. Just a few years after that film aired Gacy himself was back in the news when the time had come for him to be executed.
And while Berlinger’s film doesn’t go into the wider cultural impact that Gacy has had, he does make room for a narrative that is far too uncommon in this sub-genre; the narrative of the victim. The main plot of The John Wayne Gacy Tapes is focused on Gacy’s life and activities, but the subplot is about his victims. Berlinger interviews the families and friends of the victims to create an affecting portrait of how far the impact of this trauma goes. It’s a disturbing truth that equals the graphic, physical atrocities that Gacy committed.
The non-linear structure that Berlinger employs in The John Wayne Gacy tapes further conveys the breadth of the impact of these crimes by very clearly articulating the duration of Gacy’s hold on the trauma of the victims’ families. From arguably the late sixties, or at least 1979, up until his execution in the mid-nineties these families had no sense of closure. The monster that tore their lives apart was alive and able to step back into the spotlight at anytime.
All of these added dimensions make the story that Berlinger tells in his film so much more powerful and relevant. The John Wayne Gacy Tapes aren’t just another exploitative documentary or highly dramatized reenactment like To Catch A Killer or the offensive Gacy (2003), this is a film about a serial killer and the very human cost of his crimes.
The most terrifying thing about Gacy is that to so many people he was just the “guy next door” for years and years. Gacy got away with burying twenty-nine bodies on his property and killing five more people before he was ever caught. As is pointed out in the documentary, anyone that you pass in the street could potentially be another John Wayne Gacy.
Joe Berlinger has a real gift for bringing new perspective too true crime documentaries. The things discussed above that make The John Wayne Gacy Tapes at all unique pale in comparison to some of Berlinger’s other documentaries. The Paradise Lost films (1996, 2000, and 2011) are remarkable works that record a criminal investigation and the justice system at work that ultimately corrected a miscarriage of justice. The documentaries Berlinger makes, from Brother’s Keeper (1992) to The John Wayne Gacy Tapes, all have one thing in common: the belief that all human life has value.