“Mindhunter” delivers gritty, engrossing take on serial killer genre

December 11, 2017

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“Mindhunter” tells the true story of the “Golden Age of Serial Murder” and the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit.

Jeffrey Dahmer. Charles Manson. John Wayne Gacy.

These names are reminders of the fear and uncertainty of the 1970s, the so-called “Golden Age of Serial Murder.” As many as 700 serial killers operated nationwide during that decade, creating a crisis in law enforcement as police scrambled to solve cases they were unprepared to handle. How does one establish the motive of a killer who strikes at random, often with little or no connection to his victims?

The FBI attempted to answer that question with the establishment of the Behavioral Science Unit. Netflix’s new original series, “Mindhunter,” follows the origins of the unit and its groundbreaking contributions to the field of criminal psychology.

The semi-fictionalized account stars Jonathan Groff as Holden Ford, a young Quantico hotshot with a passion for criminal psychology, and Holt McCallany as Bill Tench, a grizzled field agent who is a source of experience for the new division. Both Ford and Tench are amalgamations of the real-life founders of the BSU: John Douglas, Robert Ressler and Roy Hazelwood.

Ford and Tench follow the archetype of the idealistic rookie and seasoned professional; however, they are far more than the cliche buddy cop duo. The dialogue is carefully composed and believable, and their constant debates over interview styles, questions and tactics show how criminal psychology was a foray into the unknown.

Stylistically, the show is almost impeccable. The props, from aviator glasses to Chevy Novas, are period-perfect. The soundtrack is a mix of iconic ‘70s jams, from the Talking Heads’ apt “Psycho Killer” to the soft guitar instrumentals of Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross.” The camerawork and editing give the show a gritty, procedural feel, coupled with the professional quality expected from one of Netflix’s in-house projects. This high quality, engaging feeling is no doubt due in some part to the efforts of David Fincher, one of the executive producers and director of four episodes in the ten-part season.

The acting, while it falters at times, is by-and-large satisfactory. The breakout performance comes from Cameron Britton, who delivers a chilling yet captivating portrayal of Edmund Kemper, a six-foot-nine, 300-pound giant with an IQ of 145 who brutally murdered ten people. McCallany likewise delivers a superb performance as the gruff, tormented Bill Tench, a man who has seen too much in his decades-long pursuit of serial murderers.

Overall, “Mindhunter” is a must-watch for anyone who enjoys detective shows or psychological thrillers.

Serial killer genre employs realism in horror

Mindhunter” is just one of the many popular narratives tied to serial killers and psychopaths. “Silence of the Lambs”, “Psycho” and “American Psycho,” titans of the American film industry, all serve as a testament to the tragic, yet captivating nature of the genre. More recent offerings like “My Friend Dahmer” attest to the continuing popularity of the genre.

The 1996 horror-flick “Scream” was my first taste of the serial killer genre, but also my introduction to the more sophisticated and complex world of psychological horror. I loved every second of it, but was also disgusted by my fascination. I’m not alone. Millions like me take to Google, Quora and Yahoo Answers to justify why they enjoy watching the twisted stories of psychopaths and their unfortunate victims.

Over time, I’ve developed a theory. The draw of the brand runs deeper than jumpscares or irrational phobias. The serial killer genre capitalizes on its unique quality of realism. Most mature audiences can come home from a midnight showing of “Chucky” with relief that encountering a knife-wielding living doll is virtually impossible. On the other hand, people coming home from a showing of “Zodiac” return with a fresh reminder that criminals like the famously elusive Zodiac Killer do exist.

Ted Bundy, one of the most recognizable names in serial killer history, was regarded by his victims as charming, charismatic and – most disturbing of all – normal. His murders spanned seven states and plagued millions of lives with the fear of a killer on the loose. What made Bundy’s story so engrossing to me was the thought that a life like his could collide with a boring life like mine.

Serial-killer psychological thrillers are more than adrenaline-pumped adventures. The films force their audience to re-evaluate the security of their own lives by presenting an unlikely, but realistic threat: the evil of other human beings. Perhaps that fear is what drives the popularity of movies like “My Friend Dahmer” and shows like “Mindhunter.”

About the Contributors
Photo of Jack Shea
Jack Shea, Video Editor

Jack is a senior, and this is his third year on The Review.

Photo of Stephen Kim
Stephen Kim, Creative Director

Stephen Kim is the Creative Director. He is a senior, and this is his fourth year on The Review.

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