Documentary Review: ‘Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes’

Review by James Lindorf

Academy Award Nominee Joe Berlinger loves to explore the dark side of humanity. Sometimes it results in fantastic documentaries like the Paradise Lost trilogy and less well-received fiction such as “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.” His recent work points to a growing fascination with serial killers. In 2019 he partnered with Netflix to release two Ted Bundy-focused projects. The four-part docuseries “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” and the thriller “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” starring Zac Efron. This year he and Netflix dove back into the docuseries pool ad surfaced with the three-part “Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes” premiering on Netflix April 20th.

From 1972 to 1978, John Wayne Gacy, aka The Killer Clown, murdered at least 33 boys and young men in the suburbs of Chicago. For most of his killing spree, Gacy was married to a woman and stepfather to her two young children. He was a pillar in the community, running a successful business, acting as a Democratic precinct captain, and using his clown personas to entertain at events and children’s hospitals. He was the last person they would suspect, and now after 45 years, we get to hear recordings made by Gacy’s attorney as they prepared for the trial that would lead to his own death.

With a total run time of about 180 minutes, “Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes” will be an easy binge for Netflix’s legions of true crime fans. The series’s major selling point is the over sixty hours of recorded conversations with Gacy and members of his legal team. Gacy may not be the country’s most prolific killer with the 5th highest confirmed body count, but he may be our most iconic. Ted Bundy, Jeffery Dahmer, and Gary Ridgway all committed numerous atrocities and earned cute little nicknames, but none of their names conjure an image like Gacy in his clown makeup. There is a reason Netflix used it as the poster image for the series. The thought of being betrayed and murdered by something meant to entertain children and bring them joy makes the shock that much worse. The amount that his amateur clown gigs played into his secret life as a killer may be one of the most shocking details to come out of the entire series.

“Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes” is a wonderfully crafted series that does its best to lock you in from its opening scene. Unfortunately, its biggest weakness is its subject. Gacy may have been charming by 1978 standards, but in 2022, his attempts to outwit the Chicago police are laughable. With Gacy’s personality not sucking in audiences, Berlinger had a steep uphill climb ahead of him. It may be a credit to Gacy’s ability to pick his victims and hide his crimes, but it didn’t help Berlinger that, unlike other famous serial killers, there was no extensive manhunt or terrified communities to profile.

While Gacy may be a bit of a letdown, it is the conversations with the families, the lawyers, and especially the investigators and people charged with cleaning out the 26 bodies from the crawl space under his home. You can hear the toll the task took on them, and their stories are the ones that will stick with me for years to come. “Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes” may not live up to its predecessor about Ted Bundy, but it still earns a 3.5 out of 5 because it is so well made. I am excited to see what a season three could bring, and if they follow the 2019 model, maybe Netflix will surprise us with a Gacy-centric thriller later this year.

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