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Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Sarah Ward

This true crime documentary is as much an examination of the environment that facilitated the case at hand as it is a horror film.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Image: miff.com.au 

When a documentary delves into the case of a prolific serial killer, the crimes committed should provide the film's most shocking content. Given that it recounts the details of an accused murderer alleged to have raped and slain more than 100 African-American women over the course of 25 years, Tales of the Grim Sleeper delivers ample gruesome particulars, yet the situation surrounding the prolonged spate of slaughter eclipses the acts themselves.

The titular predator earned his nickname due to the 14-year gap police believed he took in despatching female prostitutes and drug addicts in South Central Los Angeles. Alas, the moniker and the perceived break actually provide evidence of the real story, especially when coupled with the profession, proclivities and residence of the victims. Killings continued, women still disappeared, and the culprit went about his business, all untroubled by a chapter of law enforcement and a city unconcerned about a certain class, race and location of prey.

Accordingly, with director Nick Broomfield returning to the topic of mass murder after 1992's Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer and 2003's Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, he crafts his feature to achieve two things: to unfurl the facts surrounding the 2010 arrest of Lonnie Franklin Jr. for ten deaths (and suspected involvement in others), and to explain the societal reasons that enabled his spree to go on for so long. The filmmaker doesn't approach either task lightly, nor without the utmost passion apparent. Tales of the Grim Sleeper wears Broomfield's outrage proudly as it attempts to assuage his curiosity over how such a state affairs could eventuate. Swiftly, the audience adopts his horror and wonder.

So springs a sharp true crime effort largely absent of Franklin Jr., the L.A. police, and the usual procedural approach, with footage filmed on the streets included in abundance instead. Broomfield's typical hands-on, first-person method is utilised, as he drives around trying to convince those in the community to tell their tales. Garnering assistance from local guide Pamela Brooks, he looks for anyone willing to share accounts of their interactions with the accused, their observations of life in the neighbourhood, and their experiences with the law. The process of locating people eager to participate becomes a part of the fabric of the film; however it is their accounts that the documentary hinges upon, evolving through different stages of perception and awareness. There's a reason the storytelling element of the movie is noted in its title, after all. 

It's a savvy choice, perhaps borne out of necessity, but one that shifts the feature's focus to exactly where it belongs. Though the portrait painted of Franklin Jr. and his deeds hardly make for pleasant viewing, insights into the prejudice and apathy – as directed at a marginalised portion of the populace deemed unseemly by the powerful, and clearly mixed with racism and sexism – that aided him are truly chilling, perhaps more so due to the raw verite way Broomfield constructs his visual content. Peering out of car windows and idling past houses has rarely felt so simultaneously incendiary and insidious, particularly when paired with Brooks and other South Central residents' words. Indeed, Tales of the Grim Sleeper is as much an examination of the environment that facilitated the case at hand as it is a horror film. As the documentary notes, one perpetrator may have been caught, but allowing such a unchanged situation to remain unchanged could easily give rise to others.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Director: Nick Broomfield
USA / UK, 2014, 110 mins

Melbourne International Film Festival
July 30 – August 16

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay