The quintessential killer-next-door, Wisconsinite Ed Gein casts a surprisingly long shadow over popular culture, having inspired such suspense classics as Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Silence Of The Lambs. The contrast between Gein's affable but awkward demeanor and the brutal nature of his crimes plays a large part in his morbid cult of personality, as does his string of taboo-shattering misdeeds, which include such slasher-movie staples as cannibalism, dismemberment, and a gruesome sort of necro-transvestitism. Considering how large a role Gein plays in American folklore, it's a bit surprising that Ed Gein marks the man's first proper biopic, although his story has been cannibalized so often that any depiction of his life and crimes is bound to feel a bit like yesterday's news. Such is the case with Chuck Parello's Ed Gein, which casts Steve Railsback—who made his name playing the similarly notorious Charles Manson in 1976's Helter Skelter—as the flannel-clad murderer and grave-robber. As played by Railsback, Gein is something of a northern cousin to the sweet-natured hick Billy Bob Thornton played in Sling Blade, a dull-witted but seemingly harmless loner withering away quietly in a small town that tolerates his eccentricities but never quite accepts him into its social fabric. Half character study, half exploitation film, Ed Gein is most effective when it focuses on Gein's halting attempts to connect with his neighbors, who treat him with the polite but decided distance of an adult dealing with a misbehaving but well-intentioned child. Where the film falters is in its attempts to explain away Gein's madness with a massive dose of pop psychology. Gein's domineering mother (played with over-the-top zeal by Carrie Snodgress) serves as Ed Gein's main monster-behind-the-monster, but screenwriter Stephen Johnston helpfully throws in misdirected religious zealotry, physical abuse, sexual repression, and a steady diet of lurid reading material as further causes of his madness. Gein's standing as a bogeyman for the ages is assured, but Ed Gein turns him into just another rural loony with a closet full of skeletons and a mind full of familiar demons.

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