John Wayne Gacy remains the stuff of nightmares, a symbol of evil with the dress-up-like-a-clown twist to ensure his enduring place in the true-crime genre. “Conversations With a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes” finds the wispiest hook to add to that filmography, drawing from 60 hours of unearthed audio sprinkled throughout this three-part Netflix docuseries.
The problem with the new recordings, which were conducted by Gacy’s lawyers, is that Gacy seeks to deflect blame for everything, as he was known for doing. In a 1994 New Yorker article (the year Gacy was executed by lethal injection), writer Alec Wilkinson summed up the challenge of interviewing him, noting, “Talking to Gacy requires patience. He doesn’t listen to what you say, and consider it, and then respond. He merely defends himself. It is difficult to ask him a question that a detective or a prosecutor or a defense attorney or a psychiatrist has not already asked him and that he does not have an answer for.”
Faced with that, just hearing Gacy’s voice doesn’t really add much to an understanding of what motivated him or the hideous nature of his crimes, a task that falls to the usual suspects, including surviving police and prosecutors involved in breaking the case back in the 1970s. There are also interviews with relatives of those killed, and one survivor of Gacy’s attacks.
Their stories are horrific, recounting how the smell of decaying flesh ultimately gave Gacy away, ending a killing spree that included 33 victims, resulting in his conviction in 1980.
Yet what stands out in this project from director Joe Berlinger (whose serial-killer resume includes “Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes”) is the historical context of how Gacy exploited the vulnerability of young men and teens, especially those who had left home or been cast out by their families.
Otherwise, there’s not much that’s really new here, with Peacock’s “John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise” having covered similar territory just last year. But Netflix provides both a wider platform, and the project comes with a somewhat more contemporary hook amid ongoing efforts continue to identify Gacy’s victims, some of whom remain unknown.
Because Gacy was active in his community and local politics, one of the lingering questions has always been, as the press notes phrase it, “How was a public figure like Gacy able to get away with murder for so long?”
Meticulously researched, “Conversations With a Killer” provides welcome context on that level, including homophobia that’s reflected in Gacy’s own discussions in which he explains his attraction to men as well as women.
As for why serial killers like Bundy and Gacy have exerted such a lasting hold on the public consciousness, that’s a sad fact of the true-crime genre that, at this stage, doesn’t require an explanation.
“Conversations With a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes” premieres April 20 on Netflix.