The Pitch: Years on, the American public is still obsessed with serial killers — who they are, what makes them tick, the lurid details of their murderous escapades. No one knows this more than the folks at Netflix, who toss out a new true-crime documentary every other week, and whose biggest hits include shows like Mindhunter.
One of the platform’s biggest hits was 2019’s Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, which assembled a four-part chronicle of his crimes, his history, and the trial that ignited the public’s imagination. Now director Joe Berlinger is back with a follow-up, The John Wayne Gacy Tapes, drawing from nearly 60 hours of recorded interviews with another infamous mass murderer to tell another tale of lost innocence, the nature of madness, and the various ways we’ve constructed our society to help folks like Gacy get away with it.
Just Call Me John or JW: Like the previous docuseries, the bread and butter of The John Wayne Gacy tapes are the recordings themselves, conducted from 1979 to 1980 by investigators while he was on death row. Fuzzy and ephemeral like an audio log in a video game, listening to these clips carries a morbid fascination, even if Berlinger’s presentation of them teeters perilously close to a kind of hero worship.
It’s hard not to resist that temptation, after all; serial killers have lingered in the public’s imagination as societal deviants, the closest thing we have to pure, unambiguous demons. And Gacy’s story is particularly theatrical, Berlinger hopping back and forth through various points of his life to show a man scarred by an abusive childhood, working his way into the public’s trust through his work as a respected businessman, philanthropist and, yes, party clown.
(“I think they were nice clowns,” Gacy chuckles about the many pictures of Pogo the Clown he had in his house, the same one where he stashed 26 bodies of the 33 young boys he murdered. “But that’s just me.”)
The conversations themselves (well, less conversations than they are monologues from Gacy himself, the interviewers left to the occasional prodding question) offer plenty of prurient detail about Gacy’s take on his childhood, as well as his sexuality.
Early on, Berlinger establishes Gacy’s gleeful obsession with putting people in positions of intense psychological pressure just to see what happens, a fundamental component of his predilection toward serial killings. He professes both fascination and disgust with homosexuals depending on the moment, with his greatest ire reserved for the bisexual: unlike gays and straights, who have romantic feelings toward a particular gender, “A bisexual has sex just for having sex. To me, it’s like a form of masturbation.”
In the third episode, detailing the long but inevitable trial process that would eventually see him executed in 1995, Gacy flits between confession to his crimes and feigning ignorance — one last piece of manipulation to keep his subjects on their toes. And it’s that mercurial nature that keeps John Wayne Gacy Tapes from offering us any new revelations into Gacy’s true nature, remaining as elusive as ever.