A neat and polite monster
The Devil’s Cinema: The Untold Story Behind Mark Twitchell’s Kill Room. Steve Lillebuen; $29.99 cloth 978-0-771-5033-6, 338 pp., McClelland & Stewart
In 2006, as part of its Midnight Madness program, the Toronto International Film Festival screened a fascinating – and highly disturbing – documentary called S&Man (pronounced “sandman”), about the world of underground horror films. Opening with a clip from Michael Powell’s notorious 1960 film Peeping Tom, a movie Slate‘s Chuck Bowen calls an “exploration of moviegoing as ultimate voyeuristic fulfillment of untapped, queasy desires,” S&Man investigates the often uncomfortable relationship between horror films and voyeurism, with particular focus on a vicious subgenre of cinema verité mock-snuff movies: stuff that generally gets circulated online and at specialty conventions, and goes way beyond familiar notions of so-called “torture porn.” Over the course of the movie, director J.T. Petty interviews three such filmmakers: the improbably named Bill Zebub, Fred Vogel, and Eric Rost, the creepiest of the bunch, who is promoting a series of highly realistic stalk-and-slash films called S&Man. Just how willing the participants in his films are becomes a central question in Petty’s own movie.
What is most disturbing about the film in retrospect is the way it willfully blurs the line between fiction and reality, calling into question the very notions of reliability and truthfulness audiences have come to expect of documentaries. “A lot of what attracted me to doing a documentary,” Petty has said, “was how overtly manipulative and fictional they are, and how little audiences seem to be willing to see this. S&Man is easily the most dishonest movie I’ve made so far.” It is precisely this dishonesty that makes Petty’s film such a fascinating artifact of our post-postmodern age. The distance between what is presented as fact and what is actually going on provides S&Man its ironic bedrock, but also hints at the idea that our traditional understanding of representation may be fallible, that nothing is what it seems and the truth is a moveable feast.
Petty employs elements of unstable, shifting irony to examine the ways fiction and reality blur into one another, but what horrors might transpire if the safety valve of irony were removed, if the line between fantasy and the physical, moral world disappeared completely within the labyrinth of an extremely disturbed mind?
These, in part, are the questions that persist throughout journalist Steve Lillebuen’s book-length examination of convicted murderer Mark Twitchell, an aspiring filmmaker in Edmonton who became internationally infamous in the media when he was branded the “Dexter killer” as a result of his obsession with the television series about the eponymous Miami blood spatter expert who moonlights as a serial killer.
On October 10, 2008, posing as a woman on an Internet dating site, Twitchell lured Johnny Altinger, a lonely, 38-year-old Edmonton man, to a rented garage where he bludgeoned and stabbed him to death, then dismembered the corpse over the course of a bloody Thanksgiving weekend. What is remarkable about this – other than the evident savagery and inhumanity of the acts themselves – is that only two weeks earlier, Twitchell and a small crew had used the same garage as the set for a low-budget, eight-minute short movie called House of Cards. The plot of the movie? As Lillebuen describes it, the film “would feature a cop-turned-serial-killer whose own moral code would see him lure cheating husbands off dating websites with fake female profiles.” The killer in House of Cards was meant to be a variation on Dexter Morgan, the serial killer played by Michael C. Hall in the Showtime series based on Jeff Lindsay’s novels.
Both Dexter and Twitchell are of necessity pathological liars, and Lillebuen goes to some lengths to illustrate the way in which the two figures overlap in Twitchell’s warped mind. He quotes a passage from one of Lindsay’s books:
Being careful meant building a careful life, too. Compartmentalize. Socialize. Imitate life.
All of which I had done, so very carefully. I was a near perfect hologram. Above suspicion, beyond reproach, and beneath contempt. A neat and polite monster, the boy next door.
Elsewhere, Lillebuen quotes Twitchell himself as having written, “Anyone can turn out to be a psycho without being overtly obvious about it.” (Lillebuen underscores the parallelism in these two passages by including them as epigraphs to the book.) The extent to which Twitchell did not merely absorb the Dexter persona, but actually took steps to become the character is illustrated by a Facebook page Twitchell created under the fictional killer’s name. He began to refer to himself in the third person, including status updates that read, “Dexter is crouching killer, nervous father” and “Dexter is patiently waiting for his next victi … uh, play date buddy,” updates that received enthusiastic and encouraging responses from other rabid fans of the show. Well before Altinger’s murder, Twitchell wrote on his own Facebook page, “Mark has way too much in common with Dexter Morgan.”
In Lillebuen’s depiction, Twitchell appears at times completely self-aware, at others utterly oblivious. He acknowledges that he probably fits the clinical profile of a psychopath, but seems genuinely perturbed when he is caught in a lie. And some of his lies are so outrageous, it’s a wonder anyone ever bought them in the first place. Following the murder, Twitchell managed to convince one of his filmmaking buddies to store Altinger’s car in his driveway by telling him that he bought the car for forty dollars from a stranger he met in a gas station parking lot. The elaborate and contradictory stories he tells the police during questioning make them instantly suspicious, but their inability to locate Altinger’s remains puts them in doubt of being able to secure a first-degree murder conviction.
Lillebuen does a solid job of unravelling the knotted coils of Twitchell’s personality, separating the hideous fact from the dark fiction and showing how the two merged in the killer’s disturbed mind. He does not allow the book to devolve into an easy condemnation of violent art, and indeed goes to great lengths to show the craven way in which Twitchell’s defence lawyers attempted to cast his own damning writings – including an extraordinary document entitled “S.K. Confessions,” which the police retrieved from the hard drive on Twitchell’s computer – as the creations of a filmmaker who was in some way aping Petty’s approach by attempting to elide the distinction between what was real and what was part of his fictional cinematic world. These parts of the book are the strongest, and there are extended passages from “S.K. Confessions” describing Altinger’s dismemberment that are staggering and frankly difficult to read.
Less effective are Lillebuen’s attempts to dramatize events, such as the confrontations between Twitchell and his then-wife as she grows ever more suspicious about his actions and the flimsy excuses he uses to cover them up. There is also an extended sequence involving a struggle between Twitchell and a putative first victim – who ended up escaping with his life – that is overwritten and melodramatic.
Although the focus of the book is on Twitchell, Lillebuen also includes scenes told from the perspective of detectives investigating the case and Altinger himself. This proves to be a good idea, as it helps mitigate material that would otherwise have been, in Conrad’s words, “too dark – too dark altogether.”
If S&Man is, at least in part, about the tricky business of separating fantasy from reality, The Devil’s Cinema examines what happens when that line gets obliterated entirely. “Reading Dexter will not make you a killer,” wrote Jeff Lindsay in an opinion piece for The Huffington Post, which Lillebuen quotes in his epilogue. “If you are not already capable of killing another human being in a cold, cruel, deliberate way, no book ever written will make you capable of doing so. There are no magic words that will turn you into a psychopath.” While acknowledging the difficulty of comprehending the “smoke-filled labyrinth” that is Mark Twitchell’s psyche, Lillebuen quotes a snippet of the killer’s writing that indicates an awareness of the morality of actions taken in the world, as opposed to those dramatized by dark fantasists: “There is no key. No root cause … There’s no school bully, or impressionably gory movies, or video game violence, or Showtime television series to point the finger at. It is what it is and I am what I am.”