The Chilling Confessions of a Cop Turned Serial Killer of Gay Men
The Netflix doc “Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes” contains creepy interviews with Dennis Nilsen, a madman who admitted to killing 15 rent boys over a five-year period.
Killers don’t like to get caught, but once in custody, they sure do like to talk, as evidenced by a raft of true-crime efforts—Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, Confronting a Serial Killer, The Confession Killer, The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness and Elize Matsunaga: Once Upon a Crime, among others—centered around taped conversations with notorious fiends. To that list one can now add Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes, a non-fiction film whose primary draw is a raft of personal recordings made by Dennis Nilsen, the Scottish madman who terrorized London during the 1980s, and whose killing spree, and attempt to avoid incarceration, was recently immortalized by a Sundance Now dramatic series starring David Tennant.
Helmed by first-time director Michael Harte, who’s previously edited Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer as well as Three Identical Strangers, Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes (Aug. 18, on Netflix) begins with Nilsen slamming the notion that he deliberately sought immortality, as was claimed by a newspaper article that surmised he had a hunger for the spotlight from the Hannibal Lecter poster hanging in his jail cell. Nilsen’s protests, however, don’t jibe with the many audio tapes he made while in prison. Intended to form the foundation of his autobiography (itself an attention-courting vanity project), these recordings find the murderer expounding on his life and circumstances with an eloquence that reeks of affected smugness—a quality that’s also true of his everyman schtick, as if anyone would buy for a second that, because of his ordinary appearance and demeanor, he wasn’t a dangerous predator.
There’s no denying that Nilsen’s nondescript exterior—lanky frame, glasses, schoolboy haircut—was part of what made him such a macabre spectacle. Like Ted Bundy before him and Jeffrey Dahmer after, Nilsen didn’t fit the typical homicidal-maniac profile (he had even served, for a time, as a police officer). Nonetheless, he was as cold-blooded as they come, a raging sociopath who admitted to killing 15 men during a five-year span from 1978-1983, and who was only caught when an engineer was called to fix a clogged drain at his Cranley Gardens apartment complex in North London, and discovered that the cause of the back-up was an enormous amount of human flesh and bone. Neighbors claimed that they’d seen Nilsen near that drain around midnight the previous evening, and when he returned home from his job at the local Job Centre, he led investigators into his flat, where the stench was fetid thanks to two giant garbage bags that, he confessed, contained the remains of numerous victims.
The details that soon emerged were grisly. Nilsen’s modus operandi involved picking up male drifters and “rent boys” and bringing them back to his home, where he’d kill them. At Cranley Gardens, the drain pipe was a central means of body disposal, whereas at his prior residence at 195 Melrose Avenue he’d stashed corpses beneath the floorboards—and burned their bodies in bonfires in a rear garden—until he ran out of space and had to move. This information, as well as the fact that Nilsen was gay and often preyed upon homosexual men, became prime fodder for the media, and BBC correspondent Bill Hamilton is one of multiple interviewees to state, in Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes, that he got a sensationalistic thrill out of learning about Nilsen’s horrific crimes.
Nilsen doesn’t really discuss the particulars of his gruesome pastime; his thoughts on that subject are conveyed by director Harte via transcribed commentary, and police and court records presented as typewriter text. With regard to his notoriety, however, he does state that “a clearly prejudiced picture had been allowed to form in the public’s mind, even before I was charged with any defense, giving the media full latitude to milk their property. This allowed the image of monstrosity to take full flight, to whet the profitable public imagination.” He’s technically correct in this assessment. Yet Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes makes clear that his infamous reputation was well-earned, and listening to him arrogantly prattle on in this way proves less unnerving than simply infuriating.
Nilsen’s desire to pin the blame for his conduct on an uncaring mother and a pedophilic grandfather might be more credible if not for his wholesale duplicity and untrustworthiness, and Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes wisely doesn’t buy everything the killer peddles. Through interviews with investigators, journalists, family members of his victims and one man, Martyn, who narrowly escaped his clutches, it explains how Nilsen exploited 1980s London’s rampant homophobia in order to get away with his heinous crimes. Recognizing that no one would miss his youthful down-and-out targets, and that homosexual men in particular would be apt to stay silent out of fear of public reprisals for their sexual orientation, Nilsen deliberately went after society’s most helpless and marginalized, and his ability to remain undetected for as long as he did is a powerful indictment of the climate of the era.
Director Harte skims over some of the nuts and bolts of Nilsen’s saga, and he mostly keeps Nilsen’s face off-screen during Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes. Thankfully, the longer his documentary proceeds, the less one also has to hear from the killer. Comprised of the usual array of archival TV news broadcasts, textual graphics, images of audio tapes, and talking-head interviews—which are conducted in dimly-lit rooms where the paint is often peeling off the wall, for creepy atmospheric effect—the film isn’t interested in breaking new formal ground. Still, as with so many of its streaming-service true-crime brethren, its conventional aesthetic approach allows it to achieve its functional ends.
Better is that director Harte gives voice to those who were victimized, both directly by Nilsen and indirectly by a British culture that told them they had no worth, that they should be ashamed of their inherent nature, and that they either weren’t victims at all or got what they deserved. In those passages, Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes becomes a portrait of an evil individual and a critique of the larger environment that allowed him to flourish.