John Wayne Gacy, serial killer? Or John Wayne Gacy, artist? The new documentary Collectors lets you decide whether a mass murderer who paints in his cell produces something to be treasured or something to be despised. Not surprisingly, filmmaker Julian P. Hobbs has found plenty of people on both sides of the issue.
Collectors largely revolves around the art -- most of it very good -- of Elmer Wayne Henley, who in the early 1970s killed some 27 young boys with the help of Dean "The Candyman" Corll in southwest Houston. In 1973, Corll turned on his accomplice and Henley shot him. Henley is now serving six life sentences for his crimes. He has little to do but paint.
Oddly, I grew up in southwest Houston and had never heard of this case until now. Recently has Henley turned up in the news again, as his Houston art shows have been sell-outs, with curious onlookers anxious to own a piece of a killer's psyche.
Hobbs takes us inside the overstuffed homes of the serial killer art collectors while providing equal time to the victims' relatives and rights advocates (all staunchly against the sale of the art, despite the fact that up to 1/3 of proceeds go to rights groups). He also visits with authors and shrinks, all anxious to explain why Joe America would dirty his hands with this stuff. Ironically, none of the arguments are compelling on either side. The collectors can't explain their passions, and the naysayers adhere, as naysayers tend to do, to the irrational belief that nothing good should come from the crimes. We are left to our own devices to figure out why someone would want a demon scrawled by the likes of Richard Ramirez.
As a documentary, Collectors is nothing short of fascinating. We see countless samples of killer artwork -- much of it atrocious pen-on-paper sketchwork, but some quite good. We get to hear Henley himself, and we see that he is not a monster. As well, Hobbs' choice of music matches the mood of the film perfectly, and the photography is far beyond what anyone would hope for from an independent documentary.
Ultimately, Hobbs keeps an even keel and lets you decide what you want to think about Henley and co. But a better question to ponder is this: Which is creepier: the serial killer artists or the collectors themselves?
An actual John Wayne Gacy piece.