Review: John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise 2021 By Craig Bowley, Jay Levine, Joseph Kozenczak
Director Rod Blackhurst never set out to become a true crime documentarian. “As a director I’ve always been what I call ‘genre agnostic,” he told IndieWire. For him, it’s about finding a story worth telling and that can add to a larger conversation. In the case of his latest work, Peacock’s “John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise,” Blackhurst saw an opportunity to show a different facet of the infamous serial killer’s story that is highly relevant to today.
Blackhurst came to the project knowing little more than Gacy’s name. “[I had] kind of a cursory knowledge of what had transpired in the ’70s. The fact that I knew anything at all came from pop culture, listening to music in the mid-’90s and having seen the way John Gacy[‘s] name had been co-opted by the musician, Marilyn Manson,” he said. When Blackhurst was offered the documentary, he found himself immediately captivated by the work done over nearly a decade by independent journalists Alison True and Tracy Ullman which asserted how Gacy’s crimes had been allowed to continue due to his close relationships with Chicago area bigwigs.
“They [True and Ullman] have spent so much of their own time and money investigating a story that seemed to have so many other pieces to it that had either been overlooked…or had been reduced to the sidelines in the narrative,” he said. Much of that reduction has been in the story of the victims themselves, many who were initially chalked up to being runaways or gay men whose lifestyle already put them at risk. “Many of John Wayne Gacy’s victims had to been reduced to being second-class citizens and the way that the police dealt with their claims and the charges that [were] leveled against him…it’s not just a shame that that happened but that it took this long for somebody to shine a light on it,” Blackhurst said.
Much of Gacy’s tactics to ingratiate himself are well-known to audiences, such as his dressing up as Pogo the Clown, or organizing the city’s Polish Constitution Day Parade and meeting former First Lady Roslyn Carter. As the documentary lays out, additional culpability in not diving deeper into Gacy’s background has to be laid at the feet of the Chicago media. What Ullman and True discovered that Blackhurst examines in the series is how an overreliance on police informants and confidential sources made some journalists afraid to look at accountability.
There are commonalities between Blackhurst’s previous documentary, Netflix’s “Amanda Knox,” and “Devil in Disguise.” Outside of the emphasis on looking at how we deem a person good or bad, there’s an added exploration of the true crime genre itself. The director is of two minds on the genre. “I have always struggled with the way that true crime continues to be commodified,” Blackhurst said. “I see that things are turned into content designed to be consumed, and they’re like empty calories.” The salaciousness certainly engages audiences, but for Blackhurst, he felt the added responsibility of added something to the narrative.
Sometimes, though, one is limited by what pieces they can put together. In this case, Blackhurst said he’d have loved to explore the history and life of Gacy’s former friend Michael Rossi. Rossi was never charged with any crimes but, as the documentary alludes, might have known more. Blackhurst said he was definitely intrigued by Rossi’s connections, especially considering he was able to secure former Cook County DA Ed Hanrahan as his attorney. But “I couldn’t figure out a way to put it entirely in the series,” he said.
What Blackhurst hopes for is that the documentary will possibly reveal other victims of Gacy’s crimes. “If there are other victims out there who have been unidentified or that the authorities have chosen not to look into” it will be worth it, he said.