When it comes to Netflix’s crime documentaries, perspective is imperative in immersing viewers into their shady underworld. Sometimes, we hear from the perspectives of the hunters looking to bring killers and criminals to justice, like in “The Son of Sam” or “Don’t F**k with Cats”. Then there are times when the focus, and therefore the spotlight, is placed solely on the victims’ insight. Think “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich” with the victims vividly and painfully describing every horrific act perpetrated on them. The ones we find the most interesting are the ones that come from the horse’s mouth. Firsthand recordings and tapes of what the criminals have to say about the horrific things they did. This is exactly what we have here with “Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes”.
Ever since Netflix gave us “Mindhunters”, our macabre voyeuristic tendencies have been utterly spoilt. We want to know the ins and outs of the killer. The full 360° look at all the grizzly details, from method to motive. So, will “The Nilsen Tapes” give you the novel true-crime kick you’re looking for? Or should it just stay in the headlines of a newspaper? Let’s find out!
Here’s a quick rundown on the facts, and to be honest it’s both deeply disturbing and hilarious. It starts with locals making a complaint about their plumbing. Including the killer, mind you. When the plumber gets there, they find out that human remains are blocking the passageway which leads to a full-on investigation by the police. This eventually leads to them questioning one Dennis Nilsen about the incident. Who, ironically, had no idea why the plumbing was backed up. Even though he was the reason behind it, inconsiderate. Anyways, they come up to his room and begin questioning him about the bones.
The moment they opened the door, a detective inspector immediately goes “Stop messing about, where’s the rest of the body?“. Nilsen proceeds to point to the wardrobe with two bags of body parts in it. They bring him in on suspicion of murder. Right, so here’s the crazy part, initially, they asked him if he was responsible for one murder or two. Then, this maniac nonchalantly tells them there might be 15 to 16 victims.
Normally serial killer documentaries work in chronological order, with a timeline of the victims and cases before the big reveal. “The Nilsen Tapes”, interestingly enough, subverts this structure. It’s essentially about Dennis Nilsen trying to retrace his steps with the police trying to coax him into revealing more details. All this is captured in over two hundred hours of voice recordings.
“The Nilsen Tapes” takes a big risk in relying so heavily on the character of Dennis Nilsen. Simply put, he could have been a boring nutjob. Thankfully, Nilsen is anything but boring. Truly, Nilsen is a real-life Hannibal Lecter. He’s eloquent, charming and witty. Just under his dry smuggery, you can hear his delight and contempt for his victims. The man was a killer who hunted down young men and boys and made love to their corpses after. He would then dispose of them by boiling and butchering their remains. Not unlike his American counterpart, Jeffrey Dahmer.
What makes Nilsen so interesting is how plain and dull his outer life was until he was caught. Then, he sort of morphed into this diva. He loves to present himself as a composed, cultured and enigmatic murderer. Yet when we dig into his childhood, we begin to see his hidden insecurities, and the sexual tendencies he covered up at the time. During the 1980s, British society wasn’t so accepting of LGBTQ individuals. So the scandal of having a gay serial killer only fuelled the prejudice against the community.
“The Nilsen Tapes” goes to great lengths to humanise the character of Dennis Nilsen. It is within this space of emotional ambiguity that the documentary becomes quite polarising in its appeal. Some people will find “The Nilsen Tapes” to be too ideological for their taste. Especially when addressing how the invisibility and oppression of the homosexual community allowed such a monster to run loose. Arguably, it even created him. For us, we felt that the context was necessary at times, and other times, it overstayed its welcome.
That being said, one aspect that we greatly appreciated about this documentary was its pacing. Over the years, we’ve noticed a practice in these Netflix documentaries. To keep viewers watching and binging, some of these crime documentaries go to great, and annoying, lengths to stretch the story out into multiple episodes. We’re looking at you “The Ripper”. However, “The Nilsen Tapes” keeps the whole thing to roughly an hour and a half. A substantial enough runtime, with minimal padding.
Furthermore, Director Michael Harte, best known for his work on “Don’t F**k with Cats”, takes a rather theatrical approach to the way Nilsen’s story is told. He takes full advantage of the killer’s thespian voice and blends it with eerie black-and-white scenes. Sometimes, he’ll have witnesses mouthing the same horrid words that Nilsen says as his voice plays in the background. These stylistic choices play well in creating a sense of immersion. It’s meant to make Nilsen seem almost omnipresent. As if somewhere in the shadows or our minds, he’s lurking there. Now, it doesn’t quite get under our skin the same way “Son of Sam” did but “The Nilsen Tapes” still does a bloody admirable job.
If you’re looking for a good true-crime spook, then Netflix’s “Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes” is for you. Harte from “Don’t F**k with Cats” weaves a chilling tale of how a sexually awkward man turned into a paedophilic serial killer. All set to the killer’s real voice narrating every detail of his evil exploits. For an extra creep factor, we recommend putting on headphones and watching it in the dark. It’s not quite as fun or extensive as Harte’s more popular works but it is a little more frightening.
So what did you think of “Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes”? Which serial killer keeps you up at night? Be sure to let us know in the comments!
Netflix's "Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes"
If you're looking for a good true-crime spook, then Netflix's "Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes" is for you. Harte from "Don't F**k with Cats" weaves a chilling tale of how a sexually awkward man turned into a paedophilic serial killer. All set to the killer's real voice narrating every detail of his evil exploits. For an extra creep-factor, we recommend putting on headphones and watching it in the dark.
- Netflix's "Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes"