its title, "Wisconsin Death Trip" is not a crazed backwoods slasher
film, but rather a feature length documentary about the high incidence of murder
and madness which afflicted the small town of Black River Falls in the 1890s.
Shot in black and white, and saturated with gothic style, director James Marsh
invokes a catalogue of real life horror stories to create the portrait of an
epidemic of insanity. The documentary effect is employed through mixing actual
photographs and historical newspapers, along with re-enactments of the ghoulish
events, complete with an ominous narration. Unfortunately, this approach is not
particularly successful, coming across as a series of intangibly linked
anecdotes infused with some of the more tiresome clichés of the horror genre.
is divided into sections according to the seasons, though the split is entirely
arbitrary, as the time of year seems to have little bearing on the events being
relayed. The stories are presented in the style of news items, often dictated
from actual accounts or police records and accompanied by visualisations of one
form or another. These tales of the past are complimented by a series of
sequences set in the present day, where the viewer is shown how much, or indeed
how little the town has changed and how the legacy of its dark history has
influenced its growth.
problem with this approach is that there is no real coherent thread holding the
film together. One of the main tasks facing documentary filmmakers who want
their efforts to catch the imagination of the average viewer is to generate
interest, often through the inclusion of some narrative touches. There is a
little of this in "Wisconsin Death Trip", in the form of a handful of
recurring characters and the revisiting of several cases, but none are examined
in enough depth to be engaging. As such, even at 76 minutes, the film feels
badly overstretched, and with no real overall point or development of any kind,
it suffers from a pace best described as glacial.
still, the film offers little insight into its subject, being quite content to
simply report the tragic events without any kind of explanation other than basic
economic depression. By casually throwing in references to celebrity serial
killers Ed Gein and Jeffery Dahmer, the film seems to be suggesting some general
atmosphere of madness that lurks in the state and continues through the decades,
though there is no elaboration as to the cause. This is particularly evident in
the scenes set in the present day, which typify documentary film making at its
worst, as the viewer is shown shot after shot of local people looking blank and
confused whilst the droning voice over implies that they are in fact insane and
on the verge of mania.
some of the stories are quite interesting, their effectiveness is severely
compromised by Marsh's decision to infuse the film with some ill-conceived black
humour, which basically translates to a few lame attempts at irony. These quips
are entirely unnecessary, and at times ruin some of the potentially fascinating
aspects of the film, not so much through their incompetent irreverence, as
through the basic fact that they are not funny in the least.
Another problem which hampers any kind of
atmosphere the film may have had is Marsh's over reliance on old horror film
clichés. The worst of these comes through the narration, which is provided by
British actor Ian Holm, who comes across as a low rent Vincent Price, though
with none of the charm or flair for making light of the macabre. Holm's
narration is at times replaced with that of a whispering asylum keeper and other
stereotypical voices, a tired device which falls flat.
are also a great many visual clichés employed in the re-enactments, which are
at odds with the many creepy real life photographs which are constantly being
thrust into the frame, giving the whole thing an air of tacky sensationalism,
which would be quite acceptable if the whole affair were not so dull and
At the end of the day, it is quite hard to fathom
the point of "Wisconsin Death Trip", as for a documentary it makes no
attempt to throw any light on its subject. Similarly, as an exploitation film,
it is far too leaden, dull and straight faced to be of any real entertainment
value, save as some kind of rather odd private joke being held at the expense of
the town's inhabitants. Whichever the case may be, the film has very little to
recommend it beyond being a vaguely interesting but ultimately pointless
scrapbook of historical anecdotes, and one which fails to engage on any level.