Wisconsin Death Trip (1999) Movie Review

Despite 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 cliché of the horror genre.

The film 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.

The main 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.

Worse 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.

Although 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 cliché. 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.

There are also a great many visual cliché 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 earnest.

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.

James Marsh (director) / Michael Lesy (novel), James Marsh (screenplay)
CAST: Ian Holm …. Narrator
Jo Vukelich …. Mary Sweeney
Jeffrey Golden …. Editor
Marilyn White …. Pauline L’Allemand

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