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"The Gray Man" is an important addition to the horror genre. Director Scott Flynn chose to tell the story of Albert Fish, a serial murderer who is believed to have murdered and cannibalized several young children in the late 1920s and early 1930s in the environs of New York City. Fish worked as a handyman and painter in most of the neighborhoods he lived in, and was seen for the most part as a relatively inoffensive and grandfatherly individual by many people. In reality, he is said to have possessed a raging sociopathic pattern that knew its roots in the harsh treatment he received in state orphanages run by religious fanatics in the upper boroughs of the city. Flynn's film gives the viewer a slight background of Fish's character so that even the most offended audience member can understand Fish's motivation. The man remains genuinely creepy in depiction, however, simply due to the deep horror of life that true degeneracy, or "evil", if you must, rarely has a loud "telegraph". Albert Fish is scary because he looks like the earnest, hard working sort of character who you'd hire to repair your furnace.
"The Gray Man" is also a significant work in horror, because it puts to rest the idea that a grisly tale must rely upon grisly depiction in order to unsettle the viewer. Director Flynn has wisely chosen not to graphically re-create the murders, and does not bother with lurid presentations of children being dissected or disposed of as meat. It might seem ridiculous that I would even have to point this out, but anyone who knows contemporary horror understands how little credit all too many Gothic film makers lend the imagination of their public anymore. I don't want to belabor the point, suffice it to say that "The Gray Man" puts films like "Saw" and "Hostel" to shame. Very few things in this life are as terrifying as a child murderer, Flynn and his cast put this true story across without much reliance on the sensational. Why, they even rely on a few little tricks like "atmosphere" here. Imagine that.
Leading the cast is veteran actor Patrick Bauchau, who brings the character of Albert Fish himself a terrifying but not entirely unlikeable quality. His work in this film is a delicately balanced affair that is more effective than that of Anthony Hopkins in "The Silence of the Lambs". Hopkin's performance in that work is outstanding, of course, but it is relatively melodramatic and over- the- top compared to the craft and restraint Bauchau offers here.. Following Bauchau up as the intrepid Missing Persons investigator Will King is Jack Conley, whose world weary demeanor I found very welcome in this age of celluloid depictions of lantern jawed law enforcement officials who always know what to do. Conley's King is a man unsure in his surety, a gumshoe who's likable for the same reasons we like Jake Gittes in "Chinatown" and Sam Spade in "The Maltese Falcon". He's sort of an anti-bureaucratic bureaucrat.
The other supporting cast members are quite good, most notably the perpetually bemused children of Albert Fish, Gertrude and Albert Jr., who know him alternately as both solid family man and abusive personality. The roles are handled by Mollie Milligan and Silas Mitchell. Jillian Armaneni is powerful as the mother of Grace Budd, the victim of Fish whose disappearance finally put investigators on his trail, and Lexi Ainsworth is very fine as Grace herself. Ben Hall holds his own as Grace's brother Albert, and character actor Bill Flynn has an appearance as the notorious Dr. Frederick Wertham (yes, he of the controversial 1950s anti- comic book crusade) who was a defense witness at the Fish trial as Fish and his crew pleaded insanity.
As for accuracy, who knows? So much has been written about the case that, now, seventy five years after the events themselves, it's even more difficult to separate the folklore from the reality of the moment. Albert Fish has entered that realm of real-life bogeymen with a distinction known by few, so the scuttlebutt will continue to blossom. Be that as it may, "The Gray Man" is a finely crafted, ambitious and riveting horror film, one of the few in the contemporary samples from the genre that is worthy of the time it takes to view it.
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