on April 14, 2012
The Devil's Cinema is a generally factually accurate `true crime' text that is critically marred by a misplaced focus and omissions that seem intended to sculpt an image of a wanna-be serial killer, Mark Twitchell, in a dark and sinister light. That is unfortunate, because Twitchell's tale is a comedy, albeit one with a very dark and absurd character.
As a fair warning; I have considerable personal familiarity with the evidence and court proceeding in which Twitchell was convicted of first degree murder. I attended the majority of the trial, and am very familiar with the evidence in play. I cannot comment on the manner in which the police investigation is depicted, nor the reaction of Twitchell's family and acquaintances. I also have no personal knowledge of the one victim, Johnny Altinger, and his character or circumstances.
I believe an outline of the facts is helpful, since the Amazon book description is sketchy. In 2008 Mark Twitchell decided to become a serial killer. His scheme was to lure men to a rented garage where he had prepared a `kill room', the bait being online ads for attractive women interested in casual sex. Twitchell would incapacitate his victims, force them to disclose financial and personal information, after which they would be killed and dismembered. Twitchell's plan was to conceal their disappearance by maintaining an online presence as the victim, telling acquaintances of an impulsive trip abroad.
Twitchell was clearly obsessed with and inspired by the "Dexter" television series and novels. His scheme incorporated many motifs from that fiction. For one, he used the garage as a location to prepare a short and very amateurish film with a plot that mimicked much of the lure / incapacitate / extract information / kill / dispose scheme that Twitchell had adopted.
The first person to enter Twitchell's lair was Gilles Tetreault, who was attacked but escaped. I will comment later in more detail on Tetreault's quite extraordinary experience. Tetreault was understandably confused by the encounter, and did not contact police.
Undeterred, a week later Twitchell used the exact same scheme in the very same location This time he met with success, and killed Altinger. However, Twitchell's attempts to simulate Altinger online were unsuccessful, and Altinger's friends became suspicious.
This led to a police investigation. Since Altinger had told his friends about his anticipated date with the mysterious and sexy "Jen", and that included the location of the garage, it was not long before police tracked down Twitchell. Twitchell had kept Altinger's car.
Forensic investigation of the garage indicated Twitchell did not match Dexter's disciplined policy of a clean `kill' environment. A search of Twitchell's car found yet more incriminating evidence (among my favorites were a series of `post-it' notes that reminded "kill room clean sweep", "ship phone while it's on (return addy of vic)", and "destroy wallet contents"). But investigation of Twitchell's laptop computer recovered something unique. The police had anticipated they might find a snuff film, but instead identified a deleted word processor file entitled "S.K. Confessions", which appeared to be a first-person account of Twitchell's plan and efforts to become a serial killer.
Twitchell was subsequently tried and convicted of Altinger's murder. He testified in his own defence. The Crown provided a wealth of evidence that indicated the S.K. Confessions document was, in effect, a diary. Twitchell insisted it was fiction, but admitted to killing Altinger. He disclosed he had disposed of the body down a sewer, where it was recovered.
So with that narrative in place, let's turn to The Devil's Cinema. As a general stylistic note, the author's slavish devotion to the `purple prose' typical of `true crime' texts is irritating, but perhaps necessary for that marketplace. The chief defect, however, is that The Devil's Cinema portrays the criminal as a terrifying, potent individual, barely brought to justice and at a terrible price. Maybe that is the formula for this kind of literature, but here, it's wrong.
Not to diminish Altinger's tragic death, but the author's attempt to mold Twitchell as a menacing and charismatic figure of unempathic malice is a total failure, and utterly mischaracterizes Twitchell. Twitchell was and remains an idiot, an incompetent of legendary quality. Objectively, it is astonishing Twitchell managed to kill even once. Once the deed was done, the police investigation was not so much a matter of following a trail of breadcrumbs, but instead whole, freshly baked loaves, monogrammed with M.A.T, and conveniently located to guide the investigation from origin to destination. That is not to slight the police, but rarely has any criminal delivered themselves up on such a richly appointed platter.
Lillebuen's text fails critically on this point. I will provide a specific example. Once located by police, Twitchell explained that he had purchased a car (Altinger's car) in peculiar circumstances: a man with a ponytail and celtic knot tattoo on his neck approached Twitchell and offered to sell a car for whatever cash Twitchell had in his wallet. The man said he had hooked up with a rich "sugar momma" who was going to buy him a new luxury vehicle after they returned from a tropical paradise. Twitchell had $40, and that sealed the deal.
When I first encountered this narrative in a police interview I presumed that Twitchell had, like so many other criminals, been caught with the unexpected question - where did you get that red Mazda, Mark? The absurd tale was then a panicked and improvised response. Ok, I thought, that's not the first time that a criminal has said something pretty stupid in response to a police interrogation. What I did not realize was that Twitchell's response was not impromptu but rather rehearsed! In S.K. Confessions the author detailed this very excuse that he would deploy if police ever asked him about having a vehicle of one of his victims! The author then gloats on how easily police will be sent off on a wild goose chase by this clever, subtle explanation.
My head exploded! That is the best Twitchell could come up with, as an excuse, for possession of the vehicle of his murder victim?! That was the best he could concoct?! Most criminals are idiots, but this level of incompetence was almost beyond belief.
Lillebuen's text does not disclose the `sugar momma' excuse was preplanned. That, I imagine, runs contrary to the author's narrative and characterization of Twitchell as a dangerous, terrifying psychopath. Rather than Bozo the Bludgeoner.
And that is unsatisfactory and unsatisfying, because Twitchell is so extraordinarily inept that his actions and words become high comedy. A key aspect of Twitchell's personality is that he viewed himself as a genius. At trial, he explained how he has what he called his "Genius Savant Power" or "Inner Savant Power", which he could not control, but which when active allowed him to create astonishing works and concepts in a very short time. He wrote entire film scripts in a couple days, when the best of Hollywood took months - years! Loosely recalling his testimony, the "Genius Savant Power" operated `like a sink without knobs', and when active Twitchell had to catch what he could `in a bucket' as it poured out.
Well, maybe more a chute of thrift-store rejects than a facet, judging from the product. This came through in both the small and grand aspects of Twitchell's saga. At trial the man who escaped, Tetreault, described his encounter in the dark rented garage - he was suddenly grabbed from behind by someone who jabbed him with a thing... it buzzed and gave off blue light. This was a `stun baton' that Twitchell had purchased and never tested - it turned out to be an ineffective toy. Tetreault turned, to find he had been grabbed by a man wearing a hockey mask with its mouth area cut out, and painted in gold and black stripes. Twitchell explained in S.K. Confessions he had prepared this mask to intimidate; the mask may not have had the desired effect as Tetreault could not figure out if this was a kind of practical joke, a mugging, or something even more peculiar. Twitchell then produced a gun, and ordered Tetreault to the ground, and put a piece of duct tape ... on Tetreault's eyes! Even though Twitchell was masked!
Tetreault then heard sounds that he thought meant the attacker was undoing his pants - a rape was impending. In what ought to a rallying cry for the oppressed everywhere, Tetreault leapt up, tore off the tape, and exclaimed "I can't go down like this!" He grabbed Twitchell's gun, which turned out to be a plastic fake. Fisticuffs and wrestling ensued. Tetreault later observed that his attacker seemed to have no idea how to fight, as though it was the first time the attacker had ever been in a struggle. In particular, the `knee to the crotch' attacks just kept missing...
Tetreault eventually broke away, escaped the garage, and then encountered a couple on a stroll. Twitchell had followed wearing his hockey mask, and now pretended to be a friend. The persons dispersed. Tetreault did not report the story to police because he was confused as to what had happened, and thought the story was too strange to be credible.
When he was ultimately interviewed by police they had already read Twitchell's S.K. Confession's near identical blow-for-blow account of the encounter. That said, the interview made for fascinating viewing (it was recorded) as Tetreault hesitantly explains how `and then THIS strange thing happened and THAT strange thing happened' as the police interviewer quietly encourages, all with a bemused and amazed expression - S.K. Confessions, even its embarrassing misfires, was accurate!
Now, let's stop for a moment, and activate our Genius Savant Powers, bucket in hand. My intended victim has escaped and knows my lair. He has seen some quite unique paraphernalia that can be linked to me. Two others also have seen me in my murder attire, on site. What should I do? Perhaps I should dispose of any evidence that might link me to the attack? Like the mask? Perhaps I should schedule my next murder at a different location, as presumably my intended victim may lead police to the garage ... which I rented in my own name!
Twitchell does none of this. While he describes in S.K. Confessions his apprehension that law enforcement would soon arrive, he takes no precautions. A week later, Altinger arrives. At least this time Twitchell has switched from the toy stun baton to a piece of lead pipe. Again, near failure, as Twitchell discovers that motion pictures and television are sometimes inaccurate; people do not drop in an unconscious heap when struck on the head...
Similarly, when Twitchell discovers police are investigating Altinger's disappearance he fails to dispose of wildly incriminating evidence. Like the post-it notes. Like the mask. Like his computer. C'mon Mark, use that Genius Savant Power. Torch the car.
I could go on at length (and arguably have) but these absurdities only hint at the tapestry of Twitchell as a whole. The man saw himself as a creative and destructive genius, a Lex Luthor or Professor Moriarty, but instead was lucky if he remembered to put on his pants before embarking on his latest failure. And failures there were aplenty, which is another aspect of the Twitchell saga which is touched upon, but I think, neglected by the author.
My own take on Twitchell, and it is strictly my own, is that he was less interested and excited by killing than he was attracted to the idea and mystique of being a serial killer. Twitchell, at heart, is a fanboy, and the book does a good job of documenting his various obsessions, particularly Star Wars, and film and costume making. What the text does not address so much is fan culture itself, and the tendency of its members to imagine great dreams that remain unrealized. I can hardly count the number of times I have heard a fan describe a plan for a store, a club, a media project, that is obviously absurd and out of reach. A unique and very interesting aspect of Twitchell was that he attempted to realize whatever his Genius Savant Power provided, without hesitation, discretion, or common-sense. I see Twitchell as Serial Killer as merely another of Twitchell's many attempts to leap far, but collapse in a disjointed heap near where he started.
S.K. Confessions is the key to understanding Twitchell, and properly appreciate his unique manner of failure. As trial evidence this document is in the public domain and has previously been published en toto by Lillebeun's former employer, the Edmonton Journal. There is absolutely no excuse for why S.K. Confessions is not attached as an appendix to The Devil's Cinema, except for the fact it totally contradicts the author's characterization of Twitchell as a dark giant.
Yes, Lillebeun on occasion includes excerpts from S.K. Confessions in The Devil's Cinema, but these passages are not all that representative of the document as a whole. For example, the account of Altinger's dismemberment is included. It's scary and gross - and therefore consistent with the author's portrait. But, read front to back, S.K. Confessions discloses Twitchell as someone else, an incompetent, haphazard, self-absorbed poseur. And it's damned funny - so if you are curious, dig it up.
The text does an adequate job of explaining Twitchell's at trial testimony and defence, that he had accidentally killed a sex-hungry and enraged Altinger when he tried to recruit Altinger into his "Multiple Angle Psychosis Layering Entertaining" ["MAPLE"] movie/book promotion scheme (courtesy, of course, of Genius Savant Power!). In a nutshell, MAPLE was that Twitchell could recruit social media promoters by tricking them to come to a simulated kill room with the prospect of casual sex - then revealing he, Twitchell, was a film-maker who was going to make a Blair Witch-esque snuff film - and the tricked person could tell the public that `yep, I barely escaped that dude!' Altinger, disappointed at not having a date, had attacked Twitchell and impaled himself on Twitchell's knife. Tetreault had been an earlier test of MAPLE, but with extra verity.
The author quotes the transcript at this point - but omits some strategic details. For example, when Altinger is stabbed Twitchell explained that he knew the man was dying because (paraphrasing) `I knew the knife had gone into the man's ascending aorta - and I am a human anatomy expert because I had helped tutor an ex-girlfriend who was learning to be a chiropractic assistant.' Uh... really? You have that complete a knowledge of human anatomy and so subtle an ability to gauge the course of a blade? After helping a student chiropractic assistant?! Omissions of this kind of buffoonery is inexplicable, except that it undermines the author's portrait of the man, dark and potent.
Twitchell's at trial explanation of why S.K. Confessions takes a gloating tone to the victim and his dismemberment is equally idiotic and underplayed. Twitchell testified he wrote S.K. Confessions that way to torture himself. Real-Twitchell was wrenched asunder by the evil he had done. So Fiction-Twitchell captured that evil and turned it on its head, so Real-Twitchell would feel sad. The Devil's Cinema also omits this explanation.
I do not fault the author for his emphasis on the life and person of Johnny Altinger. The facts of the investigation are consistent with my knowledge of the matter, though the sequence of certain events seems out of place - that may be more a matter of how the text is structured than an actual error.
A significant defect, which I suspect flows from the author's background as a journalist, is the manner in which the trial itself is described. Understandably, the emphasis is on the dramatics of the proceeding, which I view as unfortunate given that the trial was a showcase of how the Canadian criminal justice system and its participants operate in an effective and reasonable manner. Counsel and Justice Clackson did a superb job in conducting a fair and effective jury trial.
As noted, the author's prose is annoying, particularly when one mentally adds a laugh-track to certain passages. Lillebuen is particularly dull when he tries to characterize Edmonton as murder central, "Deadmonton". Please, give the city its fair due. At least the murders here are interesting - how often does a murderer carry around a dead prostitute in a hockey bag sealed with wire, announcing that contains his composting worms? [Thomas Svekla, if you're curious.] Or one encounters a genuine `thrill kill cult'? [Nina Courtepatte, Ellie May Meyer.]
But all that aside, in The Devil's Cinema Twitchell has been miscast, and that is an injustice. He becomes just another cold eyed and merciless serial killer, one who was barely caught early in his progression. That omits and neglects what makes Mark Twitchell a titanic figure, who casts a shambling shadow broad across the world of media, art, and crime. Here is a great idiot: a person with nearly limitless energy, yet no ability to discern the most obvious defects in his works. Bask in his unique and special stupidity - god knows, I have.
So I will wait until another lifts up Mark Twitchell to his proper place, and tells his tale, sound - fury - nothing, as it deserves. Perhaps someone should give Uwe Boll a call.
And Twitchell can help raise the budget. He's useless in most senses, but at a minimum appears to have some aptitude and experience when scamming investors.