The Gainesville Ripper


“See you later, alligator”

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I watched the trailer for “The Gainesville Ripper” before agreeing to review the film, and after viewing both the trailer and the film, I thought, what is the point in revisiting old pains?  Nothing new was revealed, some facts were blatantly distorted and the story-telling used poetic license in places where just the cold facts would have been dramatically effective.

This story opens fresh wounds that terrified Gainesville in 1990, essentially locking down central Florida. In August of that year, during the first week of school for the University of Florida [The Gators] and neighboring Santa Fe Community College, five students were viciously murdered in their off-campus apartments.  “The Gainesville Ripper” attempts to tell the tale of murderer, Danny Rolling – what motivated him and what might have transpired, from Rolling’s perspective.

Rolling (Zachary Memos) was already serving a life-sentence for robbing a bank and a grocery store (which occurred in September of 1990, a mere month later) when law enforcement linked him with the student murders. Rolling confessed to the murders in January of 1993 blaming his split personality which he called “Gemini”.  Gemini and the sick animal were executed for the murders in October of 2006 – Gainesville still bleeds.

Josh Townsend’s rendition of Rolling’s story begins with actual footage from outside the prison during Rolling’s execution in 2006. The Right-To-Lifers are picketing, others are celebrating, there’s even a prayer circle. Then the film takes us back in time to Rolling’s release from prison in 1989, after serving eight years for robbery. Rolling exited that facility into the caring arms of his mother, who’s overjoyed with having him on the outside again.  At home in Louisiana, we quickly find out that dad is an abusive drunk who spares no expense with verbal lashings and physical intimidation – he uses this as an excuse to steal a gun and buy a Ka-Bar combat knife.

Rolling manages to acquire a job painting houses. On his daily route to the job site, he takes notice of a young lady entering her home. Since she is intriguing to him, he decides to sit outside her house in his vehicle. He takes notes on the times she’s coming and going. When he’s decided that it’s about time to finally have his way with her, he approaches the back door of the house, packing knife. Unfortunately, he’s not planning on her father and eight-year old son being in the back yard . . . and they quickly meet their demise.

After Rolling kills the father and son, he drags the bodies into the kitchen of the house. The young lady is shocked to find her bloodied father laying there. Rolling attacks her next. She makes a small attempt to get away but then he has the knife at her throat. Instantly she becomes cowardly and submissive, whimpering “no, no”. Rolling throws her down on the bed, tells her how much she’s gonna like what he’s about to do as he’s unbuttoning his pants.

Next occurs what I’d like to call “Rape & Repeat” #1. The viewer gets to sit through watching divergent angles of the scene played out through the eyes of both Rolling and the victim. After Rolling has his minute of power with her, he’s left with no choice but to kill her as well. Blood is splattered everywhere – all over Rolling’s face, the victim, the bed, the walls. Afterward, Rolling positions her body on the bed in a seated, relaxed pose, bent leg, with her arm draped behind her head. Rolling double checks a sketch he’s got in his hand to verify that her body looks like he planned before leaving the residence.

Kudos to Townsend for one scene showing how cold Rolling was, while on a break at the job site the next day, Rolling mentions to a co-worker listening to the radio about the killings, “Who would want to kill a little boy?”

Since house painting and murder are hard work, Rolling takes to drinking a lot, which translates into Rolling thinking that he’s got one up on his old man. He and dad have a stand-off over a beer in the family kitchen. Mom comes rushing in, trying to break up the fight. Rolling’s laughing, drinking, and dad’s had enough. Dad runs in the other room, grabs his gun and starts waving it around. Rolling runs outside and grabs the hidden gun.  Aw heck – looks like a “wife beater” wearing gun fight at the Rolling residence! Yee-haw!

After the gunfight at the Abnormal Corral, Rolling decides it’s time to split again – heading south, to Florida. On that long trip, we are graced with the first (of many) monologues that Rolling has with himself. Rolling’s got a lot of self-justification that he needs to discuss with himself and we get to hear about it ad nauseum. He’s got plans, he’s got numbers and don’t-you-know-it, he’s got more people to kill. He’s just gotta lay low for awhile.

I’m pleasantly surprised with the film thus far into the movie. Granted, Rolling hasn’t made it to Gainesville, so the real nerve hasn’t been hit yet. Sadly, I caught myself wishing I was watching another movie but, alas, I was not.  I knew what was coming next, and worse, I knew it was all too real, twenty years ago.  Would anything truly insightful or meaningful unfold with the rest of this movie? For those who put four years of hard work and effort into this, unfortunately not.

Very little of the Gainesville student murders depicted in this film held actual significance to the manner in which the five students actually lost their lives, apart from the fact that they were raped and murdered.

Horror movies are supposed to be scary, but “The Gainesville Ripper” was not. This coming from someone who has checked every closet in the house for twenty years, thanks to Rolling. There was no big lead up to the attacks in the film, and the suspense wasn’t there. The level of resistance by the victims was almost non-existent (when in fact, the male victim is known to have put up quite the fight during his murder). Sitting through four additional “Rape & Repeat” scenes was tiresome. Listening to Rolling’s conversations with himself bored me.  After the second one, his modus operandi was clear – he was crazy and he wanted to rape and kill people – period.

The producers missed an opportunity to create an accurate portrayal of the murders with the fact that the real Rolling took time to thoroughly clean the bodies after he raped, tortured and murdered them . . . thus taking law enforcement longer to catch him. For me, the inclusion of this action (methodical sober cleaning) would have been more chilling than another rape scene. Instead, the producers show him leaving the crime scene a bloody mess with Rolling only taking the time to shower and clean his body.

Thankfully, though the producers chose to leave the gruesome mutilation out of the scenes, apart from the infamous beheading. In lieu of mutilation that occurred at the actual crime scenes, they chose to include a cut of Rolling giving one of the victims a smile ala The Joker in Batman – which never actually occurred during the murders, but again, maybe it was done to alleviate some of the actual horror.

And while the effort was made to re-create the panic and fear going on in the town of Gainesville at the time, that fell short as well. Truthfully, in 1990 there was almost mass hysteria in Gainesville, with guns and weapons of every sort selling out in every neighborhood.  It was not unusual to see people walking through town armed with baseball bats or tire irons (cops didn’t even bat an eye at it) and yet this memory was not emphasized in the film.

Since Rolling was out and about town, robbing banks, drinking beers at the bar and getting high with his lone partner-in-crime, I would have loved to have seen him interact with one of these fearful Gainesville residents – a friendly nod to a passerby on the street with a simple exchange from Rolling advising “Be careful! That madman could be anywhere” would have been chilling to imagine.  Instead more focus was spent trying to portray Rolling as a psychologically complex creature, one who rode his bike murder to murder, praying on his victims; one who camped in the woods and left farewell tribute cassette tapes to his parents.

Before one of the murders, Rolling ended his message with:  “… well, I’m gonna sign off for a little bit.  I got somethin’ I gotta do…”  The fact that Rolling got away with these murders for a brief period of time is intriguing; Rolling, however, is not and this film doesn’t convince that he ever was.

It was very apparent that this was the first feature film release by Townsend. Although he has a great eye for direction and camera angles, Townsend’s talent was quickly eclipsed by the technical problems that occurred during the screening I attended in Gainesville. Some scenes would abruptly cut off at their end and a blank screen would appear before the next scene. (Even when the actual end of the film arrived, the movie just stopped and the director hollered out “that’s it” so we knew it was over. The credits ran without any music. ) The soundtrack music itself was also well done but the actors vocals were completely muddled by the surround sound in the theater, sometimes to the point of inaudibility.  But, I may have been privy to a rough-cut, so I can let that stuff slide.

Josh Townsend started filming “The Gainesville Ripper” in locations throughout Florida during 2006. Post-production took close to three years to wrap. The screening I attended in Gainesville, happened to fall within days of the twentieth anniversary of the student murders. Townsend claims that this was a coincidence but after the shoddy final cut, I doubt it. It appeared to more than one disapproving eye that the time-line of the release and the anniversary screamed intentional.

There’s a reason why no one in Hollywood bothered touching this story before Townsend (apart from a made-for-TV movie). There’s no new tale to tell. So I’m afraid that not even a brief cameo from Herschell Gordon Lewis (best known for creating the “splatter film” subgenre of horror) could save this flick – in the end, it ended up stinking like a rotting corpse.

2 Responses to “The Gainesville Ripper”

  1. Tweets that mention The Gainesville Ripper | I Rate Films -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rick Swift, Rick Swift. Rick Swift said: Fiona Slater's review, "The Gainesville Ripper" 1.5 stars, ended up stinking like a rotting corpse. […]

  2. H-Man Says:

    An interesting aside, the authorities could never prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Rolling killed the three people in Shreveport, Louisiana. He finally confessed to those murders shortly before his execution.