Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes 2021 Movie Review
Director: Michael Harte
Netflix adds another documentary to its teeming true crime catalog with Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes. With access to jailhouse audio recordings made by the serial killer himself, it explores the cultural climate of early 1980s London, where Dennis Nilsen was discovered to have murdered up to 15 young men over a period of years.
An analog tape recorder in close-up, the spinning Memorex and advancing time counter. “I sit here smoking a Scaferlati Roll-Up Cigarette,” and there’s an audible cough. “Oh, dear. We are ruining our health-s-s-s…” It’s the voice of Dennis Nilsen, a serial killer convicted of six murders in London between 1978 and 1983 and serving a life sentence. “Well,” the voice continues, “we’ve all gotta die of something, haven’t we?”
With this sinister introduction, Memories of a Murderer introduces us to the man on the tape, a Scot who led a seemingly humdrum existence as an employment office worker bee until the revelation of his shocking crimes. Nilsen was arrested in 1983 when human remains were discovered in the drains of his London flat, and in time he spilled the entire gruesome tale to the police: that he had lured young men to his home with the promise of drink, conversation, and comfort, only to strangle them and dispose of their bodies, whether by putting them under the floorboards or burning corpses in his garden; that he would spread talcum powder over their bodies and his own in a horrible replication of death as a communion with love. Memories of a Murderer presents this repulsive material through interviews with responding officers, members of the press who covered the emerging story, a varied collection of news reports and archival footage of 1980’s Britain, and the recollections of those Nilsen left behind, the men who escaped his clutches as well as the victims’ loved ones.
What’s really leading the narrative here is Nilsen himself, however. On tape he recounts his arrest, his experiences while in custody, his thoughts on the investigation, and ultimately his trial. Nilsen also castigates the media for what he sees as inherent bias in their coverage of his crimes. “A clearly prejudiced picture had been allowed to form in the public’s mind, even before I was charged with any offense…to whet the profitable public imagination.” Nilsen was a homosexual, and preyed on young men who were often homeless, down on their luck, or gay themselves, and Memories parses the social climate of early ‘80’s London for meaning as to how those facts played into the police investigation and media presentation of Nilsen’s crimes. But it always returns to the tapes, and Nilsen’s own musings over his mental and emotional makeup, his desire to control his own messaging, and, ultimately, his seemingly gleeful existence as a figure of both revulsion and source of reflection for a society gone to rot.
There’s no limit to Netflix’s appetite for true crime content. While the streamer would undoubtedly love another grabby, meme-generating hit like Tiger King, it’s also filled its coffers with all manner of grisly retellings and lights shined in grim corners, such titles as The Ripper (2020), concerning an investigation in West Yorkshire, England ridden with misogyny, or Conversations With a Killer (2019), which like Memories of Murderer gleaned gripping drama from archival footage and interviews with the central figure. In the case of this doc, the interviews are autobiographical, drawn from the hundreds of hours of cassette recordings Nilsen left behind after his death in 2018. Live from the jailhouse, so to speak. But while that material is the wingnut spinning on a true crime bolt, it’s also another reason to consider why this grotesque story is being revisited at all. For the sick fascination? For the ratings? With the full release of the tapes Nilsen made, it was perhaps an opportunity too perfect for a true crime doc to pass up. The fascination bleeds into print, too: History of a Drowning Boy, the autobiography Dennis Nilsen long wished to write, was finally published this past May.
To its credit, Memories of a Murderer questions the role of society in Dennis Nilsen’s story. It doesn’t absolve its subject — those who survived his murderous intentions testified to his utter lucidity. But that all of these men could disappear without anyone raising an alarm, that, as a constable who worked the case says, Nilsen could’ve continued to kill if his downstairs neighbors hadn’t been inconvenienced by a drain clogged with bones — the question becomes why these stories resonate as drama after the fact, and not as memorials to the fallen. Ultimately, Netflix isn’t the only entity that’s always hungry for true crime. That exploitative element exists in the watchers, too.