In 2002, Robert Wiliam Pickton was arrested for a series of shocking murders that took place on the rural property he owned with his brother, just a few kilometers east of Vancouver, British Columbia. For years, Pickton had been hunting women in the city’s notorious Downtown East Side. He chose sex workers, many of whom were Indigenous women and other women of colour, as his victims. The nature and details of Pickton’s crimes, which included serial rape and murder, captured nationwide attention. At least, they seem to have captured the attention of writer/director Chad Ferrin (Night Caller, The Deep Ones).
Ferrin’s latest film, Pig Killer, is a horror/biopic based on Pickton’s crimes. Starring Jake Busey (Starship Troopers, Christmas with the Kranks) as the serial killer, Pig Killer fails to capture the scale and horror of Pickton’s crimes. Even worse, it offers a narrative that aims to humanize the killer, while further dehumanizing and objectifying the women he killed. To say that I disliked it would be an understatement.
When Pickton’s arrest made headlines, I was a kid living in a farming town about 100 kilometers west of Vancouver. It is difficult to describe what it was like to be raised as a girl in southwestern British Columbia in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Vancouver was the nearest major city, and women had been going missing from the Downtown East Side for as long as I could remember. Even before Pickton was a household name, there were rumours of murderers preying on women and girls. The general consensus (at least where I was growing up: lower-middle class, Christian, white, small town Vancouver Island) seemed to be that it only happened to “bad” women, meaning the ones who worked in the sex trade or used drugs. These misconceptions and prejudices were one of the reasons why Pickton’s crimes were overlooked for so long, even after the families of women who had gone missing from the Downtown East side had raised concerns to police.
After Pickton’s arrest, the investigation of the farm brought new horrors. Each new discovery dominated the headlines. He was convicted of six counts of first-degree murder. Eventually, he confessed to killing 49 women, but the trial and media attention lasted nearly a decade.
Horror is meant to unsettle. Its purpose is to make us uncomfortable, to ask us to face our deepest fears. Pickton is the perfect subject for a horror film. He is a real-life nightmare. But the thing about real life nightmares is that they have real life victims.
When horror is based on true events — not just rumoured events, or the events of the distant past, but events that happened just two decades ago and took the lives of friends and family members of people who are very much still alive and living in our communities — there is greater need to consider how and why violence is being portrayed. Who the violence is happening to, and how we see it, matters. The attitude that the filmmaker takes toward their subject shapes how we, as an audience, feel and experience the characters and story. When that is directly tied to real, living people, it is no longer just about the spectacle or the entertainment value of what we see on screen. Instead, the broader social and ideological impacts need to be part of the conversation.
This is a film that centers a murderer and presents him in a sympathetic light. “Willy” Pickton is given more development and backstory than the women he kills, who are presented as little more than stereotypes (if they are given any characterization at all). The camera lingers over long, gruesome montages of their rapes and murders, as well as the dismemberment of their bodies. I’ve written about my distaste for purposelessly making a spectacle of violence against women in horror and other genre films elsewhere (my review of Fugue), and I won’t do so again here. Suffice to say that Pig Killer dehumanizes women in ways that are misguided, at best. At worst, they reinforce the idea that women — particularly women of colour, poor women, women who are sex workers, and women who use drugs — are objects and are disposable. These are the same societal views that allowed Pickton to get away with his crimes for so long, and that allow violence against women to perpetuate today.
There are other things I could critique about this film (the script is underdeveloped and, overall, relies on lazy tropes and shocking violence rather than skillful storytelling, among other issues), but they pale in comparison to the larger issue of gendered violence.
For more context on Pickton’s crimes, missing women throughout Canada, and Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, read Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
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