It may be the oddest idea for a musical since "Springtime for Hitler."
At least that idea was meant to be a ghastly one. But oddly enough a dancing, singing Hitler was a hit in "The Producers."
When thinking up ideas to make a musical, thoughts of love during war, the Roaring '20s and a man trying to con a town come to mind.
A singing serial killer who was a real person - not so much.
But for Dan Davies and Steve Russell, that idea has given their low-budget Wisconsin film national attention.
"Ed Gein: The Musical" has a shocking ring to it for a horror film. But unless you've seen it, Davies says, it's not what you think.
"I wanted it to be Hitchcockian in that manner and didn't rely on swear words, or gratuitous violence to shock people," said Davies, who wrote the film and plays Gein.
"What I didn't want to do was glorify Ed, or his actions. And I didn't want to demean any of his victims. And that was important to us."
The film, which will be shown tonight at the Al. Ringling Theatre as part of the new Driftless Film Festival, doesn't fall into any one genre.
It's a comedy, a thriller and a horror flick, all rolled into one strange musical.
And it's also a documentary, telling the true story of Wisconsin's famous serial killer - well, one of them, anyway.
"We're pretty biographical through the whole thing. I think we're the most historically accurate movie done on Ed Gein so far, which is funny considering it's kind of a parody," said Russell, a Montello native who directed the film.
In writing the script, Davies knew a lot of Gein's story, having grown up in Waupaca just a short drive from Plainfield, where the grisly discovery was made in 1957.
While researching the history, the musical also brought back stories that were passed down through Davies' family.
His grandparents were friends with one of the victims and the sheriff who made the discovery.
A fine lineWhen "Ed Gein: The Musical" made its way to Madison for a showing, Davies was in the audience to see the reaction.
"And we thought, ‘Oh boy did they hate us,'" he said.
It was the first time at a showing that no one in the theater laughed at the story, and Davies found himself running out after 20 minutes to get a beer and settle his nerves.
He then had to appear for a talkback session with the audience.
"And the movie ends and there's this pause. And not one person is clapping," he said.
And then, about 20 seconds later, they all gave an ovation.
"They asked so many questions that they didn't want to leave the theater," he said.
"People came up to us and said they like the drama of the story, but it scared the hell out of us. We thought they were going to kill us."
Reactions to the film have varied, but 90 percent has been positive, Davies said.
Not since Johnny Depp's "Sweeney Todd" has there been a musical about a serial killer, but that story was fiction. And it didn't hit so close to home in Wisconsin.
"Some crowds laugh hysterically through it. And then we've had crowds that get totally into the music. And then we have crowds that totally get into the sadness and the drama of it, and you can hear a pin drop," Davies said.
When the film debuted in January this year in the Fox Valley, an Associated Press story fueled the hype. And since then, USA Today, the New York Times - and even movie critic Roger Ebert - has commented, or written a story on the film.
"When publicity came out about the film, we got death threats and threats of mutilation from almost all 50 states. And from as far away as London and Hong Kong," Davies said.
"And people were like, ‘How dare you do a musical and glorify this person?' Well, they hadn't seen the film, and they were judging something they hadn't seen."
After seeing the musical, Davies said the response is usually positive.
Davies and Russell even showed the film in Weyauwega, near Plainfield, and ran into a couple who were angry the film was made.
Davies said they gave them free tickets to check out the film, and afterward, the couple shook their hands.
"The response from people who have seen the movie has been wonderful. They love it (and) it's not what they expect," Russell said. "They get a different view on the whole story. And we get responses from people who haven't seen it and they go off the title alone. And they call us horrible people and think we're terrible."
A musical is bornGrowing up so close to Plainfield, Davies knew the story of Ed Gein well. Partially because where he lived, and also his family's connection.
"It literally becomes part of your culture," he said of growing up near Plainfield.
His grandfather knew the sheriff who made the discovery, and his grandmother was friends with Bernice Worden, one of the two people killed.
"They didn't talk about it too much. No. 1, because of the macabre and the sickening nature of it, they didn't really relay it," Davies said. "And No. 2, my grandfather would talk to my dad a little bit about it (and that) the sheriff was never quite the same after the arrest, for obvious reasons."
Creating a film on the notorious killer was something that came to mind for Davies about 15 years ago when a filmmaking friend wanted to make a documentary on Gein.
"Just trying to be funny, I said, "What if we made a musical about him. And call it of "Ed Gein: The Musical."
The response was not good and touched a raw nerve. So the project was shelved.
But when Davies started thinking about doing a film with his brother-in-law Russell, they brought the musical back to life.
It was a tough project for their first film because it was a period piece that had to be choreographed.
They also only had $9,000 to work with.
After Davies finished the script, they had to turn to the music, of which about six songs are parodies.
"I looked at Steve and said, ‘What's your musical background?' And he said, ‘I played tuba in eighth grade,'" said Davies, who could sing a little.
At their studio in Appleton, a musician with Nashville experience walked in and introduced himself out of the blue. He was working a few blocks over and was interested in the project.
Davies told Will Keizer he couldn't pay him, but that was not an issue.
"He was able to create the music ... by just having me hum a few bars. And he did a great job with it," Davies said.
The film also includes about nine original songs.
As part of the film, Russell and Davies created an alter ego for Gein, and at times he looks into the camera directly.
"And a lot of the laughs are at the expense of Ed, and that's something I wanted it to be, not at the expense of anything else," Davies said.
In the roleIt's not like there haven't been films based on of Ed Gein before.
Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" is loosely based on him, and came from Robert Bloch's book of the same name. Bloch also lived in Wisconsin.
Davies said fans of horror movies already know the story well, and know they are loosely based movies on the subject like "Silence of the Lambs."
But no one has done something like a musical, one that tells the story in a different way. And Davies wanted to create a horror film with no swearing, or over-the-top violence like many horror films now have.
There is violence in the movie, Davies said, but it's implied.
While it may be dark humor, the musical shies away from gore, to tell a story of how Gein became who he was.
Playing the killer, Davies said he focused on two things - sadness and loneliness.
"For me then, it (was) not easy. It was still difficult to do that. It's difficult to play someone that - I would never dig up a body and I would never kill anybody, and I would never do a lot of those things - but what I did was tap into those emotions of loneliness and sadness."
Two traits he thinks shaped Ed Gein's life.
"Some of the reviews are saying it's a sympathetic depiction. Well, (it's) just a sympathetic depiction of a person who's sick, sad and lonely."
Davies wants everyone to know that they are not from New York or Los Angeles doing an exploitative piece.
"We want to get across that he was sick and he was wrong," Davies said. "We just want people to reserve judgment until they see it. And I think they will be pleasantly surprised."
And Davies doesn't want anyone to feel sorry for the notorious serial killer because he was evil.
"I wanted it to be true to life in that respect. That his dad beat him and his mom probably abused him as well," Davies. "He just wasn't a monster. He was a created monster by these extraneous circumstances."
In shooting the film, in which they did have the use of $80,000 in equipment, Russell said he wanted to capture a very saturated technicolor look.
"It kind of harkens back to "Lassie" and "Leave it to Beaver," which we kind of parody a little bit in the movie," he said.
With a lot of help for little or no money, Davies and Russell pulled off a film that they say has a look of a half-million dollar movie.
And there could be a stage production some day.
The film also has gotten the attention of those in the movie business.
At a showing in South Dakota, Michael Blake, who wrote "Dances with Wolves," asked Davies and Russell if they would work on a script he originally wrote for Kevin Costner back in the 1990s.
"It went from Kevin Costner, to Russell Crowe, to Dan Davies," Davies said. "It's fallen precipitously.
"(But) it's from an Academy Award winner. It blows our mind."
If You Go:What: Ed Gein the Musical" at the Driftless Film Festival in Baraboo.
When: Tonight (Oct. 23) "American Movie" will be shown at 6:30 p.m. and at 8:45 p.m. "Ed Gein the Musical" will be shown.
Where: Al. Ringling Theatre.
Cost: All seats are $5.50 per movie.