In a moment, the filmmaker who'd dealt only in make-believe horror movies wanted to know everything about this real-life case. In the months that followed, his research took him to victims and their relatives, to Elmer Wayne Henley in prison and to a deal with Rick Staton, a man known for making money off some of the biggest real-life criminals by selling the pictures he persuades them to paint from prison.
"I knew that there was a worthwhile story to tell buried under the gruesome details of that case, and I wanted to be the one to tell it," Vargas says.
"I didn't want to hurt anybody. Meeting Wayne Henley is one thing. Meeting people that lost someone to Wayne Henley is totally different. If you're going to do a film like this, then that's my advice. Talk to the victims first.
"If you're going to put out a film like this, then it's going to hurt people. So do it for a reason other than to just make people sick. Make it have a historical meaning. Make people learn something. After I'd had every question answered by Wayne, after I'd read all the transcripts, after the culmination of all the research, I knew how it had to be."
In a Madman's World isn't Vargas's first full-length attempt, but it is the first one with a budget. It's the result of a three-year journey that included hundreds of hours of interviews with Henley himself as he sits serving six consecutive life sentences at the Mark W. Michael Unit in Anderson County.
Vargas also personally rummaged through an abandoned bus on the Henley family's Mount Pleasant property in which relatives had stashed all Henley's belongings following his trial, a trove of artifacts hoarded in stasis and unlooked at for almost four decades.
The movie was filmed on location in Houston — Washington Avenue is prominent — and Pasadena, where Corll buried many of his bodies.
Vargas lives across the street from NASA, his home for now covered in the artwork of serial killers along with horror-film posters. The recorder he used for the interviews sat on Henley's coffee table.
"My generation came from the whole 'If you didn't have $3 million, you weren't ever going to make a film' idea," Vargas said when asked about how he got started making films almost a decade ago. "It was always something I wanted to do but never seriously entertained."
Instead he got interested in monster makeup and began working at local haunted houses. Then one day a friend of his asked for a little help making a short film about zombies. Intrigued, Vargas took the job and realized that technology had reached the point where an independent filmmaker could actually get the equipment to shoot and edit a film.
He started with a horror short called Cradle, then moved on to local music videos and other shorts, anything to help him gain some experience behind the camera. Finally, after running the gauntlet on a full-length flick called Sway about a kidnapping gone horribly wrong, he was ready to try for something more real, but he needed a story. Enter Dean Corll.
Vargas had never heard of Corll, having been born ten years after Corll was shot to death by Henley. Nor was he alone in his ignorance of the crime. Despite the fact that Corll and Henley rank fourth on the list of American serial killers by number of confirmed victims, they are rarely spoken of in the same breath as Jeffrey Dahmer or Charles Manson. When the facts came to light in 1973 about Corll's actions as he plucked boy after boy from the streets, it was the largest serial murder spree in the country. Corll even sported a sinister nickname, the Candy Man, generated by his association with his family's candy company.
Even that colorful moniker is distorted and confusing, Corll sharing it with Deer Park's Ronald Clark O'Bryan, who was sentenced to death after he poisoned his own son with a cyanide-laden Pixy Stix and blamed it on a supposed murderous homeowner who had handed out deadly candy on Halloween. O'Bryan's crime started the still-strong urban legend of malicious poisoners on the holiday just a year after Corll's spree ended.
Vargas became obsessed with the Dean Corll story, spending evenings looking through court records and newspaper clippings and watching footage on YouTube from when Henley and fellow accomplice David Brooks led the authorities to the bodies. A plan to explore the subject in film started to form, but he knew that to do the project justice, he would have to dig much, much deeper than the public record.