Real Horror: Local Filmmaker Brings the Horrific Crimes of Dean Corll to the Silver Screen

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Corll may exist in the popular mind of Houston today as a vague shadow presence that once haunted the streets, but behind that was a very real web of lies, deceits, and honest attempts at escape that Henley lived with every single day for two straight years. One moment he's doing his best to comfort his neighbor Mrs. Hilligiest (Scream queen Marilyn Burns) over the disappearance of her son, and the next he is hunting for the next victim.

"My only hope when it comes to the movie is that people understand it," said Vargas. "I hope they can get what I'm trying to say. I hope they can see that case the way I saw it. It's not some stupid shit you see on TruTV; it's not something you should see on a playing card...It was something very, very, very real. People to this day are still suffering from it."

Even as Wayne stands over Mark Scott (Andrew Bourgeois), choking the boy to death for 30 minutes in his first true murder as Corll's executioner, the horror is not in tearing flesh or cheap gore. Those things are completely absent. Hilary Swank's death in Vargas's beloved Boys Don't Cry is far bloodier than pretty much anything you see in his own production.

The true terror lies in the little things. Mark limply miming with his right hand that he wants to be shot. "Please shoot me. Don't strangle me anymore. Just shoot me." He had heard of what happened to people who went into Corll's house, and he had done nothing. Now he was just another victim. Just as Wayne started out a potential rider on the torture board and became a trusted lieutenant.

After Mark's final gasp, Corll places a hand on Henley's shoulder and tells him he's very proud of him. Henley's narration cuts in and says that was the first time he had ever heard that.

In a way, Henley did get out.

"He made it out with as much sanity as someone could in the situation," said Vargas. "When you sit and watch this guy go over it, you can see his eyes drift off. You can see him tearing up as he goes over it in his head and know how that affects him. There's no faking that. That's not the sign of a psychopath or a sociopath. That's the sign of someone that at one time had to live in a psychopath's world.

"Ever since he went in, he's been looking for ways to make up for what he did, but he knows he'll never be able to do that. Despite what you read in the papers, he doesn't go to his parole-board meetings. He's not trying to get out. He knows he doesn't deserve to get out."

Rhonda Williams got out, too. She's working on a book about her experiences. Her fellow survivor, Tim Kerley, can't rightfully be called one any more. After an interview in 2009 about the killings, he committed suicide.

David Brooks remains in prison, convicted of murder in one case.

At least two and as many as four victims of Corll's crimes have never been identified. Evidence of one was found by Vargas himself as he stumbled across a photograph in Henley's belongings of an unknown boy cuffed to the torture board. A few phone calls resulted from the discovery when it made the news, but no further information was uncovered.

In a Madman's World is in the can, finishing up its final editing and post-production. Four large distributors have already approached Vargas with an interest in releasing the film. Though he hopes for a small art-house run, the current state of independent film means a video-on-demand or Redbox release is more likely. Regardless, Vargas plans to have a Houston screening of the film next year if at all possible.

In phone interviews with Grisaffi and Binum, both assured us that they were professional actors who could handle their brief descents into a pretend hell. Binum in particular hopes that the film may serve as a warning.

As for the man who started the journey, Vargas is somewhat changed. He's looking to clear his walls of the murderabilia that was given him, keeping only a few pieces that have historic or sentimental value. He doesn't plan on having Henley's life stored in his closet much longer.

He has already moved on to his next project, a biopic about the filming of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Chris Binum is slotted to play director Tobe Hooper's roommate Wayne Bell, who scored the iconic and groundbreaking horror film. It's telling that he's returned to the comparative safety of fictional madmen.

"After dwelling in this for three years, it's nice to move to a project that while intense and gritty, it's positive," Vargas said with obvious enthusiasm. "It's a Rocky story where people changed the history of film. Because no matter how horrible something is on screen, it's fake. You yell 'cut' and everyone's fine and everyone's happy."

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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner