Stills from the web series, Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer.
The enduring notoriety that the Zodiac killer — who terrorised Northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s — continues to enjoy even after 50 years of the series of incidents, is not so much because of his gruesome crimes but that he turned them into a game. A game that he played with the police and public at large in full media glare.
The Zodiac killer, whose identity still remains unconfirmed, not only succeeded in forcing news dailies to publish his handwritten letters and cryptograms, but his goals of seeking meet with newer successes with every documentary, feature film or media article that appears on the scene, years after the original crimes.
About four decades later, in 2010, a 28-year-old from Toronto, Canada, sets out to achieve a similar goal, using the same methods, but via a different medium: the internet. Magnotta’s criminal deeds and a hunt launched by a group of ‘internet nerds’ is the subject of the latest Netflix mini-series Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer. Directed by Mark Lewis, it was released on Netflix last week. In this three-episode docu-series, a failed show business aspirant Luka Magnotta adopts ways and means which are eerily similar to the Zodiac killer. He acquires notoriety by committing gruesome crimes and using the internet to spread the word about his ruthless methods. He deliberately drops clues for those looking to hunt him down and makes the chase a story in itself.
The documentary starts in 2010, when Magnotta posts a video on the internet, which shows him killing two cats by suffocating them using a plastic bag and a vacuum cleaner. This attracts the attention of animal lovers who launch an online hunt to catch the cat-killer. Egged on by the attention, Magnotta proceeds to repeat similar atrocities on cats and posts them on the internet. While the angry internet-sleuths take this as a challenge, Magnota is aware of this ‘manhunt’ by a small group of internet nerds and he chides them and misleads them by dropping clues in each of his videos. The US-based amateur internet-sleuths — most prominently Deanna Thompson aka Baudi Moovan and John Green — who observe Magnotta’s behaviour pattern over a period and worry that he may soon graduate to more serious crimes. They also approach the Canadian police to warn about Magnotta but the latter doesn’t show much interest.
In 2012, Magnotta takes the next logical step. He murders a young man, a 33-year-old computer engineering student from China, and releases the video of the gruesome act online. Magnotta then dismembered Lin’s body and mails his severed feet and hands to the headquarters of Canada’s Conservative and Liberal Parties — wrapped in silk paper with suggestive poems written on the inner side. At this stage, the police get involved and the case then turns into a full-fledged international manhunt as Magnotta flees from Toranto to Montreal, Paris and finally to Germany.
Use of social media platforms including Facebook, YouTube and portals in the deep web are an inalienable part of Magnotta’s crime design. He carefully choreographs his entry into the scene by putting videos pertaining to cruelty to cats — thus violating the ‘Rule Zero’ of the internet that ‘You don’t mess with the cats’.
Murderer Luka Magnotta’s story is also a tale of what happens when a criminal mind obsessed with gaining fame meets cinephilia. As is revealed in the mini-series, Magnotta, a failed actor-model, draws his inspiration for the crimes depicted in movies. His choices of aliases, profile pictures for fake social media accounts as well as cities where he commits the gruesome crimes, come from some of the most well-known Hollywood crime films, such as Basic Instinct (1992), American Psycho (2000) and Catch Me If You Can (2002).
In the film, Magnotta comes across as a “narcist extraordinaire”, who yearns for Jack the Ripper-level attention of the public and the media. In this pursuit, years before he embarks on the cat-killing misadventure, he creates fake rumours about him dating a female serial killer and fools newspapers into publishing the stories of his denials. Later, when he makes the ‘snuff videos’ they are full of homages to other serial killers — historical or fictional — either through visuals or references.
The success of Don’t F**k With Cats lies in turning this story of a cumbersome online pursuit into a compelling, binge-worthy thriller. The three-hour, mini-series has the energy and tension of a gritty high-octane action thriller — although most of the ‘chase’ happens within the bedrooms of Baudi and Green. Such a story, with a lot of information and little movement, holds the risk of being boring. However, The Cats... is also a triumph for the audio-visual medium and cinematic language as the director succeeds in making static elements such as still pictures, computer screens, web-pages become, in a way, mobile on the screen to complement the fast-paced plot.The documentary builds interest and manages to keep it at a high level as the protagonists engage in tedious work of analysing videos posted by Magnotta, frame by frame, checking the digital footprint left by him and even geographical peculiarities of the household items visible in the videos.
Although the film is about violent crimes, the gore is largely omitted. This has been achieved by making the characters describe the videos, instead of the showing them directly to the audience.
Towards the end, the mini-series poses a question to its protagonists: did the internet-sleuths who chased Magnotta from his first video until the day he was finally nabbed, feed his narcissism to the point that he had to go forward and perform one outrageous act after another? Perhaps they did. But have we, as viewers, who are intrigued, disgusted, impressed, outraged or shocked with Magnotta’s deeds, fallen for his design? Every click on the ‘play button’ must be bringing a smile to Magnotta’s face as he counts his years in prison.