UNCULTURED: JUST, MELVIN: JUST EVIL
By Zak Rye. Between low-brow and no-brow, this is unCultured, where we shamelessly promote and defend some of the “worst” films ever made. This week, we attempt to dissect, and maybe even start to understand, one of the most disturbing documentaries we could find, “Just, Melvin: Just Evil”. This article is not necessarily for the faint of heart.
Some months ago at work the usual off-color kitchen banter took a dark turn. This likely began when our sous chef, Ignacio, had mentioned that he began re-watching episodes of To Catch A Predator (bear with me… this sounds weirder than it really is), which eventually led us down a rabbit hole to other horribly upsetting documentaries. To Catch A Predator turned into Cropsey, Cropsey turned into Children Of Darkness, Children Of Darkness into The Trouble With Evan, into Child Of Rage, and finally to Just, Melvin: Just Evil. (I would advise that no one watch all of these films in less than a 30 day period, but if you do, godspeed to you and yours.)
Just, Melvin: Just Evil is a 2000 documentary capturing a history of extreme sexual abuse within one very confusing family. The story revolves around Melvin Just, a habitual child molester and a suspected murderer, and through him we soon discover the countless atrocities that affected nearly every member of the family for three generations. Certainly the interviews and testimonials are nothing short of jaw dropping, and the crimes discussed are of the most serious and horrendous imaginable. However, director James Ronald Whitney’s approach to such subject matter is perhaps the most unsettling aspect to the film.
As the grandson of Melvin Just, Whitney delves through his horrific ancestry while delivering what feels like scripted monologues, often while playing a grand piano. Even though the film’s theme is nothing short of ghastly, the director takes intermittent breaks from the family’s story to dwell on his quasi-successful past as a Star Search contestant, Chippendales dancer, college cheerleader, pianist, and martial artist. (It may be insensitive, but these sequences leave the viewer with the same creepy feelings one derives from Herzog documentaries, where in spite of the circumstances, someone intends to add this to their demo reel.) Whitney is, undoubtedly, an aspiring entertainer. But like proposing marriage during a funeral, his inability to resist indulging in the spotlight, especially in such an odious context, is unfortunate. Even so, his encapsulation of the events is exceptionally effective.
Whitney’s disquieting moments of self-promotion sit in stark contrast with the surreal story of Melvin Just and his victims. The ancestral tree is rotten with child molestation, suicide attempts, incest, and substance abuse. The majority of women in Just’s two families recount numerous acts of abuse from infancy to their teenage years. As Melvin remarries, each time into a family ripe with young, pre-existing daughters, the list of abominations grows longer.
Additionally, though it’s less highlighted in the film, many of the male members in the family describe being assaulted as well, or witnessing abuse at one point or another. Eerily enough, though not including the very brief and ambiguous confession of Whitney’s own experience, the men in film seem so thoroughly steeped in denial and/or conditioned acceptance that not only do they not recognize any apparent problem, they seem to be continuing in the hideous tradition: An effort which seems likely to produce many more generations crippled by life altering trauma.
The account of this family’s grievous past, accompanied by its seemingly inherent and infectious proclivity for tolerated sexual abuse, is really nothing short of stomach turning. Regardless of the director’s method, the creation of this film and the story being told is undeniably important. The sequences where Whitney speaks with his mother, Ann, as well as his aunts, are tangibly therapeutic, and – in an almost invasive way – touching. Whitney’s narration is not always the most irritating thing ever heard and, while I’m not the biggest fan of a documentary filmmaker including themselves so deeply in their film, his declaration that he will not stop until Just is either dead or in prison – not to mention his one-on-one confrontations with Melvin during filming – create an interesting dynamic that promoted a sense of urgency.
Experiencing the admissions of these women and men and the sense of acceptance they share is uniquely unnerving. The lasting affects drove nearly every single entity of the bloodline into dire circumstances, immersed in substance abuse, physical abuse, and homelessness. (Many of the director’s aunts, in fact, lived in stalled cars, alongside current boyfriends, dogs, and cats.)
Above all, there is absolutely no attempt at providing an unbiased account of the acts committed, nor should there be. Just, Melvin: Just Evil is not a picture-perfect documentary. Its occasionally uneasy juxtaposition between child molestation and how well director Whitney can do the splits doesn’t make for the easiest ride down an already uncomfortable road. Nevertheless, the overall effect is heartbreaking, virtually unimaginable, and unquestionably worth your time.
5) We purposely withheld the location of where this all happened, just to keep you from your own prejudices. Surprise! This all happened in Northern California.
4) Melvin Just died before the film was completed, and was never convicted for the murder of a county nurse, a crime on which he was the known suspect.
3) Because this family makes the The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia look like My 2 Dads, here’s the family tree, provided by the film’s website.
2) Grandma Fay was a collector of her “suitors'” underwear. She also won a pissing competition once against four guys.
1) Whitney’s dad, estranged for decades, left Ann and James to be a Hell’s Angel when James was 9 years old.