While last year’s the Black Phone brought vans fully back into our collective psyche’s focus, vans and their association to serial killers have been around forever. Sometimes the fears are warranted and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes the fears are a highly inflated statistical figment of our imagination and sometimes they’re rooted firmly in…the truth.
In the most recent offering from director Warren Skeels, The Man in the White Van, he explores a true, but lesser known serial killer story involving Billy Mansfield. The story, while not exaclty on the tips of society’s tongue, is just as brutal and creepy. No telling if our national fascination of vans and serial killers began here, but we’d be totally fine with this as the origin story.
Mansfield operated all across the country throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980, but he chose a sleepy property in Florida to bury all of his victims. Victims, mind you, that are still popping up as of 2022, and many of which have never been identified. Mansfield was a grade-A creep that excelled at lurking, sadism, and torture – all through the use of his aeformentiond White Van.
The film however largely focuses on Annie who’s become the unsuspecting target of the man in the white van. Annie does everything she can to convince her family that her stalker is indeed real. The family believably brushes off her fears and suggests she focus more on boys and homework and less on her horse and Lynyrd Skynyrd. But, throughout, the man in the white van doesn’t speak, is barely seen, and his image is largely obscured.
Skeels also deftly employs an interesting device where the film flip flops back and forth between the late 1970s and the individual years that Mansfield was active. By showing the brutality of his efforts and the pain inflected on others, Skeels creates profound tension and anticipation around Mansfield’s new found target, Annie.
In addition to the exceptional cast, The Man in White Van also pays close attention to its sets, set design, and soundtrack. Afghan quits, doilees, avocado rotary phones, and some AM rock all come together in a perfect late 1970s mélange. To set your film in the 1970s is one thing, but to bring some authenticity to the table is a completely different feat. Needless to say, Skeels excels on this grooovy front.
Annie does eventually come face-to-face with the man in the white van. It’s partially chilling, but it’s also partially a paint-by-numbers affair. Skeels’ offers a pinch of Mansfield’s horror, but keeps the true sadism, torture, and gore at bay. Again, leaning into more of a Hallmark-esque headspace, the film gets to the horror and thrills, but dispenses with the nastier bits and pieces.
The Man in the White Van does a great job of offering a gateway horror film to audiences that might be too squeamish to take on the more gruesome and sadistic elements of the horror genre. Most importantly, the film exposes everyone, including grizzled horror podcasters, to a relative unknown serial killer. It might not be Ed Gein, Jack the Ripper, or even John Gacy, but it’s safe to say that the man in the white van is just as spooky.
The Man in the White Van is not yet rated. The film had its debut on Saturday, Oct. 14, at the prestigious Newport Beach Film Festival.