This Depraved Documentary About “The Real-Life Patrick Bateman” is Streaming Now

I have covered many a disturbing doc for Dread Central. I’ve spoken to Dear ZacharyCapturing the FriedmansAbducted in Plain Sight, and countless others. Accordingly, I have had to start digging a bit deeper to find fresh content. The good news is that I have stumbled upon a number of overlooked offerings recently. The bad news is that this latest recommendation nearly did me in. Today’s pick is the British television documentary The Cannibal That Walked Free.  

The Cannibal That Walked Free is the kind of documentary I can only get through by detaching myself from the details surrounding the case. I had to create a level of mental distance because it was too disturbing to fully process the horrors being described within. And given that there isn’t a satisfying conclusion to the story, there’s no solace to be taken in the realization that justice has been served. This case is a colossal miscarriage of justice. But it does function as a fascinating profile of a depraved mind. 

The central figure in this chilling case is Issei Sagawa. While Sagawa was working toward a PhD at Sorbonne University in Paris, he developed an unhealthy fixation with fellow student, Renee Hartevelt. He eventually arrived at the misguided conclusion that the best way for him to demonstrate his love for her was to kill and eat her. Sadly, he followed through with his plan. When he was apprehended, Sagawa confessed to killing, eating, and desecrating Renee Hartevelt’s corpse. 

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Sagawa has never denied anything. In spite of that, he never even stood trial for his crimes. He was arrested by the French authorities and briefly incarcerated. However, a psychological evaluation determined Sagawa to be insane and therefore unfit to go on trial. He was then transferred to a mental institution. That led his powerful father to hire a prominent attorney who lobbied to have Sagawa sent back to his native Japan under the guise of absolving French taxpayers of the financial burden of his care. The courts agreed under the condition that Sagawa never return to France.

However, when the admitted killer arrived home, he only spent a short time in a mental hospital. After a brief stay there, he checked himself out and walked away a free man. Free to live his life. Free to kill again. From the time that he checked out of the hospital until his death, Sagawa remained a free man. 

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Sagawa published a sensationalized account of the murder of Renee Hartevelt, which went on to become a bestseller in Japan. That book proved to be the first of many. After releasing a multitude of written works, Sagawa went on to monetize his misdeeds further. He has been featured in magazines, lectured at universities, appeared in a number of porn films, and featured as the central figure in at least two stage shows. Essentially, he spent decades profiting off the young woman he killed. He became a celebrity in Japan, solely on the basis of committing a brutal and depraved crime. The idea that he was able to get away with murder and then profit from it is beyond sickening. But it clearly demonstrates that he has no shame. 

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Perhaps his lack of shame is what led Sagawa to agree to tell his side of the story for this doc. I wish he hadn’t. His firsthand recollections of cannibalizing and brutalizing Renee Hartevelt are incredibly difficult to listen to. I had to keep pausing to collect my thoughts and take time to process the depravity of what he was saying.  

He recounts his crimes and nonchalantly says that he is not cured and still has cannibalistic urges. In spite of that, he is not under any supervision. He is free to come and go as he pleases. And while he says he hasn’t killed since Renee Hartevelt, all we have to go on is the word of an admitted murderer. 

Before watching the doc, I scanned the social media and the YouTube comments section and I noticed one YouTube user called Sagawa “the real-life Patrick Bateman.” That’s probably an oversimplification because Sagawa is even more depraved than the character. But it’s impossible to deny the similarities between the two. Another commenter said, “I am angry at myself for watching this.” And I can’t deny that I felt a similar sentiment when I had finished watching. 

If I haven’t yet deterred you from seeking out this unsettling documentary, it is currently available to stream on YouTube. Watch at your own risk and be forewarned that The Cannibal that Walked Free is a harrowing account that you won’t be able to unsee. 



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