This latest true-crime documentary covers the Son of Sam shootings and one man’s mission to discover the truth behind the murders.
The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness (2021), directed by Joshua Zeman, begins with the filmmaker in voice over revealing he’s acquired three boxes from a detective filled with “evidence” surrounding the eight shootings that took place in the late 70s. The files and evidence had been the property and work of journalist Maury Terry who, as we discover, was dedicated and obsessed with the case for which David Berkowitz was originally found guilty of.
Terry was convinced that the case wasn’t as simple as it seemed and undertook his own investigation which uncovered a litany of links to occult groups and Satanism. As the series progresses, we discover Terry’s findings and theories alongside the trouble he had in getting people to believe him. The series is as much a documentation of Terry’s story as it is about the murders.
I really liked this series – it felt different from the usual true-crime drivel that Netflix spews out monthly. Firstly, the format and style was different – there was use of voice over that aired the writing and thoughts of Terry himself, and series was primarily made up of extensive archive footage which felt like the right choice and provided the most appropriate tone for the film. I also really liked the linear nature of the storytelling, which may not be the most thrilling but it again felt right for the piece. The parallel strands of narrative weaving between Terry’s personal struggle and the progress of the case worked really well and fed off of each other to form a mostly clear and distinct line of thought.
My biggest problems with the piece were that Terry’s theories were perhaps given a little too much weight when they were mostly conjecture – a hint of the usual sensationalism does sneak in now again. This is abundantly clear with the allusion to links between Charles Manson and the Son of Sam murders teased throughout the first couple of episodes only to be revealed as very tangential theory with little evidence substantiating them. Also the imagery used during segments focusing on the discussion of Satanism are typically graphic and sensationalist although, thankfully, the actual expert in the occult gives a very grounded and realistic insight into the topic.
In the end, although it teeters on sensationalism at points early on, this is mostly turned around in the last episode as a thorough dissection of Terry’s theories and methods make it clear that there is a lot of grey surrounding the whole case. There’s enough in this theories that warrants this series being made and a second thought given to his findings, but they cannot be taken as pure facts in themselves and the filmmakers do a very good job at making that clear. The case of Maury Terry and his dedication to the case is really interesting in and of itself and the ending which recounts Terry’s final years and days alive is quite sad and moving really.
The series ends with body cam footage of a LA police taskforce approaching a house. The man inside the house is reluctant to come outside and finally a gunshot is heard. Footage of a press conference reveals the arrest was for the murderer of a woman who Terry believed to be caught up in the occult’s business in some way but Terry at the time couldn’t find any link between the (then suspected) killer and Satanism. It’s then revealed that police found a copy of Terry’s book on the Son of Sam killings in the flat. As the credits roll, we’re left wondering – was that vindication for Terry, proving a link between the two cases? Was it coincidence? Or was there a more obvious reason that he’d have a copy of the book i.e. the murder of the woman having possibly been mentioned in it with which he definitely had links to?
I liked this documentary. It has a good awareness of credibility and how it balances theories with reality. More than that, it had a strong direction of inquiry and a nuanced and interesting message it wanted to convey.
Crime, Documentary | USA, 2021 | Netflix Original | 5th May 2021 | Dir.Joshua Zeman