10 Utterly Gripping True Crime Documentaries

At the beginning of this year, I found myself hopelessly addicted to Netflix’s Making A Murderer.

 

It became quite a problem as all I wanted to do was binge watch this remarkable true crime series. 

 

I was, of course, not alone. Making A Murderer has become quite the international phenomenon. 

 

The only trouble with binge watching a television series is that I tend to feel utterly lost once it has finished. Do you find that too?

 

This prompted me to look for other true crime documentaries … and boy did I find some superb films.

 

In this post, I will list my top ten true crime documentaries (taken from the films that I have watched during my 500 Days Of Film Challenge).

 

All of these films come highly recommended. Just a few words of warning - for maximum enjoyment and impact… watch first and Google later :)

 

Top 10 True Crime Documentaries

10. TalHotBlond

 

Story:

In 2005, Thomas Montgomery, a 47-year old married father of two daughters, adopted the name marine sniper, went online and started playing on an internet gaming site. There, he met someone who called herself Talhotblond.

 

They messaged each other for a while before Talhotblond informed him that he was in the wrong 'room' - he was in the kids section.

 

Panicked about having been online and conversing with minors, Montgomery told Talhotblond that he was actually an 18-year old Marine who was using his father's account.

 

The two began flirting online. Talhotblond, aka an 18-year old girl called Jessi, sent him provocative photographs of herself and Montgomery responded by creating an increasingly complex online alter ego called Tommy.

 

Their relationship, however, was often turbulent. At one point, Jessi tried to make Tommy jealous by messaging one of his work colleagues - a 22 year old man called Brian Barrett. A vicious online love triangle then developed - one that would soon become deadly.

 

Verdict :

Talhotblond reminded me of another documentary that I have watched recently called Catfish.

Both are chilling stories about the dangers of internet communication. How can you ever know the true identity and motives of the person you are chatting to online?

 

Barbara Schroeder's film takes this fear to increasingly dark places and there are many twists and turns. This deeply unpleasant story is gripping and feels important as we grapple with the issue of online threat and deception. 

 

9. Cropsey

 

Story:

Growing up on Staten Island, New York, filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio had often heard scary stories about the legend of Cropsey. 

 

For them and their friends, Cropsey was an escaped patient who had lived in the old abandoned Willowbrook Mental Institution. The Cropsey would come out at night and he would snatch children. They would never be seen again. 

 

As they grew older, Zeman and Brancaccio assumed that the Cropsey was just an urban legend - something used by parents to keep their kids in check. 

 

However, that all changed in the summer of 1987 when a 12 year old girl with Downs Syndrome disappeared. In that summer the Staten Island community began to wonder if the Cropsey was, in fact, real.

 

Verdict:

The legend of the Cropsey is probably the least interesting part of this documentary. Far more powerful is the filmmaker’s examination of how their Staten Island community dealt with the shameful and horrific events of its past.

  

Cropsey also poses an interesting question - just what exactly does a monster look like?

 

8. The Imposter

 

Story:

In 1994 a young boy called Nicholas Barclay disappeared without a trace from San Antonio, Texas. Nothing was heard about him for almost four years.

 

Then, in October 1997, Nicholas’ family received a telephone call saying that he had been found in a care home in a small village in Spain.

 

The mystery of what happened to Nicholas did not end once the family was reunited, however.

It only deepened. 

 

Verdict:

The Imposter tells a truly remarkable story - the tension builds with every shocking twist and turn. The less you know, the better.

 

Suffice to say that if it had been a work of fiction, you would dismiss it as being way too far fetched.

 

Click here for my full review of The Imposter 

 

7. The Fear Of 13

 

Story:

After 23 years on Death Row, convicted murderer Nick Yarris requested that all appeals cease and his sentence of death be carried out. He agreed to be interviewed by filmmaker David Sington about his decision.

 

Verdict:

The Fear Of 13’s story is told by Nick Yarris. There are no other voices in this compelling documentary. He starts by explaining what it feels like to be found guilty and imprisoned on death row. He describes the eerie silence in a world without sunlight.

 

Yarris is a soft spoken and fluent storyteller. Before long, I found myself mesmerised - not only by his story but also by his delivery. And then I felt uncomfortable - should I allow myself to feel this way? He is a convicted murderer after all. 

 

However, nothing is as it first appears. Again, this film is best viewed with as little prior knowledge of the case as possible. The Fear Of 13 is a gripping, shocking and ultimately uplifting documentary. 

 

6. The Central Park Five

 

Story:

In 1989, a white woman was raped and left for dead whilst out jogging in New York’s Central Park. Five young black and Latino teenagers, who happened to be in Central Park that night, were accused of the vicious attack and then charged.

 

There was no physical evidence to support the allegations. There was only a series of deeply unconvincing confessions (which were later withdrawn) and an atmosphere of utter hysteria whipped up by both the police and the media.  

 

However, that proved enough for all five to be found guilty.

 

Verdict:

This documentary, by filmmaker Ken Burns, is as frightening as any fictional horror story. The lives of five young men have been ruined just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were then tried and found guilty in the court of public opinion.

 

All five men tell their dreadful stories - often looking directly into the camera. From this we see (in all but one, that of Antron McCray who asked not to be filmed but whose voice we hear) and really feel what a profound impact the case has had on all of them.

 

The Central Park Five is a powerful and moving film. It is truly shocking to watch the media's reaction to the case and I just couldn't understand how the police got everything so terribly wrong - a mistake that allowed the real culprit to attack again.

 

5. Murder On A Sunday Morning

 

Story:

On Sunday 7th May 2000 in Jacksonville Florida, Mary Ann Stephens was shot in the head at point blank range in front of her husband. 

 

Two hours later, 15-year old black American, Brenton Butler, was arrested while out walking near his home. Placed inside a police car, Butler was driven back to the murder scene and identified as the killer by the victim’s husband.

 

Jean-Xavier De Lestrade's Academy Award-winning film follows the remarkable events that unfolded after Butler’s arrest and during his trial. When everyone - from the police to the media - had decided that Butler was guilty, it fell to his tenacious lawyer, Patrick McGuiness to try to prove his innocence. 

 

Verdict:

Murder On A Sunday Morning is a chilling, jaw dropping and disturbing story. Told without narration via interviews and news footage, the film follows McGuiness as he builds Butler's defense.

 

We don’t hear from Butler himself, but still get to know him and his family. He looks like a child lost in a system that is determined to lock him away. As a result, when the documentary moves to the trial, the tension is powerful indeed.

 

In the same way as in The Central Park Five, this film really makes you question police interview confessions. How can a confession, made under such suspicious circumstances, have any value? 

  

4. Capturing The Friedmans

 

Story:

In 1987, the US Postal Service intercepted a child pornography magazine that was being sent to Arnold Friedman, a husband and father of three boys and a respected teacher.

 

The subsequent police investigation found that this magazine was far from a one-off purchase.

 

Deeply concerned, the police began to interview the children that Friedman taught and were horrified by what they found.

 

Verdict:

In many true crime documentaries, you get an idea of how you are supposed to feel about a case. 

 

With Capturing The Friedmans there is no such certainty. Are they innocent? Are they guilty? Are they guilty of some charges, innocent of others? I have no idea - and that is strange because this documentary takes you into the heart of the Friedman family. 

 

Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki is allowed quite astonishing access to the Friedmans. Remarkably, he didn’t set out to make a documentary about Arnold Friedman. It was actually while he was making a film about children’s party entertainers in New York that he met Arnold's son, David Friedman.

 

From talking to David, Jarecki learned about the charges against Arnold and that the family had an archive of home movies filmed before, during and after Arnold’s arrest. 

 

Using this footage and interviews with the family and others connected to the case, the director tells his story without bias. And the more I saw and heard, the less certain I became of anything. 

 

Capturing The Friedmans also sheds light on a deeply uncomfortable phenomenon that occurred around many child abuse allegations at the time. The hysteria that followed such revelations caused some families to compete against each other as to whose child had suffered the most abuse.

 

Families that did not believe their child had been abused were bullied and then shunned if they didn’t follow the pack. As a result, Capturing The Friedmans is a fascinating and disturbing documentary on many levels. 

 

3. West Of Memphis

 

Story:

In 1993, three young boys from the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas, went missing. The next day they were found, murdered, in a muddy creek. The gruesome nature of this discovery led police to believe that the killer or killers belonged to a satanic cult.

 

This particular revelation frightened the West Memphis community so much that they were willing to believe any police theory - no matter how tenuous.

 

So, when three teenagers (one of whom wore black and was into heavy metal) were found guilty of the murders, many people in West Memphis demanded they be executed. There was really no punishment terrible enough. 

 

However, as the suspects were so young (Jessie Misskelley, Jr. was 17, Jason Baldwin was 16) only one was eligible for this punishment - Damien Echols. Echols was 18 years old.

 

Apart from a suspect confession (oh yes, one of those again) from Misskelley, there was no physical evidence and all three boys maintained their innocence. In time, many others started to believe them.

 

West Of Memphis tells the story of the fight to free the West Memphis Three.

 

Verdict:

West Of Memphis was inspired by Paradise Lost - a trilogy of films about the case by filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Having watched these films, Peter Jackson (Lord Of The Rings) and Fran Walsh wanted to do something to help free the three wrongfully convicted men.

 

Jackson and Walsh decided to make a film - focusing on Echols’ time on Death Row and his fight to save his own life. They asked Academy award nominee (for Deliver Us From Evil) Amy Berg to direct the documentary.

 

Of all the ten documentaries featured in this post, West Of Memphis feels the most horrific. I think that is because we see the moment when one of mothers learns about her son’s murder. It is such a deeply upsetting scene and a moment of monumental grief.  

 

The documentary also shows footage from the discovery of the three boys and some of their autopsy photographs. I felt that this was a step too far in many ways. However, these were utterly horrendous murders and perhaps Berg wanted to give her audience a thorough understanding of the horror.

 

When the documentary moves on to tell Echols’ story, it becomes less visually upsetting but no less disturbing. The three teenagers were locked away for little more than not fitting in. And, once again, the real killer or killers were left free. Utterly chilling.      

 

2. Dear Zachary

 

Story:

After the death of his good friend, Andrew Bagby, filmmaker Kurt Kuenne discovered that Bagby’s ex-girlfriend was expecting Andrew's child. 

 

Kuenne then decided to make a film so that Andrew's son, Zachary, could see what his father was like and understand just how much he was loved by his friends and family.

 

Verdict:

I really struggled with my top two true crime documentaries. It felt very much a case of heart versus head. In my heart, my favourite true crime doc is Dear Zachary. In my head, it is The Thin Blue Line.

 

For now, and unusually for me, I am letting my head rule. However, this is only because of how important The Thin Blue Line proved to be - not only for those involved but for the true crime documentary genre as a whole. 

 

Dear Zachary is superb, deeply personal and absolutely heartbreaking. I had not heard about this film before it was recommended to me by fellow film blogger MovieRob

 

Not long into this film, I found myself in tears. I was just so deeply moved by the story - largely as a result of how it was being told.

 

Kuenne traveled far and wide to interview the people who knew his friend best. He then edited his film and, along with some poignant home video footage, pieced the story together.

 

And his editing in this film is superb. Little by little, anecdote by anecdote, Kuenne allows us, the audience, to get to know Andrew Bagby.

 

However, the devastating truth is that no one will ever know Andrew again. No one will know how his life would have developed or what type of father he would have been. No one will know this because Andrew was murdered.

 

Dear Zachary is the only film on this list that focuses on the victim of a crime rather than its alleged perpetrator. Kuenne’s wonderful storytelling makes for an extremely powerful, deeply personal and heartbreaking documentary.

 

1. The Thin Blue Line

 

Story:

In November 1976, Dallas police officer, Robert W Wood was shot and killed after stopping a stolen car.

 

The murder sent shock waves throughout the US putting the Texas police service under huge pressure to make an arrest and ensure that an appropriate level of justice was served.

 

Before long. all the evidence pointed to a troubled 16 year old called David Ray Harris. After the crime, Harris told his friends that he was the one who shot Wood. When questioned, however, Harris told the police that a man he had given a lift to that night, Randall Dale Adams, had killed Wood.

 

Despite the overwhelming amount of evidence that suggested Harris was guilty, the police charged Adams with murder. Adams was later found guilty and sentenced to death.

 

Verdict:  

The Thin Blue Line is a truly remarkable documentary. Director, Errol Morris, set out to prove the innocence of Adams and highlight the fact that he not received a fair trial. It is a gripping film as Morris (who had worked as a private investigator) uncovers new evidence and pieces the true story together.

 

The fact that the evidence presented in The Thin Blue Line led to Adams being freed, makes this film (and the documentary genre as a whole) feel immensely powerful.

 

(Click here to see my full review of The Thin Blue Line).

 

Over To You...

Have you watched any of these true crime documentaries? If so, I would love to know what you think of these films.

 

Meanwhile, do you have a favourite true crime documentary not on this list that you would recommend? 

 

Whatever the case, do let me know - just leave me a comment in the box below or pop by for a chat on Twitter or Facebook!

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