Phee and I are huge Investigation Discovery junkies, so this article was right up our alley. Check out some of these movies and let us know what you think? Do you have a favorite True Crime Documetary?
A well-done true crime documentary is both chilling and fascinating. It delves into the criminal mind, offering a more in-depth look at some of the world’s most notorious and grisliest crimes. Curious about which true crime documentaries to add to your must-watch list? Here are seven of the best true crime documentaries, based on their Metascores, which are put together by curating critics’ reviews, and Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer, a measurement of approved critics who recommend the movie.
1. The Staircase (2004)
This film, directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, offers viewers an inside look at the high-profile murder trial of Michael Peterson. In 2001, Peterson, who was an author, was arraigned for the murder of his wife Kathleen, whose body was discovered lying on the stairway of their home in Durham, N.C. De Lestrade was able to gain access to Peterson’s lawyers, home, and his immediate family, enabling the cameras to capture the defense team and how it viewed various strategies.
The movie received an astoundingly high Tomatometer’s score of 100%. A New York Times review states: “But as a study of the evolution of a criminal defense, The Staircase is a masterpiece. The scenes of Mr. Peterson’s lawyers circling warily around him, striving to anticipate and forestall the prosecution without ever once asking, ‘Did you kill her?’ demonstrate exactly what’s discomforting about American criminal justice: that sphere of courtroom theater and reasonable doubts, where truth, as Michael Peterson put it, is often lost.”
2. Paradise Lost – The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
This true crime documentary looks at the grotesque triple murder that occurred in West Memphis, Ark., and the trial of the three teens suspected of the gruesome murders. The teens are accused of mutilating and killing three eight-year-old children, allegedly as a result of being involved in Satanism. Paradise Lost – The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills does a great job of analyzing the American justice system, particularly in small towns. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the film shows that West Memphis residents were split when it came to the boys’ guilt. However, as the case unfolds, the whole town becomes skeptical of the prosecution’s case.
This is another film that wowed audiences everywhere. It received a 100% on the Tomatometer with critics describing the film as “riveting,” “powerful,” and “galling.” According to a Cinemaphile review, “For those in some way linked to the fallout of these murders, the emotional toll was significantly greater than what either you or I will probably experience in a lifetime; but for the camera, functioning members of society are reduced to primordial instincts, and lines dividing faith from integrity are broken when the need for vengeance means sacrificing everything (including possible logic) to arrive there. By the end, few are convinced that those three kids are to blame for what they have been accused of, and even fewer are satisfied with the bizarre implication of all gruesome crime looming in the shadow of Satan.”
3. Deliver Us from Evil (2006)
Receiving a Metascore of 86, Deliver Us from Evil was a controversial documentary that focused on Father Oliver O’Grady, who moved from one parish to another in Northern California during the 1970s. As he moved throughout the state, he was able to gain the admiration and trust of each congregation. Little did they know, O’Grady was an active pedophile. Additionally, the movie reveals that the church hierarchy was well aware of it, yet kept it secret, allowing him to abuse multiple children throughout the years, per IMDb.
Filmmaker Amy Berg daringly exposed O’Grady for who he was, and was able to reveal the deep corruption that was buried within the Catholic Church. In fact, she was even able to interview O’Grady in Ireland, where he was deported after serving time in prison, The Christian Science Monitor writes. The movie was nominated for an Oscar in 2007 for best documentary and is often described as both powerful and revealing.
4. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
Receiving a Metascore of 82, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father tells the story of Andrew Bagby, a medical resident who is murdered shortly after breaking up with his girlfriend. Soon after, she announces she is pregnant, and one of Bagby’s friends, Kurt Kuenne, starts this film as a gift to the child. Kuenne has friends, relatives, and colleagues talk about Andrew, and he uses home movies to confirm how warm-hearted and caring Bagby was. The film also documents the struggles Bagby’s parents, Kathleen and David, go through as they await an arrest and trial, and negotiate time to visit their grandchild, Zachary, per IMDb. The end result? It is a powerful, emotional, and heartfelt film to watch.
“While openly emotionally manipulative and completely subjective in its analysis, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is a one of a kind film, a searingly sad but utterly fascinating glimpse into the human wreckage left behind by a single act of violence. It takes a potentially sordid true crime case and focuses not on the details of death, but on the effects of life, both the life lost and those left behind to mourn,” according to a Film Threat review.
5. Just, Melvin: Just Evil (2000)
This powerful movie was directed by James Ronald Whitney, and is about his family’s long and complex history with alcoholism and incest. Viewers get a chilling look at Melvin, who shortly after becoming engaged to James’s alcoholic grandmother Fay, starts molesting Fay’s three daughters from another marriage, including James’s mother Anne. Later on, Melvin gets remarried to a woman named Venice, who also had children that Melvin molested. Shockingly, Melvin wasn’t the only molester in the twisted family. Venice’s second husband began molesting his children after the courts declared her to be an unfit mother.
The documentary reveals that Melvin was eventually convicted of twelve counts of child molestation. Despite that, during an interview that’s shown in the movie, he continues to deny all wrong-doing, according to Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps the saddest part of this horrific tale is when the movie documents the lives of all the children involved, who are now plagued with alcoholism, drug abuse, prostitution, and homelessness.
Just Melvin, Just Evil received an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer. During the movie, Whitney reveals the horrors he suffered through as a child. “I was 5 when one of my uncles molested me,” The Baltimore Sun reports Whitney saying in the film. “It was down in the basement where my mom made apple jelly.” Later on he added: “I know my family is not exactly normal.”
6. West of Memphis (2012)
Released in 2012, West of Memphis received a Metascore of 80. If you watched Paradise Lost – The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills or followed the West Memphis case closely, this is another true crime documentary you won’t want to miss. The film sheds more light on the case, which is told and made by those who lived through the traumatic 1993 crime, which Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin were tried and convicted for, according to Entertainment Weekly.
Amy Berg did a spectacular job with this film. She was able to capture the inner workings of the defense, allowing this movie to offer an up-close perspective on the investigation, research, and appeals process. The movie also sheds light on Terry Hobbs, who many viewed as a suspect.
“Berg talks to the people who know Hobbs, and shows us extraordinary excerpts from the deposition that took place after he sued Natalie Maines (of the Dixie Chicks) for defamation. With a murder case still hanging in the air, why did Hobbs essentially force himself into a situation where he would have to be grilled about it? West of Memphis suggests that on some level, when a sin this great is covered up, it also wants — and needs — to show itself,” an Entertainment Weekly review states.
7. The Thin Blue Line (1988)
This true crime documentary re-enacts the crime scene and investigation of a police officer’s murder in Dallas, Texas, in 1976. The Thin Blue Line tells the story of Randall Adams, who ran out of gas and was picked up by a 16-year-old runaway, David Harris, per IMDb. The two hung out for the evening, drinking beer, smoking marijuana, and finally, attending the movies. Then, their stories change. Adams said he left for his motel after the movie and fell asleep, while Harris says they were stopped by police that night and Adams shot the officer approaching the car.
Viewers are shown the evidence that was gathered by police, and the movie reveals that the circumstantial evidence was flimsy at best. As the film continues, it shows that Harris was actually a much more likely suspect; he eventually landed on death row for committing a series of other crimes. The movie received a Metascore of 79. In 1989, Adams won release from prison. “I would settle for an apology note,” he said during an interview with People. “It’ll take a while. You don’t forget 13 years just like that. Just don’t ask me to lead any causes for the next 13 years.”
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