Last weekend my roommates and I finished watching Netflix’s chilling documentary series The Keepers. The series has been a massive hit, with many critics even going so far as to claim that it eclipses last year’s Making a Murderer. Prior to release, the two shows were already being compared, with many journalists marketing The Keepers as this year’s Making a Murderer. It is an apt comparison, as both of these Netflix originals bring into the public consciousness cold cases and the glaring imperfections of the U.S criminal justice system attached to them, as well as the sinister implications of institutional cover-ups. Having watched both, I would say that The Keepers is more disturbing, and will definitely test your tear-threshold. The reason for this is that it deals largely with several former-students’ (now middle-aged adults) accounts of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests. And I guess that is why this documentary shocks a little more than Making a Murderer; with a murder, you at least know the victim is no longer suffering- and you don’t get to hear them recount what happened to them, whereas with this you have to sit there and listen to all these people describe how they were passed around like objects, raped and molested by several people at once, and how their lives were completely destroyed thereafter. Both documentaries are excellent and deserve your time. Personally I’m a sucker for almost any unsolved mystery. Cold cases are like that itch you can’t quite scratch. I’ve seen a fair few crime documentaries in my day; I would say I’ve been hooked on the genre ever since 2014, when we lived in Eau Claire, WI, on that little house on First Avenue (a house, which, had that creepy, Amityville Horror vibe to it), where we spent many a night watching “Swamp Murders” and other Investigation Discovery shows. I encourage those who haven’t seen The Keepers or Making a Murderer to check them out. And if you have seen them, and want more of the same, I’ve compiled a list below of my favorite crime documentaries.
#1 The Staircase (Soupçons), 2004 – Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
This one is actually a French-made miniseries- and it’s a masterpiece. Throughout eight episodes it deals with the trial of the novelist Michael Peterson in Durham, North Carolina, who is accused of murdering his wife Kathleen. I can’t say I have seen a documentary quite like it. What makes it so interesting is that the film crew has such close access to the family’s most intimate moments. You’re right there with Peterson and his kids for every step of the trial. You’re at the table with them for supper, you’re there when Peterson is discussing legal strategies with his lawyer David Rudolf, and you’re there in the courtroom too. Of course, I won’t spoil anything, but it is interesting to witness first-hand the family dynamics of the Petersons. The series has a steady pace and with each episode, what appears to be quite a simple case becomes more and more convoluted.
Sadly, this one isn’t on Netflix at the moment. But I highly encourage you to watch it any way you can. There is a reason I put it #1 on this list. This documentary will appeal most to those interested both forensics and courtroom proceedings.
#2 The Thin Blue Line, 1988 – Errol Morris
Now this puppy is available on Netflix. The Thin Blue Line is a documentary film, not a series, and it’s a good two hours or so in length. I first watched this one when I was 18 years old for a Film Studies class at City of Bristol College, in Bristol, England. We studied it as an example of one of the great documentaries and its groundbreaking artistic techniques. Aside from the fact that it is excellently made, it also details a compelling narrative of a miscarriage of justice. In short, it’s about two drifters in Dallas in the 1970s that run into each other one night and how that meeting changed their lives, as one of them is arrested for the seemingly random and senseless murder of a police officer. I instantly fell in love with the documentary, and years later I watched it again on Netflix. Fans of composer Philip Glass should also check this one out as well; the soundtrack is absolutely mesmerizing.
This one is perhaps the most lauded documentary on our list, and won a heap of awards. Just over 10 years after its release it was preserved by the Library of Congress as a work of art that is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. In my opinion, it paved the way for the other documentaries on this list. Put simply, The Keepers would be a helluva lot different without the pioneering of Errol Morris.
#3 The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey, 2016 – CBS
This is one of those cases that I always come back to. It’s fascinated me for years. There are just so many questions and theories, and when you try to get to the bottom of them, all you find are more questions. The death of 6-year old child beauty pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey is something that has captured the imagination of the American public for 20 years. It’s a crime as large and significant in the public consciousness as the Lindbergh Kidnapping and the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson. For those that don’t know however, it’s about a girl from a wealthy family, who was reported missing on the Christmas night of 1996, with a ransom note found in the house asking for a very specific amount of money, and purporting to be the work of an unnamed “foreign faction”. Police arrived and searched the property, and moments later the father claimed to have found the girl’s dead body in the basement. I won’t tell you anything further, so that you may enjoy the documentary for yourself, but as you can no doubt already tell, there are a plethora of theories out there.
This one is quite disturbing. You won’t find it on Netflix unfortunately, but there are a bunch of different documentaries that tackle this case, each with their own perspective on the events of that night in Boulder, CO, 1996. I think the 20-year anniversary of the child’s death, and the current appetite for unsolved mysteries, has seen a renewed interest in the case.
#4 This is the Zodiac Speaking, 2008 – David Prior
This one will give you nightmares. For those looking for the definitive documentary on the Zodiac Killer, I believe I have found it in David Prior’s 2008 film. It details the crimes and investigation of America’s most notorious serial killer, who operated in the San Francisco area in the 1960s and 1970s. The Zodiac became known not just for executing people at random, but for taunting the San Francisco Police Department with a series of phone calls, letters and- most notably- several cryptograms, only one of which has been solved. I found this documentary to be the most accessible and sharply-constructed take on the Zodiac, and it features several police officers, journalists and witnesses from the time who give their accounts of what happened, and their theories on who it might be.
I definitely recommend this one for those more interested in retrospective crime documentaries than in the courtroom ones. It runs just less than two hours and will keep you engaged from start to finish!
#5 Who Took Johhny, 2014 – David Beilinson, Michael Galinsky & Suki Hawley
This one is downright disturbing. It all seems pretty simple at first- it’s about a paperboy who goes missing in 1982. Johhny Gosch seemingly vanishes into thin air, in broad daylight, with plenty of witnesses around. All it took was a split-second for the kid to disappear without a trace in his hometown of West Des Moines, Iowa. The case gets more complex however, as you begin to suspect that his kooky mom is something of an unreliable narrator. Another person we hear from in the documentary is a convicted sex offender, who claims to have been there during the kidnapping, and who has knowledge of a human trafficking ring that reaches the top echelons of society. It’s creepy stuff, but all the unanswered questions make it essential viewing.
For some reason the theories in this one reminded me of True Detective Season One. If you’re interested in something different, something a little sinister, I highly recommend this film. And yes, it’s on Netflix.
#6 Amanda Knox, 2016 – Rod Blackhurst & Brian McGinn
Last, but not least, we have the 2016 Netflix Original, Amanda Knox. This one features the unsolved murder of British student Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy in 2007. But it’s not really about that, so much as it is about the conviction of American student Amanda Knox, who spent almost four years in Italian prison. I actually discovered this case in another documentary, about a year before this one came out, and it was especially interesting for me, as that documentary entertained the possibility that Knox might actually have committed the murder. Every documentary has an agenda, and the Amanda Knox documentary of 2016 very much is suggestive- even assumptive- of Knox’s innocence, much in the same way that Making a Murderer clearly implies that Steven Avery is innocent. It’s a fascinating case, and I feel that at its heart the documentary tackles the tabloid media, and the effect it had on public opinion with its characterization of Knox as some kind of wild slut. Most viewers of the documentary agree that the true villain of the piece is Nick Pisa, professional bell-end for the “newspaper” the Daily Mail.
This one is very entertaining, and will be especially intriguing to fans of Making a Murderer of The Keepers. This, however, is a single film, and by my recollection not outrageously long either.