Judge Victor Valdivia says, "Free the West Memphis Three!"
Our reviews of Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills (published January 9th, 2006) and The Paradise Lost Trilogy: Collector's Edition (published December 22nd, 2012) are also available.
It's frightening to think they did it. It's terrifying to think they didn't.
The release of Paradise Lost in 1996 sparked a firestorm of controversy. The documentary followed the trial of three teenagers in Arkansas accused of horrific murders. What seemed initially like an open-and-shut case, however, became more and more feeble as the work done by police and prosecutors was gradually revealed to be sloppy, incomplete, and even falsified. After the three teens were convicted, a growing movement arose to demand a new trial, a development chronicled in the sequel Paradise Lost 2. Taken together, the two films paint a sickening portrait of a justice system more interested in expediency and vengeance than fairness. This box set compiles both films and while neither is ever really a fun or breezy watch, there is no denying their ability to hold an audience in their grip without release. This is the best of what nonfiction film can be, and filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) deserve enormous praise for these landmark documentaries.
Facts of the Case
On May 5, 1993, in the rural community of West Memphis, Arkansas, three 8-year-old boys—Michael Moore, Christopher Byers, and Stevie Branch—were abducted, tortured, and murdered. Three teenagers—Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley—were quickly arrested, charged, and tried. Paradise Lost examines the crime from the discovery of the bodies all the way through the trial. Paradise Lost 2 was made five years after the verdicts and explores the effect the controversy has had on the teens, their families, and the community itself.
There is a sense of dread and evil that permeates every frame of the Paradise Lost films, one that never goes away and never lets up. It's not, despite what the prosecutors and police insist, the evil of Satan and blood rituals. It's the awful feeling of watching the need for justice replaced by bloodlust, prejudice, and blind hatred. The murders of Moore, Byers, and Branch are indeed unspeakable. The three were savagely tortured and sexually abused before they were killed, and it's understandable that the community, especially the families of the victims, would be outraged. But as the film progresses and the "evidence" presented by the prosecution and the police becomes flimsier and flimsier, the only logical conclusion that viewers can come to is that the teens were less the likely killers and more the most attractive scapegoats for a city eager for some form of closure, however phony.
Why were Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley charged? The bulk of the prosecution's case hinged on a "confession" the police extracted from Misskelley a few days after the murders. Never mind that Misskelley, who has an IQ of 72, had never even dealt with the police before, let alone been arrested and interrogated. Never mind that the police pulled out his "confession" after mercilessly browbeating and threatening him for twelve straight hours without either his parents or an attorney present. And never mind that his "confession" was so shot through with holes and logical impossibilities that even the police admitted they had to "correct" it in several places. After being hounded by the press and public for results, the police finally had something to show off, regardless of whether it was true or not: a confession that not only placed Misskelley at the crime, but also implicated Echols and Baldwin as the killers.
If Misskelley made the perfect patsy, Echols and Baldwin made even more ideal villains. The two teens had already earned a considerable amount of scorn in the community because of their taste for black clothing, heavy metal music (especially Metallica), and the Wicca religion. The trial, not surprisingly, was a travesty. Lacking any eyewitnesses (apart from Misskelley) or actual physical evidence linking Echols and Baldwin to the murders, the prosecution made the most of the two teens' poetry scribbled notebooks, black fingernails, and Metallica T-shirts, painting them as Satanists bent on ritualistic murders. Coupled with some extremely dubious hearsay evidence, this would make the case against Echols and Baldwin to be barely circumstantial, at best. Given the hysteria whipped up by the prosecutors and police, it would, unfortunately, be more than enough for a jury to convict all three. As of this writing, they remain in prison appealing their convictions.
Paradise Lost covers the first part of the story: the investigation and trials. This is a remarkable film, not the least of which is due to the extraordinary access Berlinger and Sinofsky were granted. In addition to interviews with all three defendants, the filmmakers were allowed to film their meetings with their attorneys, almost all of the trial, and extensive interviews with the families of both the victims and the accused. With such free reign, Berlinger and Sinofsky were able to capture some extraordinary moments. Their revealing interviews with the defendants and their families are heartbreaking. The West Memphis police and prosecutors seem utterly uninterested in examining any other possibilities beside the one they've already settled on. Most astonishing are the interviews with Mark and Melissa Byers, the parents of victim Christopher Byers. It's understandable that they would be angry and mournful, but it's hard to reconcile their grief with the visceral, almost animalistic glee they take in their statements about the defendants. When Melissa Byers claims to hate "even their mothers they were born from," and when Mark Byers graphically recites all of the tortures that his stepson suffered before his death, almost relishing every word, it's hard not to find them peculiar and disturbing. The families of the other victims, by contrast, don't come off quite so bloodthirsty. The film is ultimately a tragedy, since the ending is already well-known, but even so, the filmmakers' skill at telling this story is so immense that viewers will stay with it, agonizingly, until the end.
By the time of Paradise Lost 2 in 1999, the case had become a global phenomenon. The success of the first film has resulted in a web-based movement, called "Free the West Memphis Three," that sprung up to fight to overturn the convictions. The West Memphis legal establishment remains insistent on the three teens' guilt and stubbornly dismisses any charges of incompetence or laziness. At the same time, Mark Byers has become increasingly suspicious. In one of the most shattering moments in the first film, he gave Berlinger and Sinofsky (off camera) a knife that turned out to have blood on it. DNA tests were inconclusive, but they did reveal that the blood on the knife belonged to either Byers or his stepson Christopher. Since the last film, his wife Melissa has died under mysterious circumstances, he has been arrested for various violent offenses, and he has become increasingly unable to keep any of his many stories straight. At one point, Jason Baldwin remarks that Byers is "playacting" the part of a bereaved parent, and he's not exaggerating. In between Byers' frenzied diatribes and rituals punctuated by ridiculously florid language are rambling and contradictory explanations for all of the misfortunes in his life. When a forensic pathologist hired by the leaders of the WM3 website discovers bite marks on Christopher Byers' body, Mark Byers is quick to point out that he had his teeth removed many years before. Why he did this, and when, he doesn't say. Or, more precisely, he comes up with no less than four separate explanations, all of which contradict each other and involve time periods years apart. In both this film and its predecessor, Berlinger and Sinofsky tell the story dispassionately but thoroughly, without stooping to cheap sensationalism or manipulation, so for Byers to come off as he does is particularly shocking.
Technically, the films are only acceptable. Both were shot on full-frame video for broadcast on HBO, so they don't quite sparkle and shine. The video transfer is satisfactory, though rather flat and dull. The Dolby Digital stereo mix is also passable, and subtitles are provided in certain scenes where the audio is less than adequate.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Where these DVDs are disappointing is in the meager extras. This box merely repackages the previous DVD releases without adding anything new. All Paradise Lost comes with is the theatrical trailer (3:41), some text extras, and additional footage of Echols testifying in his own defense (43:15). Echols' testimony is of some value, mainly in proving that he never should have taken the stand. By his own admission, he suffers from a short attention span and clearly seems bored and even contemptuous of some of the prosecutors' admittedly idiotic questions. His demeanor, however justified, probably helped to make a bad impression on the jury. Nonetheless, this is the only extra of any merit. The text extras are meant to provide updates on the case, but they're badly dated, going only as far as 2004. More recent updates can be found at the "Free the West Memphis Three" Web site (see Accomplices section). Paradise Lost 2 has nothing apart from a photo gallery and some bios. For such seminal films, the lack of much in the way of extras is astounding. How did Berlinger and Sinofsky get such wide-ranging access to the trial? What drew their attention to the case in the first place? Why do they think Mark Byers felt confident enough to give them the knife that pointed to his possible guilt? These are significant questions that are never answered at any point. The filmmakers recorded a superb commentary track for the Some Kind of Monster DVD, so it seems inconceivable that they did not do the same for at least the first film. There is plenty of information about the case itself available, but it would also have been interesting to hear the filmmakers discuss their thoughts about the films, especially all these years later.
Unquestionably, these are not easy or pleasant films to watch. Viewers will be revolted both by the sheer cruelty of the murders and by the outrageous miscarriage of justice that followed. In their cold-eyed unflinching depiction of this story, however, they are without peer. There are times during both films when even the most jaded viewers will be tempted to turn their heads away from the screen in horror, but Berlinger and Sinofsky's storytelling is so precise and unrelenting that you'll be unable to stop watching despite yourself. Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2 are both vitally important films and if you care anything at all about documentaries, you need to see them.
Despite the disappointing lack of noteworthy extras, The Paradise Lost Collection is not guilty. Just as the West Memphis Three themselves are.
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