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Netflix's The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness gets lost in its focus on conspiracy theories

  • The four-part docuseries from filmmaker Joshua Zeman focusing on serial killer David Berkowitz and the Son of Sam killings and late investigative journalist Maury Terry's attempt to find if more people were involved features too many theories that are "extravagantly unnecessary," says Daniel D'Addario. "Like many of its ilk, The Sons of Sam is so overlong as to begin to poison the viewer against what is meant to be a sympathetic subject," says D'Addario. "The recapitulation of the Son of Sam’s deeds is punishing, and what comes after often has the sketchy quality of unfinished notes. (Not for nothing is the archival news footage we see part of what has been called a 'Satanic panic,' a culture-wide freakout with limited basis in fact.) Modeling the series around Terry’s work has the unfortunate effect — hardly a new one — of treating the real killings of real people as the jumping-off point for grand theories told with an eye on their power to shock and amaze. Perhaps these victims deserved better."


    • The strangest and most frustrating aspect of The Sons of Sam is director Josh Zeman's absence: "What the film leaves unresolved, to its detriment, is the relationship between Zeman and (investigative journalist Maury) Terry that led Zeman to make his film in the first place," says Richard Brody, adding: "(Zeman's) never seen, and, after his scant introductory voice-over, he’s heard on the soundtrack only a handful of times, posing brief questions to interview subjects. He never offers a point of view or a narration, let alone an on-camera appearance, to suggest his vigorous activity, whether with Terry before the filming started or along the route of his research. Instead, he organizes his clips, interviews, archival materials, and sound bites to do his speaking for him. Although it’s very moving to see participants in the events (including one of the victims, Carl Denaro), their onscreen presence is also sharply reduced, their appearances lasting only a few seconds at a time. Zeman doesn’t revel in the faces of people speaking, doesn’t pay attention to their expressions. As they speak on the soundtrack, he keeps the visual track moving at a hectic pace to illustrate their remarks, whether offering tidbits of related visuals or merely providing unrelated, mood-reinforcing correlates of unclear provenance. Far from making the story move quickly, these techniques seem to slow it down, substituting a frenzy of distraction for concentrated thought. The series’ overly familiar and impersonal form dominates, overwhelms, even obscures its ample, fascinating substance."
    • Sons of Sam starts to feel cruel, as if it’s leaning into justifying Terry’s theories for hours only to knock him off his pedestal again: "Terry’s descent down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories around David Berkowitz fuels Sons of Sam, but it’s handled in such a tabloid, sensational way with the kind of logic that makes real journalists furious. Zeman only occasionally gives screen time to the investigators who believe the case was solved correctly, devoting much of his energy to unpacking the tiny bits of evidence that Terry built his life around like the sketches, a possible nickname in one of the Son of Sam letters that pointed elsewhere, and signs of satanic activity in the area—Terry clearly fell into the trap of 'Satanic Panic' that influenced crime journalism and investigation in the ‘80s. And Zeman is constantly presenting infuriating logic like 'Well, you can’t prove that he didn’t have an accomplice.' That’s not how it works. You can’t prove a negative. That’s the logic that leads to Pizzagate because we can’t prove conclusively that babies aren’t being eaten in a pizza restaurant basement."
    • Sons of Sam portrays late investigative journalist Maury Terry as both a driven reporter and an unreliable narrator: "But it is clear," says Lauren Kranc, "that despite his unhealthy obsession with the case, he had ample evidence to prove that David Berkowitz did not act alone." Director Josh Zeman says of making Terry part of the story: "As somebody who's done a lot of true crime, it's always important, I think, to be evolutionary. And so, I felt it was not only getting to talk about this case, but organically Maury Terry just interested me because he himself allows for a larger discussion about the genre. That wasn't intentional, but that is just something that interests me, and it just so happened that it kind of all came together at once."
    • Director Josh Zeman can tie the Son of Sam case to Fox News of today: "In essence, journalism, true crime journalism and true crime changed with the Son of Sam," he says. "It started a tabloid war, which happened between the Daily News and the New York Post, but this is also where (Rupert) Murdoch realizes one of the most important lessons of his professional career: Fear sells better than sex. You can look back and see that he was using the Son of Sam as kind of a test case. The landscape of journalism today — you can actually chart a path from Son of Sam and that early fearmongering, which was coming from both sides, to the rise of tabloid journalism. It literally started like two or three years after Son of Sam with the rise of A Current Affair, Inside Edition, Bill O'Reilly, Maury Povich and that kind of reporting."

    TOPICS: The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness, Netflix, David Berkowitz, Joshua Zeman, Maury Terry, Documentaries