Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
July 18, 2022 12:56 PM - Subscribe

Three teenagers are accused of this horrific crime of killing three children, supposedly as a result of involvement in Satanism. As in their previous documentary, things turn out to be more complex than initial appearances and this film presents the real-life courtroom drama to the viewer, as it unfolds. The film uses the music of Metallica instead of an original soundtrack, the first time that the band authorized their music to be used in a film.

The film succeeds as both a riveting true crime documentary and a searing look at the Satanic Panic. From directors Joer Berlinger & Bruce Sinfosky (The Ted Bundy Tapes, Brother's Keeper). It is rated 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes (with 26 reviews.)

Currently streaming in the US on Hoopla, and on HBO Max, where it is presented as with its two follow-up films as a group of three episodes.
posted by DirtyOldTown (7 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I honestly feel like this is the
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:51 PM on July 18


Oops. Hit send on that too early.

Meant to say:

I honestly feel like this movie is the blueprint for the last fifteen years of true crime docs.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:47 PM on July 18 [3 favorites]


This is probably the first true crime documentary I ever watched. It was absolutely heartbreaking that these two teenagers got railroaded so obviously.
posted by miss-lapin at 7:29 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


I watched all three movies years ago and came away with the impression that the kids were totally innocent. Then I started researching the case online and found a website with lots of information that was not included in the documentaries. I don't remember all the details, but I do remember reading about Damien Echols and how he was far more emotionally disturbed than the filmmakers would lead you to believe. After I read the website discussion, I became less convinced of the narrative pushed by the documentaries.
posted by alex1965 at 5:40 AM on July 22


My understanding is that the documentary makers had assumed the 3 teens were guilty when they started filming, although they didn't buy the Satanic ritual theory. It was only as they saw the so-called evidence presented as the trial went on that they started to realise the local police didn't know how to investigate anything. There's a lot of people in West Memphis who need to believe that the West Memphis Three are guilty, because otherwise it's an indictment of their own attitudes and who they voted for in local elections. I've never seen any evidence that Echols was anything other than a counter-culture teen with depression when Miskelly was bullied into a "confession".

Honestly, "actual Satan-worshipping teens killed and tortured three kids in an elaborate ritual", or a "violent step-dad accidentally killed his kid then killed the 2 witnesses to cover it up, and local cops didn't recognise animal bites on the bodies" - which is more plausible?

This documentary is absolutely the blueprint for the recent true crime trend, along with The Thin Blue Line. The problem is that although both are good, all the copy-cats start recording video hoping for an amazing twist or to uncover a miscarriage of justice. And then they get garden-variety crimes without any unexpected events. So they add more suspense than is warranted, because it'd be a waste of money to throw out all that work and they have a contract with a production company who need to make a profit. That's how we get stuff like Making a Murderer, where it was probably the guy's also-violent-and-criminal brother so the police mistakes are awful but also predictable given the limitations of forensic science. Or The Staircase, where paramedics knew they were at the scene of a crime as soon as they arrived but the murderer managed to drag the whole process out for ages. (I've only seen the doco which is currently on Netflix by the French director - haven't seen the dramatisation with Colin Firth, but I've heard it takes a few jabs at the doco.) And The Jinx, which has to pad out the hours with ambiguity to make the bit of hot mic at the end even slightly surprising.

Paradise Lost is worth watching because it shows how a community turns on some while protecting others, and how people try to cover up mistakes in their job. It has sympathy with the victim's parents even when they're being difficult and weird. It has sympathy with the accused's families even though they're from the wrong side of the tracks. The unexpected turn the narrative takes only comes because the documentary makers were in the right place at the right time. It's not a formula that can be replicated for endless streaming TV.
posted by harriet vane at 6:45 AM on August 1 [2 favorites]


Or The Staircase, where paramedics knew they were at the scene of a crime as soon as they arrived but the murderer managed to drag the whole process out for ages.

The original Staircase isn't really what I'd call true crime, though. Like much of that director's work, it's about the American justice system, using specific cases as a lens, rather than about "solving the case" or wringing a drama out of a crime. You may or may not think that subject murdered his wife (or both his wives!), but if you didn't come away appalled by what some of the prosecution got away with, you missed the point.
posted by praemunire at 11:20 AM on August 1 [1 favorite]


I'd argue that examining the justice system via a specific case is what nearly all the best true crime does. The Thin Blue Line certainly does. But Sturgeon's Law applies, so 90% of it is crap, just like any other genre. It relies far too much on material provided by cops to be as good an examination as it could be.

I was probably harsher on The Staircase than necessary though. I just got tired of them letting a murderous narcissist give so many monologues. They'd planned to have more material from the prosecution, but when that fell through I guess they had to replace it with something. The prosecution in that case were fooled by their blood spatter "expert" but no more so than anyone else he scammed. And they were definitely homophobic. But the case was a good one to work with for the directors, except that they got too intimate with the suspect. The way that money (or perceived money) influences an investigation, the adversarial nature of trials, and how the appeals process works are all interesting parts of the case.

Paradise Lost is much better in this way though - it's more interested in how teens are routinely treated by the system (and how that system is shaped by the biases of its community) than in the teens as individuals. The second movie isn't great because it was trying to keep the case fresh in people's memories but didn't have any new material to do that with. So it became more about the wacky personality of one of the victim's parents. The third one was good because it had some new information which changed how we understand who the cops chose to investigate. And it included the Alford plea situation, which is a really unusual aspect of the US justice system.
posted by harriet vane at 7:23 AM on August 2


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