Review by Michael Jacobson

Directors:  Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Docurama
Features:  See Review
Length:  150 Minutes
Release Date:  October 25, 2005

"As far as I'm concerned, West Memphis can go to hell."

"West Memphis IS hell."

Film ****

Paradise Lost was a documentary that became an event movie.  Anyone who saw it simply had to discuss it with anyone else who saw it.  When it first aired on HBO, tapes were made and passed around for those who didn't have cable.  If you answered negatively to the question "have you seen Paradise Lost?", someone was there to make sure that was corrected.

The film is about an unthinkable crime, and possibly an even more unthinkable miscarriage of justice.  Three eight year old boys were found brutally murdered and desecrated in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas, in a wooded area known as Robin Hood Hills.  The parents were devastated and the whole community was crushed.

Their attention focused on three teenage boys:  Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr.  These were fellows who stood out in a place like West Memphis:  they liked heavy metal, wore black, and were interested in the Wicca religion.  Many became to believe they committed the murders as part of some sort of black magic ritual.

But was it witchcraft, or witch hunt?  With unparalleled access to the families, the legal meetings, and the courtrooms, directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky show us how the wheels of justice turn, and as we watch, we can't help but think something's gone wrong with the machinery.

The prosecution is confident.  On a scale of one to ten, they believe their case is an "eleven".  What is their case, exactly?  Well, they began with Misskelley, a boy with an IQ of 72.  The cops questioned him for days with no records or notes, until Jessie made his actual confession, which he later recanted.  The defense uses the transcript and shows how the cops led him from saying "morning" to "noon" to "after school" all the way up to "night", which was the correct time for the crime.

He gets life plus forty.  The second trial focuses on Echols and Baldwin.  Though Misskelley is offered a greatly reduced sentence simply to testify at their trial, presumably just repeating the same information in his police confession, he refuses.

A so-called "expert" on the occult who managed a doctorate degree without ever attending a class testifies, and he has no clue as to the difference between Wicca and Satanism.  A knife is introduced into evidence and a big deal is made about it, but it's never actually called the murder weapon.

The strange stepfather of one of the murdered boys actually presents a knife to the filmmakers, who turn it in.  Blood is discovered on it.  The father claims the knife was never used, then recants on the stand.  The blade is more consistent with the boys' injuries than is that of the prosecution's knife.  The DNA matches both the stepfather and stepson. 

And that's just part of what makes the case so bizarre.  One of the murdered boys had no blood left in his body, and the others had bled profusely.  Yet not one drop of blood was found at the crime scene.  Jason Baldwin is about the scrawniest kid you've ever seen.  With arms like pencils, the idea he could help carry bodies from a murder scene into the woods seems unlikely.  A couple of school kids take the stand to testify Damien said he did it, but they can't remember what he said before or after this confession, nor even how loud he was talking at the time.

And while the drama plays out in the courtroom, there is another drama in the community.  In a small town where everyone seems to fear the unusual, where everyone seems to have "stepfathers" or "father's girlfriends" as opposed to regular families, where there's not one set of good teeth to be found, they clamor for the blood of the teens that would come to be known as the "West Memphis Three".  Two of the parents practice shooting a pumpkin, pretending they're mutilating the defendants.  Another swears to murder the teens herself if they get acquitted. 

And in the end, what crime, if any, are the three really guilty of?  Listening to Metallica, dressing in black, and standing out in a crowd?  Being interested in a religion that believes in neither God nor the devil?  Yet with no physical evidence to connect them to the crime, no real motivation other than a supposed Satanic connection, and no witnesses, Jason joins Jessie in serving a life sentence.  Damien gets death.

You may not walk away from Paradise Lost completely convinced of their innocence.  But you may be dumbfounded that such a heavy conviction could be handed down under such conditions.  Generally it's very hard to pin a murder on someone...yet here, it was easy.  The town had their killers, and the courts, rather than seeking justice, possibly hastened to serve a pre-determined end result.

The teens continue to appeal their cases, some of which are chronicled in Paradise Lost 2 (and if you found this film strange and unsettling, wait until you see the sequel).  But who knows if justice will ever be served.  While we wait, all we can think about is the tragedy of six young lives lost...three gone for good, and three stuffed away by a society who feared them and had no use for them.

Video **

Serviceable quality overall...the documentary mixes filmed and videotaped footage, so the results are naturally a little hodgepodge, but for films of this nature, that's to be expected, and perhaps even enhances the reality of the experience.

Audio **

Likewise, there's not much demands made on your system from a dialogue-oriented picture.  The music from Metallica's Master of Puppets album is a nice touch, but for the most part, it's the words that are spoken and not the quality of the sound that makes up the attraction.

Features **

The extras include a DVD ROM file that brings you up to date on the cases, extended footage of Damien's trial testimony, a timeline of events, a trailer, and filmmaker biographies.


Few movies are as harrowing and as gripping as Paradise Lost, let alone documentaries.  Even at two and a half hours in length, your attention will never waver.  This is an unprecedented look at a horrific crime and the path the system took in order to rectify it.  You'll walk away thinking that there were a lot more than just three victims in the film.

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