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PARADISE LOST 2: REVELATIONS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Directors:  Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Docurama
Features:  Bios, Photo Gallery
Length:  130 Minutes
Release Date:  August 28, 2001

FREE THE WEST MEMPHIS THREE.

Film ****

To quote Lewis Carroll, things in West Memphis, Arkansas have gotten curiouser and curiouser.  Documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky made a film there called Paradise Lost.  It was about the horrific murders of three 8 year old boys in a wooded area called Robin Hood Hills back in 1993, and the strange trial that followed in which three teens were convicted with no physical evidence, no real motive, and no murder weapon.  They seemed to have been singled out simply because they wore black, liked Metallica, and expressed an interest in the Wicca religion.

Two of the boys, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin got life for the crimes.  Damien Echols got death.  Paradise Lost 2: Revelations picks up with them a few years later, as they try to get another look at their cases with time running out for Damien.

The success of the first film brought nationwide attention to the boys known as the West Memphis Three.  As they prepare to have a hearing on whether or not they can get a second trial, fans of Paradise Lost flock to the small Arkansas town, giving up their time and money to help out and raise awareness for them.  In their first trial, we find out, the defense had very little money to work with, only getting $1,000 total for scientific and forensic tests. 

Now they have more money and better people.  One of the forensic experts discovers something that went unnoticed for too long:  a bite mark on one of the victims.  The bite mark is compared to impressions made by the three convicted teens, now into their 20s.  It matches none of them.

The stepfather of one of the victims, John Mark Byers, produced a knife in the original film that seemed consistent with the children's injuries.  DNA appeared on the knife that matched him and his stepson.  Byers was also a man with a brain tumor and a handful of psychiatric illnesses, and many who saw Paradise Lost couldn't help but wonder if he was somehow involved in the killings.  The defense in the sequel want to compare the bite mark with his teeth, but there's a problem:  four years after the murders, he had all his teeth extracted.  At least, that's the truth the dental records eventually reveal.  He changes his story throughout on how and when he lost his teeth.

Byers and Echols become the focal points of the second one.  While the soft-spoken Damien laments that someone could be convicted and possibly die for something he didn't do, Byers grows more and more wild.  His emotions turn on a dime in front of the camera; sad and mournful one moment and rabidly angry and spewing hatred the next.  Between the two movies, his wife died of "undetermined" causes.  At one point, he refers to her "murder".

The single most unsettling scene has Byers staging a mock funeral for the West Memphis Three at the site where the children were originally murdered.  He creates graves for each of them, douses them with lighter fluid, and torches them, after pausing to light his cigar first.  He's more of a camera whore than Cindy Sheehan:  one out-of-towner notes that Byers is friendly to him off camera, but once the film rolls, he turns nasty and over-the-top.  The film ends with Byers singing a religious song for us, and a rather interesting footnote to follow up his story.

If the first movie was absorbing and disturbing, Paradise Lost 2 is absolutely surreal and rattling.  The original film may not have convinced you the three teens were innocent, merely that they were convicted without a real case against them.  The sequel will have you more and more convinced that the wrong people are in prison for the crime, as well as more and more convinced that the real murderer is not only roaming free, but frequently hamming it up right in front of you. 

Thanks to the notoriety of the original film, Berlinger and Sinofsky weren't allowed to film in the courtrooms the second time around, but we are kept abreast of the happenings throughout.  And as with all documentaries, they proceeded without a clue as to how their movie would eventually end.  They were probably hoping for a tale of how the wheels of justice got back on track.  Instead, it's a story of how justice isn't always blind.  Deaf and dumb, maybe, but not blind.

Video ***

Being that it's a more recent film, I thought the overall look of Paradise Lost 2 was an improvement over the original release.  It's still a mix of film, video and raw footage, but the majority of the material comes across with more detail, brighter colors and crisper images.

Audio **1/2

As good as can be expected for a dialogue-driven documentary, but the music supplied by Metallica offers some nice contrast and a smattering of dynamic range.

Features *

Only filmmaker bios and trailers for other Docurama releases.

Summary:

Will there be a Paradise Lost 3?  One can only hope so, and one can only hope it will bring resolution and justice.  Paradise Lost 2 is a tale of hope and disillusionment, and an astonishing record of how fear and prejudice can still throw our whole system out of whack, even when the eyes of the entire world are on it.

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