The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness

I guess after watching Night Stalker: The Hunt For a Serial Killer recently, Netflix has decided I want true crime all day, every day and promotes such material to me every time I turn it on. That isn’t true by a long shot, but when I saw The Sons of Sam pop up recently, I was familiar enough with the case to wonder what a modern documentary had made of it all and curious enough to play the first episode.

This episode dealt with New York City from 1976 into the summer of 1977. A serial killer – the so-called ‘Son of Sam’ – was on the loose, randomly shooting people while parked in “lover’s lanes”. During his spree there were six dead, seven wounded. Eventually the police caught up with him (real name, David Berkowitz), arrested him, and the city breathed a sigh of relief. OK, so if that’s the first episode, what are the following three about? This is where we get into the actual meat of the series.

Enter Maury Terry – a guy working for IBM, who instantly thinks something is off about Berkowitz, starting with the way he didn’t resemble many of the eyewitness sketches of ‘Son of Sam’. As he starts to investigate the case, all sorts of weird and not so wonderful pieces seem to fall into place.

Berkowitz himself even corresponds with Terry, letting him know he’s on the right track, but no one will ever believe him, even if he gets to the bottom of it all. This just drives Terry harder, eventually uncovering Satanic rituals, dog sacrifices, the mysterious deaths of people close to Berkowitz after he was caught, and even a quite gruesome murder that happened on the other side of the country.

Like many conspiracy theories, the pieces seem to fit… but they really could just be coincidence, too. Certainly the NYCPD personnel then, and now, think Terry’s a bit of a nut, although that tends to be presented in the documentary as the Police covering up the case, having caught someone to take the blame, and not wanting to acknowledge to the public that there were multiple killers involved.

And I guess that’s the angle of the documentary. Having Terry’s words narrated by actor Paul Giamatti, the documentary tries hard to be balanced, but is ultimately on Terry’s side. He’s the star player here. This creates an odd situation where certain facts aren’t perhaps as clear-cut as they might seem, but the documentary just glides over some aspects and just wants you to believe it all. I felt slightly anxious about this, constantly wanting to go to the Internet while still in the middle of an episode, in order to get some other sources than just what was presented in the documentary.

Not that Terry’s case isn’t compelling. But again, when it comes to conspiracy theories, you can make all sorts of things fit if you just concentrate on certain aspects and ignore others. So in the end, I was left with an interesting story, but honestly no closer to knowing whether Terry really cracked the case, or whether he just had some interesting ideas and discoveries that seemed to fit with each other.

This is frustrating territory when watching a documentary. It almost feels like the documentary makers didn’t want to dig too deep beyond Terry themselves, lest it affect what he thought and thus the angle of the whole four episodes. So definitely go into this one with the sense that it’s pretty one-sided towards the conspiracy theorist. Police and others get to have their say, but never in definitive, compelling ways. I found it hard to handle. My old ‘journo brain’ wouldn’t switch off when watching.

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