True Crime Deep Cuts: Documentaries To Distract You in Your Isolation

True crime is more popular than ever; fans of Tiger King or Making a Murderer looking to escape the stress of self-isolating will appreciate this list of lesser-known selections.

Tales of murder and mayhem may not sound like ideal viewing for self-isolation, but, as the recent success of Netflix’s Tiger King proves, many people are escaping the stress and boredom of everyday life by diving into true crime documentaries—the stranger, the better. Even before the pandemic forced most of us inside, true crime was enjoying a boon, with series such as Making a Murderer and The Jinx attracting legions of viewers. Though slightly lesser known, these selections, all available to stream digitally, are just as captivating, offering distraction and raising thought-provoking questions about everything from legal injustices to journalists’ responsibility when it comes to reporting crime.

Abducted in Plain SightAbducted in Plain Sight
Robert Berchtold wormed his way into the lives of the Brobergs, becoming a trusted family friend before kidnapping their adolescent daughter Jan on two separate occasions. In this story frighteningly reminiscent of Lolita, Skye Borgman vividly details the horrors that lurk even in seemingly idyllic settings and the capacity for denial that allows abuse to continue undetected.

Capturing the Friedmans
Those who were spellbound by The Jinx, Andrew Jarecki’s docuseries about the alleged murders of real estate heir Robert Durst, will be just as disturbed, and mesmerized, by the Friedmans, a dysfunctional family further devastated after two members pled guilty to charges of child molestation. A deft storyteller, Jarecki raises doubts about almost everyone who appears on screen, from the entire Friedman family to the police to the victims whose testimony led to Arnold and Jesse Friedman’s convictions.

Crazy Love
After Burt Pugach, a New York City lawyer, hired assailants to throw acid into the face of his girlfriend Linda Riss, Riss was blinded and physically and emotionally scarred. Yet, seemingly inexplicably, Riss reunited with Pugach. Filmmakers Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens tell an unsettling story of trauma and terror, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions about the subjects’ motivations.

Movie poster for Dear ZacharyDear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
The less said about this one the better—this film hinges on a sucker punch of a twist. Director Kurt Kuenne tells a startlingly intimate story of a family hurtling toward tragedy; his close friendship with his subjects makes for an immersive experience.

Don’t F**k with Cats
Though this Netflix docuseries about a series of increasingly vile videos depicting animal abuse and death isn’t for the faint of heart, it’s more than a foray into darkness—it’s also a testament to the tenacity and imagination of the internet communities that tracked the perpetrator each step of the way.

Dream/Killer
Those following the case of Adnan Syed, which was chronicled in season one of the podcast Serial, will be drawn into the case of Ryan Ferguson, who in 2003 was wrongfully convicted of a murder he supposedly committed as a high school senior. Thanks to the tireless efforts of his father, Bill, Ferguson was eventually exonerated—after nearly a decade spent in prison. Though the film ends on a triumphant note, it’s also a call to arms that will incite viewers to fight injustices in the legal system.

Movie poster for McMillionsMcMillions
Viewers with a lower threshold for grisly fare will appreciate this HBO series about the McDonald’s Monopoly promotional game that gave customers the chance to win cash prizes—and the criminals who conspired to exploit the contest. Interviews with larger-than-life talking heads, including an endearingly zealous, scene-stealing FBI agent and the widow of a mobster with ties to the Colombo crime family, make for utterly entertaining viewing.

Murder in the Park
Shawn Rech and Brandon Kimber’s film centers on the overturned conviction of a man facing the death penalty for a 1982 Chicago murder—but it’s not a triumph; it’s the beginning of tragedy for the next man falsely blamed for the crime. Viewers not already skeptical of the criminal justice system will emerge with outright fear and distrust.

The Staircase
The death of Kathleen Peterson, discovered battered and bloody at the base of a staircase, seemed like an open-and-shut case—her husband Michael, the only other person home at the time, was the prime suspect from day one. But his defense attorneys mounted an elaborate defense explaining that Kathleen had slipped and fallen. With whiplash-inducing twists and turns, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s docuseries follows the trial and the secrets that were uncovered along the way; three additional episodes with updates about the case were filmed for Netflix in 2018.

Movie poster for There's Something Wrong with Aunt DianeThere’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane
In 2009, a drunk driver heading the wrong way on New York’s Taconic State Parkway killed eight people, including the driver, Diane Schuler; her daughter; and her three nieces. Filmmaker Liz Garbus follows Schuler’s family, who, convinced that Diane couldn’t have been hiding a drinking problem, launched an investigation to determine whether an undiagnosed medical condition played a role.

Tabloid
Chronicling the “Mormon sex in chains” case, Errol Morris’s 2010 documentary uses the story of Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen who in 1977 allegedly raped and kidnapped a Mormon missionary in England, to explore the press’s role in exploiting criminal accounts—the UK’s Daily Mirror and Daily Express attempted to outdo each other with ever more lurid articles about the case. This film will entice viewers fascinated by the eccentric figures in Tiger King—McKinney is a bizarre yet compelling character.

The Thin Blue Line
Decades before Making a Murderer and Serial laid bare injustices in the legal system, Errol Morris set the bar for true crime documentaries. A former private detective, he probed the case of Randall Dale Adams, who was convicted of killing a police officer. With its dreamlike, almost surreal re-created scenes, The Thin Blue Line is not only an example of innovative filmmaking—it helped save Adams from death row.

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hills
The first of a trilogy (followed by Paradise Lost 2: Revelations and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory), this powerful film explores the murder of three boys in the insular Evangelical Christian community of West Memphis, AR, where an interest in heavy metal made three teens the prime suspects despite little concrete evidence; they were alleged to have committed the murders as part of a satanic ritual. Stark, gripping, and rage-inducing, this is a must for those who were stirred by Making a Murderer.

Movie poster for VoyeurVoyeur
Filmmakers Myles Kane and Josh Koury spin a tale of gonzo journalism pushed to its limits. Intrigued by the story of motel owner Gerald Foos, who for years spied on his guests, journalist Gay Talese verified his claims, joining him on several occasions. Talese published a book about Foos’s voyeurism but was horrified to learn that Foos may not have been truthful about everything he told Talese. This gracefully filmed but shudder-inducing documentary raises questions about prurience, ethics, gullibility, and trust.

Author Image
Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor for Library Journal, and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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