Paradise Lost: The Collector's Edition
THE MOVIES: As of this writing, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley--aka the West Memphis 3--have been in prison for more than 14 years. According to the state of Arkansas, they mutilated three grade-school boys as part of a Satanic ritual and left their nude corpses in a muddy ditch in 1993. According to the two documentaries the case has spawned, 1996's Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and 2000's Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, they likely had nothing to do with the deaths and were railroaded largely because they stood out in Bible Belt small town West Memphis, Ark., for their long hair, black clothes, and love of Metallica. A recent rerelease of the two docs in a new two-disc set finds the movies still remarkably fresh and compelling and the outrage still close to the surface.
Co-directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (Brother's Keeper, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) got their cameras into seemingly every defense attorney meeting, trial session, and jailhouse visit for Paradise Lost, detailing the rampant speciousness of the state's case while capturing the gradual crumbling of the three teens' disbelief that they could be sent to prison for the rest of their lives (or death row) for something they say they didn't do. Berlinger and Sinofsky also luck into Mark Byers, the hulking, jackleg-preacher stepfather of one of the victims, whose melodramatic hatred of the accused and equally intense love of attention develop a sinister undertone as the story unfolds.
Paradise Lost had such a huge effect on public perception of the case that Berlinger and Sinofsky were denied the same level of access for follow-up Revelations, but they still manage to assemble a surprisingly engrossing documentary. In place of courtroom scenes, they follow the well-scrubbed Hollywood types and random misfits who flocked to the 3's cause in the wake of the first movie, and they catch up with Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley as they adapt to the reality of life in prison and appeal their convictions. Berlinger and Sinofsky also spend more time with Byers, who comes to seem more and more a likely suspect in the murders as he spends more and more time running his mouth for the camera. This sort of true-life crime-and-conviction drama has become a numbing staple of unimaginative, budget-minded television outlets up and down the dial, so it's nice to see that these inadvertent forerunners of the form still hold up, and that they can still make you disgusted and angry.
THE DISCS: Fine as the documentaries are, this budget-priced "Collector's Edition" offers nothing more for collectors than a cardboard slipcase and nothing at all for fans of the films or supporters of the West Memphis 3--no new featurettes, not even the most rudimentary updates on the appeals process. Talk about a crime.