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Howard Rosenberg / Television

Heavy-Metal Monsters?

HBO's Stunning 'Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills' Documents the Impact of Deadly Stereotypes on an Arkansas Community

June 10, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

West Memphis, Ark., is a quiet community of 28,000 in a region where a local TV station boasts of being one of the "good neighbors you can turn to." Here in this east Arkansas version of conservative, small-town U.S.A., just across the Mississippi River from Tennessee and urban Memphis, folks speak in twangs, God is not just for Sunday and families gather for outdoor barbecues that spill over with frivolity and cute little Huck Finns.

Three of them--8-year-olds Steven Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore--are presently on the screen, their nude bodies as rigid and alabaster-pale as museum statues, beside a shallow creek in Robin Hood Hills, a clump of woods along a busy interstate.

Accused of slaying these second-graders in a grisly, ritualistic sacrifice are three odd-behaving teenagers whose passion for heavy-metal music and black clothes stamp them as Satanists. Obviously devil worshipers, obviously guilty.

So begins HBO's "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills," another stunning crime documentary from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, whose earlier "Brother's Keeper" on PBS was about as good as nonfiction films get.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 15, 1996 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Documentarians--Filmmaker Joe Berlinger is 34 and Bruce Sinofsky is 40. Their ages were swapped in a story Monday about their HBO documentary "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills."

Just as mesmerizing, but darker, more troubling and much longer at 2 1/2 hours, is "Paradise Lost," a banner of tattered Americana that Berlinger and Sinofsky artfully unfurl, again minus narration, by joining verite sequences and formal interviews into a twisting, serpentine tale of intriguing ambiguity and paradoxes.

These guys really can tell a story, in this case a revealing X-ray of a small community that addresses the universality of human contradictions, all of it to a background of heavy metal by Metallica. The band donated the music because, according to HBO, it shares the filmmakers' belief that the case against the defendants was deeply flawed and circumstantial.

Berlinger and Sinofsky consider "Paradise Lost" a companion to "Brother's Keeper." The latter was a 1992 film set in rural New York, where four aging, unworldly bearded brothers had lived weirdly on their dairy farm--even sharing the same bed--without much outside contact or notice until one died and another was accused of murdering him. In a startling tactic, the prosecution implied that creaky Delbert Ward and his dead brother were lovers, but his neighbors stood by him and he was ultimately acquitted, an eccentric but apparently innocent man riding his flatbed off into the sunset.

*

How are these companion films? Because one community rejected stereotypes, the other, West Memphis, embraced stereotypes, filmmakers Berlinger, 40, and Sinofsky, 34, said by phone from New York recently.

The stereotyped defendants in "Paradise Lost" are Jessie Misskelley Jr., 17, described in the film as having an IQ of 72; baby-faced Jason Baldwin, 16; and Damien Wayne Echols, 18, who is Jason's best friend and reportedly is interested in so-called "white magic."

Seemingly the dominant member of the trio, Damien is a bizarre narcissist who wears his dark hair almost girlishly swooped to one side of his round face, and at one point during a break in his trial is shown obsessively preening with a hand mirror used to search for bombs under courtroom seats.

The police claimed to have a confession from Jessie implicating Jason and Damien. It didn't help that Damien was also the name of the antichrist in those popular "Omen" movies about demonic evil.

"If these kids lived in Manhattan, people wouldn't have looked twice at them," Sinofsky said. But West Memphis isn't Manhattan.

*

Berlinger and Sinofsky learned of the case through a New York Times article just after the teenagers were charged in 1993. Instantly convinced that "these kids were pretty much guilty," Berlinger said, they flew south to scout film possibilities. The local media were pouring it on, he said, at one point not only asking one of the victims' mothers how she felt celebrating Mother's Day without her murdered son but also spewing a steady barrage of stories about rumored blood drinking, demonology and homosexual orgies on the part of the defendants.

"The portrait of them was so black, so monstrous, that we bought into the stereotype," Berlinger said. "And when we first saw Damien turn to us and the rest of the press in the courtroom, there was a chill, as if he was Hannibal Lecter. While we were down there, there was never a voice in the dark saying these kids didn't do it. Not until we met their families and saw the humanity of their families was a whole different picture visible for us to see."

That picture is available to the TV audience tonight, as is the perspective of the prosecutors and victims' families. The film raises questions about the prosecution's case but never delivers its own verdict.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers' camera is omnipresent, in jail and in lawyer-client strategy sessions, chronicling trials (Jessie was tried separately from Jason and Damien), intimate chats (such as Jessie's phone conversation with his girlfriend) and anger pouring from parents.

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