The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness

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Maury Terry in The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness.
Maury Terry in The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness.
Photo: Netflix


The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness




2/5 Stars


The hunt for the "Son of Sam" captivated the world in the late 1970s, but the story behind one of America's most notorious serial murderers is all but forgotten - until now. While the arrest and conviction of David Berkowitz brought the nightmare to an end for many New Yorkers, for journalist and Ultimate Evil author Maury Terry, the real mystery was just beginning. Terry, convinced Berkowitz had not acted alone, would go on to spend decades attempting to prove that the web of darkness behind the murders went deeper than anyone imagined – and his pursuit of that elusive truth would eventually cost him everything.


I have become somewhat captivated with the crime documentary offerings on Netflix lately, so in the build-up to the release of its latest submission, The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness, I was intrigued enough to hold off on any pre-watching research. I wanted to fully submerge my attention in what I thought would be a deeper look into the psyche of yet another serial killer that owned the streets of America in the mid-70s.

What started out as interest and intrigue in retracing what The Guardian calls "the largest manhunt yet in the New York City police department's (NYPD) history" ended in fighting to stay awake so that I could see the end – the 'descent into darkness' was more of a descent into dreams.

The new four-part true-crime series, directed by Joshua Zeman, starts with Zeman setting up the framework of the series, which, it turns out, has little to do with the infamous murders of young people in New York City in 1976 and 1977. Instead, it delves into boxes of material related to the murders from late investigative journalist Maury Terry - who'd devoted much of his career to pursuing alternate theories of the murder case - received by Zeman in 2017. With the premise set, what the series leaves unresolved, to its detriment, is the relationship between Zeman and Terry that led Zeman to make his series in the first place.

The first episode summarises the facts of the Son of Sam shootings: Eight attacks that took place between July 1976 and July 1977, in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn; a startling moment of revelation that cracked the case and the arrest and conviction of David Berkowitz, who remains in jail today. The following three episodes take a repetitive yet deeper look into Terry's obsession with the case.

Zeman sketches a biography of Terry through interviews with friends and relatives, including Terry's former wife, Georgiana Byrne, and his lifelong friend Charlie Ott. Furthermore, texts of Terry's are excerpted in voice-over (by Paul Giamatti), and, though the series does not indicate the source of those texts, they seem to come from The Ultimate Evil – a book in which Terry published his investigative evidence.

Admittedly, there are aspects to this docu-series that delivered intrigue, so much so that I found myself siding with Terry at times – from apparent disparities between the composite sketches of the shooter based on eyewitness accounts to uncovering a man who was literally a son of Sam, was neighbours with Berkowitz, was part of the same satanic cult and who was referenced in a letter written to well-known journalist Jimmy Breslin at the time of the murders. But there are more aspects of this docu-series that had to scoff at the abundance of airtime given to what are evidentially nonsensical conspiracy theories of a man who went down a rabbit hole he just couldn't get out of.

I mentioned earlier that the downfall of The Sons of Sam is that it totally ignores a relationship that would have added more substance and meaning to the entire series – the relationship between Zeman and Terry. After doing some research, I learned from interviews and a newly written introduction to The Ultimate Evil that the two had actually met before Terry's death in 2015 and that Terry had tried to persuade Zeman to make a documentary about his investigation. Once Zeman had learned of the investigative journalist's death, he decided, albeit nonsensical, that he wanted "people to understand what really happened in the Son of Sam case, and to give Maury Terry his due".

Understandably, Terry's life's work was pressing on Zeman's conscious and it's fair to assume that all the filmmaker wanted to do was to change the general public's mockery of Terry's theories into that of actual consideration, but I don't think that warrants a four-hour documentary that leaves the viewers with a mind full of conspiracy theories developed by a journalist, in the hopes of coming to an alternative solution that is too farfetched to believe.

I said it before with This is a Robbery: The World's Greatest Art Heist, and I'll repeat it. What was made into a tedious four-episode docu-series could easily have been condensed into a compelling hour-long documentary.


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