After the release of Netflix’s Making a Murderer and HBO’s The Jinx, there has been a steep and steady increase in the fascination with true crime documentaries. Let’s not kid ourselves — as a species, we were shook. And over the past two years since those docs hit the ‘net, the genre has grown tremendously, making it vital for me, Resident Horror Queen, to share with you my top 10 essential true crime documentaries.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about His Father (2008)
I’m going to start with one that I can only watch maybe once a year. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about His Father is not only gripping, but it’s also beautifully made, and will make you cry a thousand tears.
In 2001, 28-year-old Dr. Andrew Bagby was found dead in a park in Pennsylvania. He had been shot by his ex-girlfriend, who then fled to Canada, where she, pregnant with Andrew’s child, was able to walk free on bail. Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne paired this story with home movies and interviews with those who knew Andrew best, hoping to give his best friend’s son an opportunity to discover who his dad was.
I’ve shown this documentary to many people, and if I can give you any advice whatsoever, it’s this: find some tissues, even if you think you won’t need them. This documentary is beautiful and brutal in equal measure, and will totally knock the wind out of you.
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
This is probably one of the most famous documentaries on this list; it’s a pioneer in true crime documentation. Along with Making a Murderer, The Thin Blue Line explores the very delicate relationship between the police force and the justice system.
One night in November 1976, after his car breaks down on a road outside Dallas, Randall Dale Adams accepts a ride from teenager David Harris. Harris is driving a stolen vehicle, and later that night, when Dallas police officer pulls the car over to check its headlights, he’s shot and killed. A jury believes Adams is the killer, but the documentary explores the role of testimonies, misleading witness accounts, and police misconduct in the verdict. It’s quite a long film, but because of it’s twisty-turny story, it will keep you absolutely glued to your screen.
Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
This is the first documentary from Andrew Jarecki who then went on to make The Jinx, so you know it’s going to be good. Capturing the Friedmans is, of course, about the Friedmans — a seemingly typical, upper-middle-class Jewish family whose world is instantly transformed when the father and youngest son are arrested and charged with shocking and horrible crimes. (These shocking and horrible crimes have to do with small children, so if you are triggered by that sort of thing, this might not be for you.) The documentary is relentlessly honest and because of this, some moments are very difficult to watch, but ultimately, this is one of those films that you won’t be able to stop talking about.
The Imposter (2012)
Instead of skimming the surface, looking at hysterical headlines and media reports, The Imposter delves much deeper. It’s a truly frightening film about Frederic Bourdin, a con artist who seemingly tricked a Texas family into believing he was their son, Andrew Barclay, who disappeared years earlier. Now, we’ve seen this storyline in many a Hollywood film (The Guest, The Talented Mr. Ripley), but this is real life — mind-boggling, scary, and incredibly good.
Throughout the movie, Frederic is interviewed, where he provides unimaginable insight into this strange crime. You’ll love it, but you’ll also want to throw things at your television screen in frustration.
The Central Park Five (2012)
One of those films I just stumbled onto one day on Netflix, The Central Park Five was right up the top in my “if you liked this, then you’ll love this” suggestion boxes, and I casually threw it on. I quickly slipped into lockdown mode, turned my phone off, forgot about my dinner, and became engrossed in this incredible film.
This documentary examines the 1989 case of five black and Latino teenagers who were convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park. After having spent between six and 13 years each in prison, the men were given a chance at freedom when a serial rapist confessed to the crime.
The whole film is maddening, scary, and very real. In the current social climate, this is an important film to watch. Much like This American Life’s Serial podcast, The Central Park Five leaves you feeling helpless, angry, and utterly amazed.
West of Memphis (2012)
In West of Memphis, filmmaker Amy Berg tells the story of the fight to stop the state of Arkansas from executing an innocent man. Beginning with an examination into the police investigation into the 1993 murders of three little boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, Berg brings to light new evidence surrounding the arrests and convictions of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley. All three were wrongly convicted and imprisoned.
Produced by Lord of the Rings’ Peter Jackson, this film perfectly summarizes a case that spans 18 years of injustice and prejudice. Its one of my favourite documentaries of all time.
(Bonus: If you watch and love West of Memphis and are looking for a more play-by-play, in-depth investigative documentary on the West Memphis Three, the film Paradise Lost and its two sequels show a much more detailed version of events.)
Murder on a Sunday Morning (2002)
Murder on a Sunday Morning explores another terrible injustice, this time for Brenton Butler, who was arrested and tried for the 2000 murder of a tourist in Jacksonville, Florida. The prosecution’s case relied heavily upon a positive identification made by the victim’s husband and on Butler’s confession, which the teen claimed was coerced. The film follows Butler’s defense team building their case for his innocence.
Much like Making a Murderer, West of Memphis, and The Thin Blue Line, Murder on a Sunday Morning chronicles the court cases, appeals, and police reports tied to a horrible tragedy, followed by incredible failures in the justice system. Makes you lose a little bit of faith, doesn’t it?
Team Foxcatcher (2016)
No, not the Hollywood film Foxcatcher, although it is about the same subject. This is actually a brilliant documentary on the man himself, John DuPont, and the very strange and sad way his life turned out.
John DuPont used his money in a nefarious way, supposedly to help the USA Olympic Wrestling Team by building expensive training facilities on his home property called “Foxcatcher.” Dave Schultz, the USA’s most successful wrestler at the time, was among the closest to DuPont, defending him when DuPont’s bizarre activities began to cause concern among those living on the Foxcatcher estate. Eventually, Schultz’s loyalty to DuPont would cost him his life.
I love these sorts of documentaries, the “curtain twitcher” in me just loses her mind over this incredible investigation into someone’s odd and dangerous mind. Also, it’s a Netflix documentary, so you have absolutely no excuse not to watch it.
The Staircase (2004)
Okay, so this one’s a doozy, since it’s not technically a film, it’s a miniseries. But I think you’ll forgive me. In fact, you’re going to thank me.
Michael Peterson, a crime novelist, is arrested for the murder of his wife, Kathleen, a telecom executive, after she is found dead at the bottom of a staircase in their Durham, North Carolina mansion from an assault… or a fall. No one knows.
The format is very similar to Making a Murderer where the filmmakers set up camp on the side of the defense. But Michael Peterson and his family could not be more different than the subjects of Making a Murderer: Where Steven Avery is a borderline learning-disabled laborer living in a trailer on his family’s scrap yard, Peterson is a hyper-articulate, learned writer who showily smokes a pipe and quotes Shakespeare.
I swear I’ve used this word a million times already but this documentary is fascinating. It will grip you — you will binge and wake up three days after starting the first episode wondering where the time went.
In a sentence, Cropsey is a delicious blend of urban legend with real life events. Realizing the urban legend of their youth has actually come true, two filmmakers delve into the mystery surrounding five missing children and the real-life boogeyman linked to their disappearances. (Holy shit — I know.)
This film is genuinely scary because it’s the actual plot to several horror flicks. If you like creepy abandoned asylums, the Hudson River, underground death tunnels, and kidnappings, then this is the film for you. Watch it with the lights on, though, okay? I won’t be held responsible for sleepless nights or bad dreams…
Got any great true crime documentaries that I’ve missed? Let me know by tweeting me @mickeyralph and maybe I’ll include them in my next one! Also let me know any suggestions for lists you want to see from us in the future.