While mass murdering and sociopaths had always existed, new methods of communication had finally taken hold by the 1970s. Government entities could store more data, technology had evolved in forensic analysis, and psychology gained a foothold in criminal profiling. Yet, the rise of new methods of communication hastened the spread of disinformation. The lines between conspiracy and news began to fold in on themselves, with frightening results. A new documentary series, The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness, follows author Maury Terry‘s investigations in David Berkowitz, the “occult,” and the rise of cults during the 1960s and 1970s.
One man, Maury Terry, could not wrap his head around the killings and shootings that emerged in the era. David Berkowitz, the notorious Son of Sam killer, becomes the object of Terry’s fascination. When the NYPD arrested Berkowitz, he had killed six individuals and wounded two more in the summer of 1976. Despite the police evidence, Terry discovers holes in the case and pursues evidence to support his own theory: Berkowitz did not act alone. As he pursues the narrative, his actions begin to unravel his personal life, making it impossible to separate his obsessions from his relationships.
Director Joshua Zeman specializes in bringing stories like Terry and Berkowitz’s relationship to the screen. His filmography includes several series on folklore, urban legends, and serial killers, making Zeman a perfect shepherd for the story. Zeman approaches the material with respect, including the materials that Terry collected himself. At the same time, Zeman layers skepticism over the tale. He follows Terry’s logic but brings in critics of Terry’s technique and data collection. While the investigative narrative matters, Zeman’s focus on the case’s effects on Terry’s life is far more engaging.
While the series never openly acknowledges the ties, it’s impossible to ignore satanic panic looming in modern-day America. As with Q: Into the Storm, the larger questions of conspiracy theory logic loom over the docuseries. With the right narratives, facts, and evidence, nearly any story can feel plausible. Utilizing the soothing and trusted voice of Paul Giamatti adds a trustworthy source to explain the material. Giamatti’s narration draws out the nuances of Terry’s research and helps sell the information Terry’s collected as fact. Zeman lets the conspiracies play out, and at times, the evidence fits his narrative.
When Zeman pulls back the curtain on the trouble brewing in Terry’s life, it becomes clear the man was looking for something larger than himself. As the world turned and society changed, Terry’s white conservative upbringing becomes a piece of the story. He did not identify with the countercultural forces that had begun to change minds. Instead, he found a scapegoat for the rapidly changing world.
For Terry, personal interviews with Berkowitz affirmed his beliefs. Those one-on-one conversations were dominated by Terry, who put his own theories into the air rather than let Berkowitz answer for himself. Terry’s methods feed his subject a plausible story and open his own findings to scrutiny. Terry’s research begins to stretch far beyond the killings perpetrated in the summer of 1976. Chasing leads back decades, Terry’s sprawling case begins to connect dots that explain Charles Manson and other serial killers of the previous decade. Connections to larger, powerful forces are cornerstones of most conspiracies.
Zeman’s four-part series may open with a breakdown of Berkowitz and his killings, but the last three parts focus squarely on Terry’s obsessive nature. The path he pursues ruins his life, and as some believers in QAnon have found, this belief can destroy relationships. The timing of the release is no mistake and makes Sons of Sam an interesting companion piece to Q: Into the Storm from earlier this year.
Perhaps the greatest flaw of the series is in the production. Too often, the series becomes rote in its investigative imagery. The visual resemblance to other Netflix crime documentaries remains a turnoff. The house style is most apparent when several series come across our queues at the same time. In the past few months alone, Murder Among the Mormons and This is a Robbery featured nearly identical stylistic choices. The extremely graphic images (warning for pet lovers) throughout Sons of Sam may be the only true differentiator. Sadly, an oversaturation on the market makes series like Sons of Sam more disposable than one might expect.