I've seen my fair share of documentaries. Some great, some OK and some just appalling (Riding In Vans With Boys comes to mind). I had never seen one that left me incredibly disturbed and frightened at the same time. Besides, I always thought that was a feeling that you could only get from watching a gritty, but fictional, horror movie like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or The Exorcist. Documentaries don't have those jumps like the ones you find in the original Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street. Well, Paradise Lost (and especially its sequel) have changed that perspective for me.
I had seen Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger's revealing look at the making of Metallica's St. Anger in Some Kind of Monster, but I had never seen the film that put them first in the spotlight. Paradise Lost originally made headlines because it was the first time that Metallica allowed some of their songs be used in a film. Well, the focus of documentary itself made an even bigger impact upon its release in 1996.
Paradise Lost takes an even view at the aftermath of the murders of three young boys in a small Arkansas town. Three teenagers, later known as the West Memphis 3, are arrested and sentenced to life in prison (including one on death row). But the question that lingers throughout the whole film is "did they or didn't they?" To me, I couldn't tell with Paradise Lost. Upon viewing the sequel, I had a better understanding and felt really uneasy at the same time. I don't want to open up a debate here, but let's just say that more questions and suspicions arise as Paradise Lost 2 unfolds. You could say there was a heavy bias in favor of the ones in jail, but certain people not in jail seem more like suspects versus the ones that are in prison.
I'm not going to spoil anything more, but I will say that I'm glad a third installment is set to arrive sometime next year. The truly scary thing is that this is not some fictional film claiming it is real. This is not some Blair Witch Project or a The Last House on the Left or even a Fargo kind of thing. It's something no marketing ploy can do.
Like when I saw The Exorcist for the first time a few years ago, a lot of stuff from Paradise Lost stuck in my mind with a sense of terror. There were no lame jumps out of doors, tricky musical stings or gory make-up. It's just real-life stuff that is fascinating and terrifying at the same time.
I understand why people turn to film to be entertained and would stay away from a film like this. No, this is definitely not popcorn material. As a matter of fact, I had to watch a few hilarious episodes of Police Squad! to take my mind off of Paradise Lost. Yup, it was that powerful a charge. But these movies are proof as far as how powerful documentaries can be. They can be shallow and boring, but they can also get a charge out of you that you can't with fiction. (Maybe that's why I'm so attracted to documentaries in the first place.)