Review: 'The Sons Of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness'

Post by: Rick Ellis 05 May, 2021

The reasons why true crime stories are so popular is a complex and nuanced discussion, but there are probably two primary reasons. One just have to do with the crime itself and the resulting investigation. Most people can't conceive of murdering someone or planning and committing some complex, often evil crime. So learning the details of someone else's crime is..well not entertaining exactly. But it can be a fascinating story to follow and a great true crime story has everything from loss and revenge to love and redemption. Stories of true crimes are as complex and compelling as the finest novel or scripted movie.

But the second reason for their popularity have to do with the need for justice to be fulfilled. There are tens of thousands of people in America who spend every day consumed by the smallest detail of some crime that has captured their imagination. They can devote hundreds or even thousands of hours into chasing down the next detail, the next person who can put them closer to bringing some sort of resolution to their pet case. Sometimes it's bringing a murderer to justice. Other times it's just determining how the crime was committed or freeing someone who they believe has been wrongly convicted of the crime.

Tracking down the details of any crime can be heady stuff and it quickly the line between determination and insanity can be very hard to discern. There's a temptation to think that if you just spend one more hour going over casefiles or devote time to another phone call that the "truth" of the crime will reveal itself. It's hard for even the most level-headed person to keep their perspective and that's why the detective obsessed with a case until it eats him or her up is such a familiar true crime trope. History is littered with well-meaning people who ended up lost inside a case they couldn't quite solve.

At first glance, watching a four-episode docuseries about the infamous "Son Of Sam" killings feels like overkill. Beginning in the summer of 1976, someone began shooting people in New York City in what seemed to be an almost random basis. At first, the crimes were given the name "The 44-Caliber Killer" due to the type of gun used in the crimes. But a letter eventually was sent to a local newspaper by someone claiming to the suspect. They called themselves the "Son Of Sam" and it was a nickname that seemed to perfectly fit psyche of New York City in the late 1970s. Crime was up, the police were seen as often corrupt and incompetent and the city's tabloid newspapers were at the height of their tawdry glory.

By the time David Berkowitz was arrested by police in August 1977, eight shootings had taken place, resulting in six deaths and seven injuries. Berkowitz quickly confessed and explained that he committed the crimes because of instructions given to him by a demon which had manifested itself into a dog owned by his neighbor Sam. He later admitted that story was false and pled guilty to the crimes. He was sentenced to six life sentences and to be honest, like many people that is pretty much everything I knew about the crimes before I watched the unsettling and often frustrating new Netflix docuseries The Sons Of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness.

Even before David Bertkowitz made his confession, there were growing questions about the details of the police investigation. The Berkowitz confession was a convenient break for police, who had bungled his arrest. An officer had broken into Berkowtz's car and that was how police had obtained the evidence that ultimately led to his arrest. A trial and evidence discovery could have led to all of the tainted evidence being excluded from the case - which could have led to Berkowitz's release. Instead, he confesses to the shootings and initially provides a crazy explanation that involved a demon manifesting himself as the dog of Berkowitz's neighbor.

Maury Terry was writing corporate puff pieces for IBM's in-house magazine when the shootings began, but he quickly became interested in the case. Even more so after Berkowitz was arrested and sentenced to six life terms. Terry quit his job to become a local newspaper crime reporter focused on the Son of Sam case and began writing a series of increasingly critical pieces about the investigation. As he pointed out holes in the Berkowitz confession, he began to fall into a rabbit hole of conflicting stories about Satanic cults, police corruption and the desire of many New Yorkers to just move on, no matter what the problems with the confession.

While The Sons Of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness begins as a recounting of the increasingly unhinged details surrounding the case, it slowly morphs into a telling of the increasing obsession of Maury Terry. The journalist makes some real progress with the case and seems to find substantial proof that Berkowitz didn't commit the crime by himself. He found solid proof of Berkowitz's membership in a cult and lots of circumstantial evidence that other murders took place, including the death of several people who appear to be have been members of the cult.

But he struggled to get police officials to reopen the case and his growing frustration led to an obsession that overwhelmed every aspect of his life. His marriage failed, his health faltered. He struggled to discern the differences between valid clues and unlikely conspiracy theories and by time he of his death he was left with nothing more than his theories and a small group of like-minded investigators.

In the end, The Sons Of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness is as much a story about getting lost in the search for justice as it is a recounting of the details of the Son Of Sam killings. It's a compelling, sad and complex story that is well worth devoting four hours to telling.

The Sons Of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness
premieres Wednesday, May 5th, 2021 on Netflix.

Last modified on Wednesday, 05 May 2021 01:32