The disturbing saga of the West Memphis Three has been playing out for nearly 20 years now. In 1993, three teenagers in West Memphis, Arkansas — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley — were tried and convicted for the horrific murder of three young boys.
The teens were accused of performing a Satanic ritual in the woods, and implicated as much for their black clothes and heavy metal records as anything else. No physical evidence tied them to the scene, and later revelations would raise multiple red flags on the trial, including suggestions of false testimony, coerced confessions and jury misconduct.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, new this week to DVD, is the third in a series of HBO original documentaries chronicling the case of the West Memphis Three. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky originally went to Arkansas in 1993 to cover a lurid and sensational trial, but soon became convinced that they were witnessing a modern day witch hunt. Their 1996 documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills was followed by a 2000 sequel Paradise Lost 2: Revelations.
The films raised such public awareness that celebrities from Metallica to the Dixie Chicks to Johnny Depp rallied to the cause. As of 2011, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley had spent 18 years in federal prison, their various appeals denied by a stubborn legal system despite mountains of new exculpatory evidence, including DNA analysis.
Last year, just weeks before Purgatory was to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the three convicted men were abruptly released from prison thanks to an obscure legal maneuver.
The DVD release of Purgatory is like an overflowing case file on the story of the West Memphis Three. The film itself includes footage from the previous two installments, as well as an epilogue covering the events of last year. There's also a collection of previously unreleased footage; a panel discussion with Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley; and a recent interview with the filmmakers.
It's a remarkable piece of documentary filmmaking, assembled with great skill and evident passion. (Purgatory was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature last year.) It's also very hard to watch. The film contains graphic crime scene footage and candid interviews with devastated families. The filmmakers correctly keep their focus on the miscarriage of justice; that's the crime that can still be remedied here. But the faces of those little boys — Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers — are the images that linger.
The story isn't over yet, either. Director Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) and producer Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) premiered their own documentary on the case, West of Memphis, at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and plan to release the film to theaters in December. West of Memphis chronicles the history of the case, then shifts the focus to the chase for the real killer.
As a documentary film, Purgatory is darkly enthralling. I spent several hours watching the movie and the extras, and several more reading up on the case online. It's that kind of film, and that kind of story.
The last word belongs to co-director Berlinger: “Why does it take three well-funded HBO documentaries over 18 years and millions of dollars from a vast array of celebrities and regular people agitating to give these guys the kind of defense that they deserved back in '93? There's something wrong with the justice system. In this particular case, there was a fluke, but there are hundreds of cases where people claim to be innocent.”
A four-disc collector's edition of the entire trilogy of Paradise Lost films will be released in November.
Also New This Week:
The teen sci-fi freakout THE HUNGER GAMES comes to DVD, Blu-ray and digital this Saturday. Filmed in North Carolina, the movie is a lot of fun and has some mischievous sci-fi conjecture regarding the future of America, TV and class resentments. Extras are bundled on a second disc with both the DVD and Blu-ray packages, and include more than three hours of bonus materials.
Based on actual events, the Australian thriller THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS has been compared to David Fincher's Zodiac and won a Special Jury Prize last year at Cannes.
The long-awaited Blu-ray debuts of JAWS and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS hit shelves this week, both with extensive digital restoration and packed with extras.
Plus: The comedy-noir BREATHLESS, the Cuban zom-com JUAN OF THE DEAD, the Indonesian bloodbath THE RAID: REDEMPTION and TV-on-DVD collections from American Pickers, Community, Dexter, Glee, Nikita, Pawn Stars and — for you Masterpiece Theatre costume drama nerds — the UK broadcast edition of The Forsyte Saga.