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Rarely do we chart true crime in the pages, virtual or
otherwise, of FANGORIA, but in the case of Amy Berg’s new documentary (a world
premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival) on an ongoing, painful and
often detailed subject, it makes perfect sense. 18 years ago, in West Memphis,
Arkansas, three little boys were found submerged in a ravine, bound, dead,
their genitals apparently skinned, their bodies cut, torn, broken. In the small
Bible belt community, human agony at the unspeakable crime was matched only by
murmers of Satanic worship spreading like wildfire.
Enter Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, teenage pals who
happened to adore black clothes, horror movies, weird fiction and heavy metal—intentional
outsiders and, by all accounts, sweet, thoughtful and loving young men. After a
forced confession from a third young man, the slow Jessie Misskelley Jr.,
fingers pointed and suspicion started to swirl around Echols and Baldwin. They
were arrested, and in the following months were tried and convicted of
first-degree murder, Baldwin and Misskelley getting life and the articulate
Echols sentenced to death.
After PARADISE LOST, an astonishing HBO movie by
documentarians Joe Berlinger (who would, oddly, would go on to direct the
undervalued killer-teen film BLAIR WITCH 2) and Bruce Sinofsky, was unveiled in
1996, audiences both average and celebrity picked their collective jaws up off
the floor after witnessing one of the most astonishing documented miscarriages
of justice ever observed. These three boys were clearly railroaded to their
fates, innocent and in a state of shock themselves over what initially seemed
like a glitch—a false arrest that would eventually dissolve as quickly as it
came to be. It did not, and over the next 18 years (and two even more upsetting
sequels by Berlinger and Sinofsky), DNA evidence proved them innocent—and, more
alarmingly, implicated a man who as of this writing still walks free, despite
glaring arrows indicating otherwise.
As the years progressed and the trio rotted in prison, they
became known as The West Memphis Three, a cause championed by the likes of
Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, The Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines and actor Johnny
Depp. Finally, employing a bizarre legal loophole, and due to the efforts of
all involved, including Echols’ crusading wife Lori Davis and curiously, and
most importantly, filmmaker Peter Jackson, the now grown men were released,
free men after losing almost two decades to nightmarish skullduggery and
While the preceding chronicle barely touches on the depths
of this serpentine case, and most of the intricacies have been well-documented
in the PARADISE LOST trilogy as well as numerous news reports, Berg’s film
admirably and comprehensively condenses the story, and goes much further into
explicit angles that the more meditative Berlinger/Sinofsky pictures did not.
Jackson and Fran Walsh co-produced the picture (with Davis and Echols), and
thus their crucial involvement in the case is considerably detailed (Jackson
actually commissioned private investigations that uncovered essential evidence
and debunked much myth), and dramatic visuals are employed to illustrate just
how the physical damage was inflicted on the young victims. Satanic rituals and
serrated knives be damned; it’s highly likely that snapping turtles and other
water life feasted on the corpses, and in a disturbing sequence, Berg documents
a turtle-on-pig-carcass feeding frenzy that essentially proves it.
Though not a horror film, WEST OF MEMPHIS is infinitely more
horrifying than any fiction. What these three young men endured is unthinkable,
and to see the handsome, highly intelligent, literate and articulate Echols
behind bars, never seeing the sun for 18 years and enduring abuse from bored
prison guards, is as upsetting as the miasma of corruption circling him. Even
eerier is to watch the smug showboating of the dead-eyed individual who likely
committed the crimes. For now, that man walks free. Hopefully, the legacy of the
West Memphis Three does not simply end with their own freedom; and if nothing
else, this film hammers home the point that the real tragedy of the case is not
exclusively the fate of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley. Rather, it is the souls
of the three children whose fates were relegated to an afterthought, and the
fact that their actual murderer has yet to be brought to justice.
During TIFF, we learned that Echols—who attended the
festival along with Depp and Maines—is a great fan of FANGORIA. In prison, his
wife/savior Lori would bring him a diverse array of books to read, on subjects
ranging from Buddhism, philosophy and history to Stephen King thrillers. In
that mix were copies of our magazine, which served as a companion to the
falsely accused young man during an ordeal that devoured half his life. And
that’s the most relevant reason why we are discussing WEST OF MEMPHIS here:
Echols’ fate could have, under the right/wrong circumstances, befallen any one
of us, we fans of the macabre and bizarre who march slightly out of step with
the mainstream, enough that many unimaginative minds fear us.
WEST OF MEMPHIS tries to comprehensively condense the many
dark narratives weaving in and out of this case, and succeeds. And at its heart
is a story of survival and optimism in the face of hopelessness.
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