A still from “The Sons of Sam,” a film that documents an investigation into a notorious series of murders committed by David Berkowitz—and perhaps others.Photograph courtesy Netflix
The biggest mystery of the new four-part true-crime series “The Sons of Sam,” from the director Joshua Zeman, has little to do with the infamous murders, in 1976 and 1977, of young people in New York City. Rather, it’s a mystery that Zeman himself sets up, in his own voice, at the very start. In 2017, he says, he received boxes of materials related to the murders from a late investigative journalist, Maury Terry, who’d devoted much of his career to pursuing alternate theories of the murder case. Those materials, and Terry’s quest, are the framework for Zeman’s series. What the film leaves unresolved, to its detriment, is the relationship between Zeman and Terry that led Zeman to make his film in the first place. The entire movie plays like an effort to compensate for that absence, and turns what could have been a fascinatingly personal docuseries into a distractingly conventional, arm’s-length one.
To set up the story, Zeman summarizes the facts of the Son of Sam shootings—eight attacks, from July, 1976, to July, 1977, in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn, that targeted young couples, especially ones sitting together in cars, and also young women. As the movie makes clear, the killings terrified the city—all the more so because the attacker taunted the world with tangled and menacing letters in which he identified himself as the “son of Sam” and offered up a jumble of occult references to adorn his reign of terror. He was intensely conscious of his own public image, even taking care to address a letter directly to the New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin (who sparked controversy, including in the pages of The New Yorker, by publishing portions of it). From the beginning, Zeman tells this story with an ardent sense of research that’s packaged in an impersonally conventional format—a blend of original interviews (including with retired police officers, journalists who’d covered the case, and Terry’s associates), archival news footage, photographs, newspaper clips, and other documents, all displayed through a floating and zooming camera that both forces the feeling of motion and turns substance into impressions. Nonetheless, Zeman captures a startling moment of revelation—an amazing detail of banal police work that cracked the case—in an interview with James Justus, a retired N.Y.P.D. detective, who connected David Berkowitz, of Yonkers, to the attacks by means of a parking ticket.
Berkowitz was arrested and confessed to all of the murders. (He remains in prison to this day.) But, as the movie makes clear, something in the news struck Terry—a former journalist, then working as an in-house writer for the research department of I.B.M.—as inconsistent. He was troubled by apparent disparities between the composite sketches of the shooter, based on eyewitness accounts, and the appearance of Berkowitz. The N.Y.P.D. and the city’s mayor, Abraham Beame, declared the case closed, but Terry suspected that there were others involved who hadn’t yet been arrested, let alone acknowledged, and he decided to investigate on his own. His investigation led him to John Wheat Carr, the son of a man named Sam Carr; they were neighbors of Berkowitz’s in Yonkers, and John, Terry thought, resembled one of the composites. In addition to noting that the man in question was, literally, a son of Sam, Terry found plausible references to John in one of Berkowitz’s letters, and he discovered a local, violent satanic cult in which both Carr and Berkowitz had been involved. Then, in 1978, he learned that Carr had just died, in Minot, North Dakota, of a gunshot wound. Terry began to publish his research (the New York Post put his findings on the front page), and it grew stranger: returning to his White Plains home from a reporting trip in Minot, he learned that Carr’s brother Michael died in New York, in a car accident in which he appeared to have been intentionally run off the road. The Queens District Attorney, John Santucci, intended to reopen the case. But the N.Y.P.D. strongly opposed doing so, and publicly denounced both Terry and Santucci.
Terry nonetheless persisted—indeed, became increasingly obsessed with the case. He corresponded with Berkowitz, who gave him an apparent tip on the 1974 killing of a woman at Stanford University. Terry believed that he’d found evidence of a wide-scale cult that was involved in the Son of Sam attacks as well as other, seemingly unrelated ones. (He believed that the last of the attacks had been committed in order to make a snuff film—and that two apparently unrelated murders, in 1981, bore the marks of the cult’s search for that film.) He published his evidence in a book, “The Ultimate Evil.” Yet the tabloid nature of his discoveries, and the solid wall of law enforcement and political figures resistant to reopening the case, pushed Terry out of the limelight and into the realm of crankdom. He went deeper into what his friends called a rabbit hole. He began to drink heavily, and his marriage fell apart. After years of ill health and deep frustration, he died, in 2015.
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Terry is the virtual narrator of “The Sons of Sam.” Throughout the film, texts of his are excerpted in voice-over (by Paul Giamatti), and, though the film does not indicate the source of those texts, they seem to come from “The Ultimate Evil.” For most of “The Sons of Sam,” Zeman retraces the steps of Terry’s investigations. He also sketches a biography of Terry through interviews with friends and relatives, including Terry’s former wife, Georgiana Byrne, and his lifelong friend Charlie Ott. But what Zeman conceals—although he discusses the matter in his introduction to a new edition of “The Ultimate Evil,” and in interviews—is that in the final years of Terry’s life the two men were friends and spent a great deal of time together, talking about the Son of Sam case.
As Zeman explains, he first learned of Terry’s work in 2008, while co-directing the terrific documentary “Cropsey,” a first-person, memoir-rooted exploration of an urban legend involving a serial killer and a satanic cult. Several New York detectives whom he interviewed for that film made reference to Terry’s work—and agreed with his theories. In 2010, Zeman and Terry first met, and then continued to meet. “During our friendship, Maury would pester me to do a documentary on his investigation, and for years I refused,” Zeman writes. But none of this backstory is explained in the film, which instead comes across as the cinematic equivalent of a pentimento, with the trace of the men’s friendship concealed beneath a conventional documentary form.
One of the strangest and most frustrating aspects of “The Sons of Sam,” for that matter, is Zeman’s own absence. He’s never seen, and, after his scant introductory voice-over, he’s heard on the soundtrack only a handful of times, posing brief questions to interview subjects. He never offers a point of view or a narration, let alone an on-camera appearance, to suggest his vigorous activity, whether with Terry before the filming started or along the route of his research. Instead, he organizes his clips, interviews, archival materials, and sound bites to do his speaking for him. Although it’s very moving to see participants in the events (including one of the victims, Carl Denaro), their onscreen presence is also sharply reduced, their appearances lasting only a few seconds at a time. Zeman doesn’t revel in the faces of people speaking, doesn’t pay attention to their expressions. As they speak on the soundtrack, he keeps the visual track moving at a hectic pace to illustrate their remarks, whether offering tidbits of related visuals or merely providing unrelated, mood-reinforcing correlates of unclear provenance. Far from making the story move quickly, these techniques seem to slow it down, substituting a frenzy of distraction for concentrated thought. The series’ overly familiar and impersonal form dominates, overwhelms, even obscures its ample, fascinating substance.
“The Sons of Sam” should have taken a page from “Cropsey,” or from another true-crime documentary that involves an obstinate researcher dismantling another set of urban legends surrounding another appalling crime: “The Witness,” from 2015. Directed by James Solomon, it tells the story of the murder of Kitty Genovese, in Queens, in 1964. It, too, relies to an unwarranted extent on decorative graphics, yet it’s redeemed by the filmmaker’s account of his relationship with Genovese’s brother Bill. Bill spent years conducting his own investigation of his sister’s death, and his onscreen discussions and demonstrations of elements of the crime turn the questions regarding the case’s horrors into a personal, experiential tragedy. That’s the kind of imaginative and moving work that Zeman squandered the chance to make—whether by filming Terry in the time of their discussions or, even now, by evoking, in his own voice, Terry and their relationship. As a result, he turns Terry’s extraordinary story into just another yarn.