Netflix has been killing it lately in terms of their original programming. There isn't a week that goes by now without the streaming giant uploading a new binge-ready TV show, or one of their own movies, documentaries, or stand-up comedy specials. In fact, it's getting to the point where sometimes it seems like they don't even need content from other companies anymore; there's just so much homegrown material for subscribers to watch and enjoy.
Narcos, which recently debuted its second series, is one of the bigger Netflix hits. Based on the true story of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, the series was actually renewed for a third and fourth series only four days after series two debuted! The show is addictive viewing. We follow Escobar's exploits on one side, but also the lives of the DEA Agents trying to bring him down. The detail and realism of the show is paramount to its success; everything feels genuine and lived-in, with a palpable danger at all times.
But what is an avid Narcos fan supposed to do once they’ve finished binging the second series? Sure, they can wax lyrical to their heart's content with friends and family about the ins and outs of Escobar's drug empire, but what other true crime rabbit-hole can they disappear down for days on end to fill the void? The following documentaries, movies, podcasts, TV shows, books, and graphic novels should be more than up to the task of satisfying even the most obsessive true crime nut.
True Story tells the tale of disgraced New York Times reporter Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill), who finds out that a Death Row prisoner named Christian Longo (James Franco) had stolen his identity and was living in Mexico under Finkel’s name until he was caught by police. Finkel goes to meet with Longo, who tells him that he has been following his writing career for years and wants to tell his side of the story to Finkel, who sees this as his chance to write a story that will restore his journalistic career.
The film is an intriguing cat and mouse game between the two men, with Finkel (and the audience) never quite sure as to Longo’s true motivations. Franco plays Longo excellently, inhabiting the headspace of a despicable man who murdered his wife and three children in December 2001.
In April 2015, Longo wrote an open letter, from prison, to People Magazine in which he said, "I don’t feel that I can be redeemed. I believe that some actions are so terrible that nothing can ever atone for them." The timing of the letter was suspect, however, and seemed to line up with the belief that Longo loved the attention his crimes gave him: he wrote the letter just before the release of True Story in cinemas.
Johnny Depp might have spent the last number of years making movies like Alice In Wonderland and Dark Shadows with Tim Burton, or sullying his reputation in flops like Mortdecai, but in amongst all his recent sub-par efforts came this little gem.
The movie tells the story of infamous Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, who became a confidential informant for the FBI. Depp disappears into the role of Bulger, completely transforming himself both physically and emotionally. He is a compelling mixture of dangerous and feared, but also human and vulnerable at times. The supporting cast is similarly tremendous, with Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon and Dakota Johnson turning in top notch work. The real life story of Bulger is so interesting that it's honestly a surprise that Hollywood took so long to make a biopic about him, and the movie should convince any true crime fan to do some research on the man.
Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy and starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, was nominated for six Academy Awards at the 2016 ceremony and won two: Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. It is a sobering and in-depth dramatization of the investigation into cases of widespread and systemic child sex abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston area; cases that went back decades.
The movie does a great job showing how the Boston Globe newspapers Spotlight investigative unit worked tirelessly to expose the horrific extent of what had been done for so many years. The series of stories the paper ultimately published won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for Journalism on the basis that ‘it's courageous, comprehensive coverage of sexual abuse by priests… stirred local, national and international reaction and produced changes in the Roman Catholic Church’.
Black Mass wasn't the first time Johnny Depp had played a real-life figure in a true crime movie. In fact, he also played notorious gangster John Dillinger in Michael Mann's Public Enemies, as well as undercover FBI agent Joseph 'Joe' Pistone in Donnie Brasco, Mike Newell's brilliantly tragic 1996 film. His other real-life crime performance came in Blow, a 2001 movie that deals with US cocaine smuggler George Jung.
Jung's book Blow: How A Small Town Boy Made $100 Million With The Medellin Cocaine Cartel And Lost It All was the basis for the movie, which goes into great detail about Jung's dealings with Pablo Escobar. Fans of Narcos should definitely find something intriguing about this one. Depp is excellent in the movie, naturally, and though it has been criticized as being too similar to the likes of Boogie Nights and Goodfellas, it is still more than worth a watch.
Making A Murderer, the addictive and compelling 10-part documentary series produced by online-streaming giant Netflix, debuted December 18th 2015 and became something of a phenomenon. Besides turning the Festive Season into a blur of obsession for true crime fans, the documentary ignited massive interest in the (potentially) wrongful convictions of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin’s Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey for the murder of Teresa Halbach.
It all led to Avery’s bewildered lawyer Dean Strang becoming an unlikely celebrity sex symbol, but more importantly Avery has seen his case picked up by Kathleen Zellner, a Chicago-area attorney with a history of freeing the wrongfully convicted, and Tricia Bushnell of the Midwest Innocence Project.
His nephew Dassey actually recently had his conviction overturned and the US Supreme Court has ordered him to be released within 90 days, if the case isn't appealed. There is little doubt that the documentary caused enough of a splash that the case and its inconsistencies were looked at again, and that shows the power of a well-produced true crime narrative.
In the mid-1930s, an alarming number of bodies were found in the Cleveland, Ohio area. More accurately, a number of body parts were found; an arm here, a torso there. It was discovered that all the victims had been decapitated, with the suspicion that their heads were separated from their necks while they were still alive. In the span of four years, 13 deaths were attributed to the Cleveland Torso Killer.
Aside from the grisly modus operandi, arguably the most interesting aspect of the Torso Killer case was that it was investigated by none other than Elliot Ness, the Public Safety Director of Cleveland, who was of course most famous for being the leader of The Untouchables, the group of Federal Agents who brought down Al Capone’s empire. The case of the Torso Killer, however, was not a success for Ness, and it remains unsolved to this day.
Between 1998 and 1999, a Cleveland comic book writer/artist named Brian Michael Bendis (who would go on to become one of the most acclaimed and well-known writers in the medium) teamed up with co-writer Mark Andreyko to create Torso, a true crime graphic novel based on the case.
The case of the Zodiac killer in the late 1960s and early 1970s in San Francisco is easily one of the most famous unsolved cases in history, with an army of armchair sleuths, the world still poring over the evidence and positing different theories on several dedicated Zodiac websites and message forums. Countless books have been written and the 2007 film, directed by David Fincher and starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr., received widespread critical acclaim.
Fincher and the film’s writer James Vanderbilt used Robert Graysmith’s famous non-fiction book Zodiac: The Full Story Of The Infamous Unsolved Zodiac Murders In California as one of their research materials into the case (as well as conducting their own interviews of witnesses, police and the only two survivors of credited Zodiac attacks). The film is an engrossing watch, uncomfortable and compelling in equal measure. Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith in the film, depicted as a wide-eyed and naïve cartoonist working at the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper who becomes obsessed with the case.
For a very long time, Graysmith was seen as the foremost expert on the case. But what if his credibility was called into question? Read on...
Thomas Henry Horan, a University professor and Zodiac obsessive, has questioned Graysmith's authority on the Zodiac killer. In fact, he's penned three eBooks under the banner title of The Great Zodiac Killer Hoax!
Horan goes into great detail about how he thinks there never was a Zodiac killer at all, and that the letters the killer sent to police and newspapers at the time were a hoax exploiting five unrelated murders. Horan even questions Graysmith, saying that he lied about the contents of the original police and FBI files he based his book on.
Naturally, Horan’s views are extremely controversial, and other Zodiac experts have been able to poke as many holes in his theories as he has in Graysmith’s, but his books are still an interesting curiosity… even if his theory is likely pretty far off-base. They are, at the very least, intriguing reads that provoke some critical thought about the case and encourage a conversation about it.
Fans of Investigation Discovery’s television series Homicide Hunter will already be familiar with the dulcet tones of Joe Kenda, a retired detective who spent 23 years in the Colorado Springs Police Department’s Homicide Division. The show, in which Kenda narrates re-enactments of some of the crimes he investigated during his career, has made him an unlikely star. But, listen closely to Kenda’s stories and specifically how he tells them, and it makes perfect sense why true crime fans have taken to him.
Detective is a podcast that began in 2015, also produced by the Investigation Discovery network, and it functions as something of a companion piece to Homicide Hunter. Each episode is simply Kenda talking about crimes, criminals, victims and ultimately, murder. Over the 10-episode season, the listener gains insight into Kenda’s home-life and the strain his job took on his marriage, and it is endlessly compelling listening.
The murder trial of NFL star and actor O.J. Simpson, which spanned from October 1994 to November 1995, has been described as the most heavily publicized trial in American legal history. The combination of Simpson's celebrity and the lengthy televised trial contributed to what was called 'the trial of the century'.
In 2016, Ryan Murphy (creator of Glee and American Horror Story) produced the first season of a new anthology television show, American Crime Story. The season was subtitled The People v. O.J. Simpson and couldn't have been more different than his previous shows. The writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander probed every aspect of the Simpson case in an exhaustive and realistic, yet also highly entertaining, fashion. The show was showered with plaudits, including 5 Primetime Emmy wins. Main cast members Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance and Sterling K. Brown all took home acting awards for their impressive performances, and it also won Outstanding Limited Series.
The Seven Five (or Precinct Seven Five as it is known in the UK) is a feature-length documentary charting the story of Michael Dowd, one of the dirtiest cops to ever wear a badge. Dowd worked in the Seven Five precinct of the New York Police Department in the 1980s and early 1990s, and this slick documentary lays bare all the wrongdoings he was involved in, from his early days of bribery and some light burglary to his days as a paid protector/informant for drug kingpin Adam Diaz. Dowd once said in an interview that the culture of being a police officer at this time in New York made you "feel like you’re God, like no one can touch you."
While sometimes the morality of the tale can get a little lost, simply because Dowd is such a charismatic storyteller who often shows little to no remorse for his crimes, the documentary doesn’t forget to show him at his lowest, framing everything around Dowd’s confessions of his malfeasance to the Mollen Commission on Police Corruption in 1993.
The second podcast on this list, You Must Remember This is the brainchild of Karina Longworth, the founder of Cinematical.com and former film critic for LA Weekly and is a storytelling show that explores the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century. It’s inclusion here is merited by the show’s superlative 12-part exploration of the life of Charles Manson, the formation of his ‘Family’ cult and the murders he inspired, as well as the effect he had on the figures in the entertainment industry that he became entwined with.
Longworth expertly paints an audio picture of Manson and his crimes, revealing to the listener how his evil activities were both inspired by and facilitated by the 1960s ‘hippie’ counterculture. She refuses to think of Manson as some sort of criminal mastermind, instead believing him to be ‘one of millions of people who came to California thinking it was their destiny to get famous’ but who simply didn’t have the talent to accomplish that.
Green River Killer: A True Detective Story is an interesting piece of true crime media for a few reasons. Number one, it’s a graphic novel, released by Dark Horse Comics in 2011. Number two, it’s written by Jeff Jensen, a journalist most known for his work for Entertainment Weekly. Thirdly, Jensen has a very personal connection to the story of Gary Ridgway, the notorious Washington serial killer who pled guilty to murdering 48 women over the span of 20 years (although now says he believes he may have killed between 75 and 80): Jensen’s own father Tom was a detective recruited to the Green River Task Force in January 1984 and eventually became the sole detective working the case from 1990 onwards.
The graphic novel focusses on one of the most interesting time periods in the case: Ridgway, who was originally arrested in 2001, made a deal (through his lawyers) that he would plead guilty to all 48 murders (having only been charged with 8 of them in 2001) in exchange for his sentence being reduced from death to life in prison. Ridgway then conducted a series of secret interviews with detectives, including Tom Jensen, in order to corroborate all his claims. All in all, the graphic novel is tense, moving, frightening and compelling and features brilliantly understated black and white artwork by Jonathan Case.
Most true crime enthusiasts will know what Serial is; its massive success was hard to ignore. But for any that don’t know, it is a podcast that began its first season in October 2014 and told the true life story of the case of Adnan Syed, a high school student accused of the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Syed was convicted by the Baltimore Circuit Court and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2000, despite maintaining his innocence. The podcast tells his story through a series of interviews with Syed conducted by Sarah Koenig, the creator of Serial, and various other interviews and snippets to do with the case.
Koenig says she intentionally structured Serial in a way that would make it addictive to the listener; she wanted it to ‘feel like great TV. When people listened we wanted to light up part of their brains that light up when they watch House Of Cards’. It certainly worked, as the 12-episode season garnered 78 million downloads– an average of 6.5 million per episode.
Season 2 began on 10th December 2015, and this season followed a different case: the story of Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who was held in captivity by the Taliban for five years, only to return home to be arrested for desertion.
The Jinx: The Life And Deaths Of Robert Durst was a six-part HBO series that chronicled filmmaker Andrew Jarecki’s interviews with Durst, the 71-year old member of an extremely wealthy New York City real estate family, who was a suspect in multiple crimes: the disappearance of his first wife Kathie in 1982 and the murder of writer Susan Berman in 2000. Durst was actually put on trial for the murder and dismemberment of his Galveston, Texas neighbour Morris Black in 2001, but escaped punishment for that crime on the grounds of self-defence. Nevertheless, a black cloud had always seemed to follow the man over the course of his life. This, of course, made him perfect material for a true crime documentary.
The series achieved notoriety when Durst was arrested in New Orleans on the night before the final episode aired on HBO. He was wanted in connection with the 2000 slaying of Susan Berman after authorities revealed they had new evidence linking him to the murder. Then whenever the final episode was shown, it revealed Durst saying, "What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course" into his microphone, which he did not realize was still on after an interview session with Jarecki.