Sons of Sam is a dark diversion for those who have a taste for the macabre while satisfying conspiracy theorists and crime aficionados alike.
This review of Netflix’s The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness contains no spoilers — the docuseries will be released on the streaming service on May 5, 2021.
Netflix has become the hub for true crime docuseries this past year. Its latest, The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness, is just as much about the man who covered the story as it is about the one who committed the actual crimes. Maury Terry was an investigative reporter for the Garnett newspaper at the time. He then made a name for himself by reporting that he believed David Berkowitz was not the only man involved in these crimes. This brought him to the height of his fame, as well as to his ultimate demise. Terry seemed to be an archetypal film character. You see the driven reporter who becomes so involved in the story it breaks them mentally, or they became the story. All unravels at a time of government overreach, mistrust in the police, extreme heat indexes, religious fever, and paranoia.
Sons is based on Terry’s work and his book, The Ultimate Evil: An Investigation Into a Dangerous Satanic Cult. He believed that Berkowitz was never a lone gunman. Terry felt that Berkowitz was part of a satanic cult whose members gathered behind a Yonkers apartment building in an abandoned park. The crazy theory is molded into a one-sided potent story as it mostly tells Terry’s account. The lines he draws as the series goes on are as far-fetched as you might think.
For instance, there are half a dozen sketches of eyewitnesses to the murders that never look like one man. He looked further and found out that the dog that allegedly “told” Berkowitz started a killing spree. The canine was owned by a violent drunk named Sam Carr, who lived behind his apartment building. Sam had two sons whom he allegedly physically and emotionally abused.
These men and Berkowitz knew each other. All were veterans of the Vietnam war, and they all most likely suffered some form of trauma. Then, finally, emerged a trail behind the apartment building that led to an abandoned park shed that had satanic drawings on it and bodies of dead German shepherds inside. This group was known as The Process Church of the Final Judgement (awful name) and was a religious group with alleged ties to Charles Manson.
Netflix’s The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness is directed by Joshua Zeman, a man who has produced such films as The Station Agent and Mysterious Skin. It’s a fascinating character study not only of Berkowitz but also of Terry’s dogged pursuit of his theory. Paul Giamatti narrates the story, and his reading of Terry’s words is particularly effective. In fact, it is downright creepy. They compare pictures of the Carr brothers and sketches of eyewitnesses. Either the eyewitnesses were right, or The Sons of Sam dropped the ball. The sketches look nothing like the Carr brothers, in my opinion. In fact, the one they keep showing looks to me like Maury Terry’s.
This brings me to my point. The Sons of Sam is particularly effective at catching the viewer’s attention. Even if it all seems unbelievable, it had me forming my own conspiracy theories. But you have to remember that, at the time this was happening, on each side of the coast, there were race riots, and veterans were coming back home from Vietnam. Trauma had not even been classified by the DSM yet—alcoholism and drugs were being used to self-medicate. Families were living with violent drunks who did not know how to process their trauma. People began to form their own religions, which led to a fear of satanic cults.
Individuals’ faith in God began to crumble, socioeconomic despair led to race riots, and panic began to set in. All of a sudden serial killers began to pop up on each side of the coast. The world began to change (or we just started realizing our own harsh reality). Mental health issues, multiplied by trauma and self-medication with illicit drugs led us to Son of Sam, the Night Stalker, the Zodiac Killer, the Golden State Killer, the Bike Bath Rapist, and even the Ripper in England — all these serial killers popped up during the 1970s and early 1980s. Or were these killers there all along? Only now, television has become so sensationalist that it has shined a light on what we didn’t know was happening.
This approach led to books like The Ultimate Evil, Fatal Vision, and The Zodiac, which all quenched people’s thirst for the macabre. Before there were web sleuths, Terry had The Pine Street Irregulars (ranging from cops to Son of Sam victims); they would meet once a month to solve the case. There hasn’t been much that has changed except the technology. In fact, there was so much mistrust in the police and politicians at that time… and that hasn’t changed either. Can we really discount a cover-up since we know the same thing has happened countless more times recently?
It’s all an intoxicating mystery if you like this sort of thing. But it all depends on your own trust issues. Do you trust our leaders, or do you not? Maury Terry did not, and his relentless pursuit for his version of the truth led to his work being eventually undone (but many still believe he was right).
Netflix’s The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness is compulsively watchable but incredibly dark, to the point of being overwrought. The last chapter shows an incredible interview, 16 years later, with Berkowitz that I had no idea existed. Zeman has the foresight to give the people what they want. A huge conspiracy intrigue that is honest enough to show its subjects, Berkowitz and Terry, truthfully.
I may be biased, as I love a good conspiracy and crime docuseries, but it’s hard to take ones like this seriously. Conspiracies are a product of their time. If you prefer your nonfiction as a dessert instead of the main course, then The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness is your dark chocolate-covered cherry.