These are 5 true crime documentaries I recommend you seek out and watch as soon as possible. Each of my picks highlights a different element of true crime, but are all incredibly shocking whilst remaining compelling and skilled in their storytelling. Expect to find killers, car chases, cults….and cats.
Speaking of cats….
5) Don’t F*ck with Cats: hunting an internet serial killer (Netflix)
Landing on Netflix over the holiday period last month, this 3-episode limited series produced a collective “WTF???” from the internet and simply had to be seen to be believed.
Looking at the trailer, true crime aficionados will have sensed something familiar in the mention of Luka Magnotta and a grisly death that was broadcast online. In fact, Magnotta has been featured on several true crime podcasts, with Sword and Scale being where I first learned of his brutal crime.
But boy, was that was just one piece of the story.
A video showing a barbaric act (not shown on screen but a distress warning certainly necessary here) committed against two cats appears on the internet and, despite the feeling we live in an age where we’re growing more desensitised by the hour, these heinous actions draw the attention of a group of horrified internet users who band together in outrage to try and track down the perpetrator.
What ensues is an impressive level of sleuthing which crosses continents and internet servers. But suddenly what seemed to be a game of cat defenders chasing a sicko starts to spill into a web of very bizarre real-life events that force the internet users to question not just their own safety and who they can trust, but also if their sicko was waiting for them to give chase all along.
The pacing of Don’t F*ck With Cats is brilliant, with a good balance of detail, imagery and shock twists that don’t feel manipulative. This balance allows the viewer to the run the gamut of emotions from disgust, outrage and utter bafflement, through to a real sadness for the ultimate human victim of Magnotta’s splintered reality and narcissism.
Don’t F*ck With Cats doesn’t shy away from asking if the culture of online spectatorship makes the sleuths themselves, as well as us viewers responsible in some part for feeding Magnotta’s end goal. I genuinely feel slightly guilty even recommending you watch it.
4) The Yorkshire Ripper files: A Very British Crime Story (BBC iPlayer)
This 3-part BBC documentary series details the reign of terror, spanning over a decade, carried out in the West Yorkshire area by Peter Sutcliffe.
Spanning 1975 – 1981, this engrossing series starts with the emergence of a serial killer in Chapeltown – then well known as Leeds’ main red-light district. We then see over the course of the episodes how the theory that the killer was targeting prostitutes had significant implications on how the investigation proceeded.
Featuring the police officers who worked on the investigation, the journalists who covered the murders, as well as relatives of the victims, director Liza Williams skillfully examines the stark difference between the way the women were characterised by the investigation and how they are remembered by those who knew and loved them.
Worth a watch for those familiar with the Yorkshire Ripper and those less so, this series provides painstaking detail, twists and turns in the case, as well as a critical eye on how misconceptions, class prejudices, and a catalogue of errors allowed Sutcliffe to continue killing.
Providing firm but fair assessment of the legacy of the investigation, we also hear from survivors and children of Sutcliffe’s victims who illustrate what is has been like to live as a child of a Ripper murder victim. These accounts are made all the more heart-wrenching as they represent the high cost of human failings.
The Yorkshire Ripper files: A Very British Crime Story is available on BBC iPlayer till March so be quick!
3) Wild, Wild Country (Netflix)
Cult documentaries are a rabbit hole I could easily get lost down (dear reader, stay tuned), but for today I’m recommending the Emmy winning Wild Wild Country. This 6 part documentary deals with a largely forgotten time in American history where the separation between church and state was tested to dangerous and frankly incredible extremes.
Established in rural Oregan in the early 1980s by the mysterious Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later called Osho), the Rajneeshpuram commune escalated from an unknown entity puzzling and troubling the local residents, to an unravelling criminal element lead by Bhagwan’s personal secretary and lieutenant, Ma Anand Sheela.
We hear from Ma Anand Sheela throughout the series and it’s instantly unnerving how calm and measured her demeanour is. Her actions, however, are far from mild. Think paranoia, biological warfare, drugs, election fraud, espionage, bombs, an arms race, wire-tapping, attempted murder and Hollywood glitz. And a beaver in a blender, but I won’t tell you everything that happened.
Sheela sits perfectly composed with a glint in her eye and a small smile as she recounts how a small built Asian woman, not your typically imagined type of megalomaniac cult leader, went up against the FBI and an entire town to, in her eyes, do what was necessary to protect Bhagwan and the ways of the Rajneesh.
Sheela’s interviews are interwoven with news archives and footage from the Rajneeshpuram, as well as the perspectives of the townspeople of Waso County, Rajneesh followers, and a host of journalists and politicians who were caught up in the incident. Make no mistake here though, this is Sheela’s show and she’s loving it.
Wild, Wild Country has all the elements of a shock after shock blockbuster that could easily hit you over the head trying to tell you how bloody barmy this all was, but filmmakers Maclain and Chapman Way craft a tale that is perfectly paced, utterly enthralling and leaves you wondering just what else has happened in the past that you had no idea about.
2) The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (HBO/Sky Atlantic)
This ground-breaking 6 parter delves into the strange history of real estate heir Robert Durst, who was long suspected in the still-unsolved 1982 disappearance of his wife, as well as the subsequent murders of a family friend and neighbour.
In 2010, filmmaker Andrew Jarecki directed All Good Things starring Ryan Gosling and Kristen Dunst, which was inspired by Durst’s murky tale. Upon (limited) release, Durst himself expressed admiration for the film and despite previously not cooperating with journalists, offered to be interviewed by Jarecki. He would then go on to sit with Jarecki for more than 20 hours over a multi-year period – leading to The Jinx.
The series pulls us into Durst’s life; his strange familial relationships, struggle for control of his sizeable real estate birthright, and following “unfortunate coincidences.” Using archive footage, re-enactments and interviews, The Jinx seeks to explain and understand how a man with a missing wife and missing family friend was able to carry out the extremely gruesome murder of his neighbour and live to tell the story as a free man.
It’s clear from the outset that Durst is a rather…..offbeat character, and whilst seeming to rather like Jarecki and keen to give a full account, you can also see someone who at times appears haunted and puzzlingly taking part in events unfolding in his own head whilst simultaneously being interviewed on camera. I won’t give in to the temptation to drip feed you more tantalising and bizarre details, but The Jinx starts to take on a very meta quality as we see Jarecki not just pondering over Durst’s guilt, but perhaps being able to prove it.
The ending of The Jinx is one of the most jaw-dropping moments I’ve ever seen (and you’ve seen the rest of this list!) and something I still think about to this day.
1) OJ: Made in America (ESPN/BBC iPlayer)
We all know the story by now. Worshipped American football player OJ Simpson sent shockwaves through the US when he was arrested for the violent murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown-Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. In the crime of the century, you’ve probably watched the white Bronco car chase, heard that if the glove ‘doesn’t fit, you must acquit!”, and saw OJ’s relieved face when he was found not guilty in a decision that outraged a nation.
Director Ezra Edelman helms a 5-part 30-for-30 masterpiece that, despite tackling a crime that has never left collective consciousness, peels back the layers of untold prejudice and societal divisions in a way never before committed to screen.
Right, let me get this out of the way. It’s nearly 8 hours long. Yes. 8 hours.
That’s longer than Avengers Infinity War and Avengers Endgame put together! It is indeed, but reader, if this is appearing as my number 1 pick then I assure you it’s worth it.
The first of this feature-length feast, shows OJ starting off as an unruly working class kid living in a still effectively segregated San Francisco, who displays incredible talent and rises to sporting glory. We also see a figure who is seduced by white America, refuses to get involved with the civil rights movement, takes lots of corporate money and is a serial spousal abuser.
There’s no narration across the series so as we get into the trial, the action is led by an ensemble cast of friends, enemies and associates; one figure being Carl Edwin Douglas, who served alongside Johnnie Cochran on OJ’s defence team. Douglass recalls all the stunts the defence pulled – baiting the prosecution into the “glove” faux pas, redecorating OJ’s house so it appeared he had black friends to appease the jury.
What Edelman does best, (amongst various other flawless decisions), is to provide perhaps the most comprehensive context for how the jury was able to find Simpson innocent, despite the seemingly overwhelming evidence. This includes cases of black Americans being murdered without seeing justice, as well as a fever pitch of tension between police and the black community that often resulted in violence committed against them – most significantly the officers who brutally beat Rodney King and walked free just 18 months previous.
These instances added to the pain of a community who felt police were already out to get black people and were perhaps determined to even the score and protect one of their most visible stars; even if Simpson didn’t necessarily count himself as one of them. Former LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman further proved this hypothesis with his racist ranting which played a significant role in convincing the jury that OJ might have been set up.
Whilst Edelman allows the viewer to understand the decision of the jury better than I’ve ever seen, it’s no less devastating to see the effect the case had on the families of Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman and the righteous anger in the wake of the verdict.
OJ: Made in America is a searing account of race, fame, sports and Los Angeles that culminates in a horrific crime and holds a mirror to society in its wake. I cannot recommend this documentary enough, and yes – it’s nearly 8 hours in total – but luckily for you, we’ve suddenly got a lot of time on our hands….
OJ: Made in America – part 1 will be shown tonight on BBC Four and will available on BBC iplayer afterwards.