By Owen Gleiberman
Updated October 11, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

The mesmerizing investigative documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills begins with a clip that may leave you gasping in horror and shock. We see an uncensored police crime-scene video of shriveled white bodies on a riverbank — the nude, sexually mutilated corpses of three 8-year-old boys discovered in West Memphis, Ark., in 1993. The images are so graphically disturbing they leave us with an unflinching hunger to see the crime solved. That hunger mirrors the fear, dismay, and wrath within West Memphis itself, a Bible Belt community where matters of crime and punishment take on an apocalyptic cast.

Three teenage outcasts are arrested and put on trial. There’s no hard evidence linking them to the murders (though one has made a confession brimming with inconsistencies), and the implication is that they’ve been turned into scapegoats because they fit the image of satanic teen killers. The most fascinating of the three is a witchcraft/heavy-metal dandy named Damien Echols, and he is some piece of work. A doe-eyed satanist, he looks like he belongs at a Tears for Fears reunion concert, and he seems to regard being on trial for murder as an imposition devised by lesser mortals. It’s the first of many tantalizing uncertainties that even as our minds say Damien didn’t do it, our hearts say: Well, if he’s this creepy…

A gothic backwoods Rashomon, Paradise Lost inspires a gripping sense of moral vertigo. An abyss opens up before our eyes when John Mark Byers, the righteous, hymn-singing, cold-as-ice stepfather of one of the victims, suddenly becomes a suspect (after giving an incriminating knife to one of the filmmakers!). The directors, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, risk getting too close to their subjects. Yet they lay out the evidence exactly as the jury and townspeople saw it, so that the logical ”imperfections” become true, shivery ambiguities. Days after seeing Paradise Lost, I was still meditating on the eyes of Damien Echols and John Mark Byers, trying to divine the true face of evil.

Paradise Lost: A