By Owen Gleiberman
Updated September 14, 2011 at 02:40 PM EDT
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A little more than ten years ago, when they were finishing the second documentary in what turned out to be the Paradise Lost trilogy, directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky chose the title Paradise Lost: Revelations. In a way, though, they could have put that title on almost any one of the three films. For when you watch Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), or Paradise Lost: Revelations (2000), or the new chapter, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which premiered this week at the Toronto Film Festival, what keeps you watching — what keeps you just about soldered to the screen — is the promise of revelation. The promise of a moment when the forensic clues (a serrated knife! a telltale hair!) finally start to fit together. When the innocence of the West Memphis Three (who were railroaded for the crime of murder) comes rushing into the light. Or when the identity of the real killer suddenly looms up before us. Every day, we see Hollywood movies that are called “thrillers,” but the addictive fascination of the Paradise Lost films is that they take us back to the feeling of shock and awe that people used to get, in a more innocent time, from Hitchcock. At key moments, they make you suck in your breath.

Recent events provided Paradise Lost 3, and the whole series, with the ending we’ve been waiting for. The West Memphis Three, who had all been in prison since 1994 — the shaggy Tom Sawyeresque Jason Baldwin; the drawling bumpkin Jessie Misskelley; and the owlish-eyed, black-haired, Wicca-meets-the-Cure punk bohemian Damien Echols, who was the original lightning rod for the trio’s image as heavy metal demons — were all set free just a few weeks ago, on Aug. 19. Let’s make this clear: They owed the overturning of their sentences to the Paradise Lost films — one of the few times that a documentary has exerted such a powerful real-world effect on establishing a convicted killer’s innocence. (It first happened with Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line back in 1988.) The filmmakers will add 12 minutes of footage to the version of Paradise Lost 3 that’s set to play at the New York Film Festival in October. But they couldn’t do the reediting in time for Toronto, so the version that premiered here was the one completed two days before the three men were released.

The West Memphis Three also owed their freedom to a roster of hipster celebrities who’d spoken out on their behalf and lent hundreds of thousands of dollars to their cause. Damien Echols, who spent 17 years on death row, won the attention of people like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, and Peter Jackson because he was ostracized for being a freaky middle-class “outsider.” He and the others were the victims of a witch hunt, one that reflected a disgusting level of prejudice on the part of the West Memphis, Ark., community (and legal system). It’s worth noting, however, that the prejudice in America that most often sends innocent men to death row is racial. The special resonance of the West Memphis Three case wasn’t the level of injustice, as outrageous as that was. It was the way that, back in 1994, the whole small-town-community-vs.-demon-metal-kids scenario became an early, and powerful, expression of the culture wars. Like all classic witch hunts, the railroading of the West Memphis Three tapped into larger social fears — in this case, the anxiety that a generation of kids, drawn under the spell of “satanic” pop culture, were losing their minds and souls.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory spends a lot of time getting the audience back up to speed on the case, which I guess it had to do (at least, to be a stand-alone documentary feature on HBO), though at certain points I found myself going, “Hey, I saw the first two movies — stop telling me stuff I already know.” The film was made, even more than the others, as a piece of advocacy, but for that reason it starts off a tad sluggish. (The Feb. 27, 2010 edition of 48 Hours Mystery packed the entire case, quite effectively, into 48 minutes.) Then again, it’s crucial to Berlinger and Sinofsky that we spend some time with the three convicts, two of whom — Jason and Jessie — now look a lot older, a reflection (in Misskelley’s case) of the daily wear and tear of prison. Damien (pictured above, in between Sinofsky and Berlinger), still handsome and spookily self-possessed, got married during his incarceration, and the years, if anything, seem to have honed him, to have burned away his self-consciousness. He’s quite frank about confessing why he acted so cavalier during the original trial (he thought that the justice system worked — that there was no way he was ever going to be found guilty), but his poker face still reveals no self-pity or fear. Unlike your average death-row inmate, he probably took some solace in being a cause célèbre.

Fifteen years ago, I was mesmerized by Paradise Lost, and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory sucked me right back in. The movie reveals, in scandalous detail, exactly how the three men were convicted (Jessie Misskelley’s false, coerced confession wasn’t legally admissible in the trial of the other two — but it was snuck into the jury room anyway). And it’s deeply gripping to see the evidence, presented at a press conference back in 2007, that finally exonerated them. The defense team assembled a quartet of extraordinary analysts: a legendary forensic investigator, a star veteran of FBI criminal profiling, and so forth. As each of them makes his demonstration, the case, at last, begins to come clear. The mutilated bodies? The result of biting, tearing woodland animals, not satanists. The telltale serrated knife? It had nothing to do with anything. And then, of course, there’s the real revelation: the DNA evidence, not available back when the case was first tried. Quite simply, there is no DNA linking any of the West Memphis Three to these horrible crimes. But there is a hair, wound into one of the ligatures that tied the boys’ corpses, that points to another suspect…

The first movie implied that John Mark Byers, the tall, creepy, angry, sunken-eyed, hellfire-Christian adoptive father of one of the victims, may have been the killer. And Byers, who kept finding more and more flamboyant ways to swear holy vengeance upon the West Memphis Three (at one point in the new film, we see an old clip of him igniting lighter fluid in the woods as a ritual of rage), still creeps me out. He now lives in a remote shack, and at one point, when the filmmakers are interviewing him, I glanced over at a shelf behind Byers (which the film itself never calls attention to) and noticed the spine of just about the only book he has on it, a volume called BTK, about the Wichita, Kansas, serial killer of the late ’70s and ’80s. (I was a newspaper intern in Wichita during the summer of 1979, and I remember well the fearful fascination he inspired.) For just a second, I flashed back to that great moment in Manhunter when FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) explains how he caught Dr. Lecter, who was, at the time, the psychiatrist of a college girl who’d been murdered. Talking to Lecter in his office, he glanced up at Lecter’s bookshelf and saw a telltale volume with photographs of war wounds in it. And that’s when he knew that Lecter was the killer. I thought: That’s it! BTK is John Mark Byers’ Lecter book! He’s the killer!!

But that’s just the sort of agitated “Aha!” state that the Paradise Lost films will put you in. In fact, Paradise Lost 3 points to a completely different suspect, Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of another one of the victims. He comes off like your basic outwardly genial, inwardly mean, and very guarded redneck, but what it’s really all about, of course, is the evidence. I could lay it out for you here, but instead I will just say: Watch Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. It brings off that thing that only a true thriller can, sweeping you up into a place where the clues start to come together, and an unimaginable crime is suddenly brought into full focus right before your eyes. And as disturbing and sick and scary as it is, you can’t look away.

So who has seen Paradise Lost or Paradise Lost: Revelations? How avidly have you followed this case? And how badly do you want to see the new film?

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