Josh Zeman follows Cropsey with another captivating study of crime “legend”

The crimes
The Phantom Killer of Texarkana, Ronald Clark O’Bryan, and others didn’t just commit murders; they may have sparked the urban legends (the hook man, random Halloween-candy poisonings, attacks on babysitters Scream-style) that let us manage our fears about real dangers and slayings by creating irrational fictional ones. At least, that’s the throughline director Josh Zeman and his researcher/partner in (investigating) crime Rachel Mills use to tie various vintage crimes together.

The story
I don’t know if I buy the correlation between the real-life murders Zeman and Mills explore for the viewer and the urban legends they say proceeded from these crimes — the hook-man campfire tale from the Texarkana lover’s-lane murders, parents checking candy for stranger-danger pinholes from O’Bryan, a single murdered babysitter sowing an entire horror-movie “it’s coming from inside the house” genre — but if this is the contrivance Zeman needed to get the movie funded, I’m with it. I was captivated by Zeman’s Cropsey, which did similar work in exploring Staten Island’s Cropsey legend and delving into the very real disappearances of children that got blamed on the generic boogeyman. Was he a single person? Was the real boogeyman the depraved conditions at local mental institutions, outed by Geraldo Rivera in the report that made his name?

Zeman’s VOs sometimes strain to make the case for specific murders creating urban legends, but when it comes to running down those specific murders — narrating the events, interviewing the surviving witnesses and present-day locals, returning to scenes for context, and painting a visual picture with collages of news accounts and crime-scene photos — he’s tops. I get the feeling he makes movies he would want to watch…and in fact that, if he hadn’t gotten the docu funded, he’d have worked up the stories anyway, that he doesn’t have to be “right” but he does have to see if there’s an answer at all. Mills is also super-relatable (except for her hair, which I spent many minutes envying), recoiling from a giant Texan spider on a nighttime adventure down an overgrown former “parking” point, telling Zeman she isn’t psyched to tell current residents that past residents may have gotten murdered in their home.

Zeman picks good subjects, stories that stand up whether or not they tie believably into an urban legend, events that shaped a town’s idea of itself or changed one best friend’s life forever. He covers a lot of ground in Killer Legends‘s 86 minutes, and paces it well; the docu never feels too glib or overproduced, but it’s not hacky or amateurishly done, either. It was made for the Chiller network, which makes me think more highly of that outfit even as I blame them for the overly vague and self-parodic title that made me skip over Killer Legends in Netflix’s Suggested For You section about 18 times before finally settling in to watch it.

Don’t make the same mistake: it’s a fun sit and a knowledgeable take on crimes you actually haven’t seen picked over umpty-eight times on crime newsmags. Zeman knows what he’s doing, so if you only have time to watch one of his joints, make it Cropsey — but if you liked that, you’ll like this too.

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