As gruesomely fascinating as it was ethically ambiguous, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills struck a queasy balance between sensationalist propagandizing and unblinking activist journalism. No matter how many sticking points the 1996 documentary elided or manipulative juxtapositions the filmmakers pieced together after spending a year in the trailer-dotted backwoods of West Memphis, Arkansas, the stark probability remained that three teenagers had been convicted of the rape, torture, and murder of three little boys on a solitary piece of “evidence”: a confession, extracted over the course of a 12-hour interrogation, made by a 17-year-old with an IQ of 72. Beyond Jessie Misskelley’s factually garbled statement (which he immediately retracted), codefendants Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin’s fondness for all-black garb and Echols’s minor dabblings in Wicca only bolstered claims that the murders were Satanic ritual slayings, a hypothesis readily accepted by a community hysterically primed for swift vengeance. It all ended with life sentences for Misskelley and Baldwin, while Echols, extensively questioned on the stand about his knowledge of Aleister Crowley, was sentenced to death.
The new footage in Revelations: Paradise Lost 2 is unavoidably self-reflexive, since the interviews—whether with the convicted, lawyers on either side, or members of the ad hoc Free the West Memphis Three group—are largely devoted to the impact of Paradise Lost on both the town and the ongoing, sorely underfunded appeals process. Like its predecessor, the film fails to ask essential questions, and the directors’ lack of interest in the habeas corpus violations that form the bedrock of the trio’s petitions for retrial seems especially curious, given our president’s fraught relationship with habeas corpus—this is Arkansas, after all. A few tantalizing nuggets of exculpatory evidence emerge, but this follow-up is less an update than a bogeyman horror film (incidentally, Berlinger helmed the upcoming Blair Witch sequel) starring the menacing stepfather of the most hideously mutilated little boy. The massive bastard offspring of John Brown and Leatherface, John Mark Byers enacts a Bible-thumping circus sideshow of grief for the filmmakers, who give every indication that he’s shedding crocodile tears for his stepson and his wife (her mysterious 1996 death was ruled “undetermined”). The festering layers of perversion and delusion reach no bottom here; the moment that a doped-up Byers hears that he’s passed a dubious polygraph test and shouts, “I knew I was innocent!” is more chilling than anything in the first Paradise.
The long sequences given over to Byers’s ranting reek of sequel fatigue, as does the heavy reliance on expository flashbacks to the first film (which is being rereleased in conjunction with Revelations‘ theatrical run). Yet witnessing the sad evolution of Damien Echols—from the baby-faced, narcissistic teenager of Paradise Lost to the ashen, hollow-cheeked ghost who sued the Arkansas Department of Corrections in 1996 after being beaten by guards and repeatedly raped by a fellow prisoner to the bookish, anguished, 24-year-old dead man walking of today—is reason enough for Revelations to exist. As documentary filmmaking, it’s cheap and suspect. As advocacy, it’s necessary.