Over recent years, Netflix has emerged as the premiere destination for true crime programming. But it didn’t happen overnight. It was more of a gradual process. The streamer captivated audiences in 2015 with the premiere of the heartbreaking docu-series Making a Murderer. And they proceeded to break the Internet in 2020 when the entire world tuned into Tiger King as a distraction from the agony of lockdown.
It’s clear Netflix has found a niche with true crime programming and viewers are here for it. With that in mind, we are running down five dark but riveting documentary films (and series) that are sure to appeal to anyone fascinated by the criminal mind.
The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker
This Netflix original documentary really threw me for a loop. The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker calls to mind that ‘how it started/how it’s going’ meme. The trajectory of the case chronicled within isn’t one that’s easy to predict from the onset. We start with the story of a carefree young man and his heroic rescue of a woman in peril. But the ordeal ends with a cold-blooded murder that few, if any, saw coming.
I knew nearly nothing about the case outlined within the film prior to tuning in and I was shocked by the time the doc was over. The hitchhiker profiled seems like such a genuine and kind-hearted soul at the onset. But the more information we receive, the more cause we have to question his intentions.
Caleb McGillvary (better known as Kai) was on the scene when motorist Jett Simmons McBride crashed into a woman and pinned her between his vehicle and a truck. From there, McBride proceeded to endanger a concerned citizen attempting to provide aid. At that point, Kai intervened and hit McBride over the head with a hatchet. From that moment, he became a viral sensation and was celebrated as a hero. But Kai’s rise to fame led to a violent downfall that would forever change multiple lives.
This doc is absolutely riveting. But potential viewers should be prepared for things to get real dark, real fast.
If ever a docu-series has showcased the need for criminal justice reform, it’s Killer Sally. I don’t mean to say that Sally McNeil was entirely justified in her decision to kill her husband, Ray McNeil. However, it’s important to note that she was a battered spouse acting in response to pervasive abuse. And that aspect of the case was downplayed and minimized by the prosecution at her trial. She was even openly mocked by representatives of the state of California in court. And while we have made a certain amount of progress since the mid-‘90s, when the case went before a jury, there are still systemic improvements needed to ensure fair sentencing for cases of this ilk.
The Netflix original series does a commendable job of showcasing the mitigating factors that led to Ray’s death and presenting the audience with both sides of the story and allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions. The series takes the evidence against Sally and filters it through a modern lens, giving much consideration to how she reached that place of total desperation.
This Netflix docu-series provides a gripping look into Michael Peterson’s legal battle, which went on for more than a decade. Perhaps the most horrifying element of this case is the insight it provides as to the sometimes-imprecise nature of forensic science. There are a multitude of different theories offered by leading field experts regarding what happened to Michael’s wife, Kathleen. Even after watching the series from start to finish, I still have a number of unanswered questions. But my gut instinct is that Michael Peterson probably didn’t kill his wife. And the idea that he was convicted of murder and spent time in prison on that basis is a lot to take in. The idea that tunnel vision and flawed investigative techniques can land a potentially innocent person behind bars is horrifying.
The series follows journalist and author Michael Peterson as he becomes the prime suspect in his wife’s death. Peterson maintains that Kathleen fell down the stairs. But the authorities believe that he pushed her. What transpires from there is a bitter legal battle featuring a series of harrowing, and often heartbreaking, twists and turns.
American Murder: The Family Next Door
The title, American Murder: The Family Next Door, is rather fitting to the tragic case spotlighted via this documentary film. The Watts family could very well be your next-door neighbors. But with the way their story concludes, one can only hope never to encounter such inexplicable evil, so close to home.
The Netflix original film chronicles the disappearance of Shannan Watts (who was pregnant at the time) and her daughters Bella and Celeste. The mother and her daughters were eventually discovered deceased at an oil storage site. Shannan’s husband Chris quickly became the prime suspect. But how could a father kill his children? There must be some other explanation. Right?
Learning who is responsible for the murders and getting a certain amount of insight into what led up to that fateful day is absolutely devastating. That someone could have such little regard for human life and be so driven by selfish gains is mind-boggling.
The victims’ stories are told largely through home video, which gives the audience a certain insight into who Shannan was, as well as demonstrates the love she had for Celeste and Bella.
Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives
I had a tough time watchingthis Netflix documentary series because I was once in a relationship that caused me to lose a certain amount of perspective on reality. And in a case like that, one starts to believe what they are told. My experience was much different than the ordeal outlined here. But I clearly remember losing perspective as well as my sense of self. And I believe a loss of perspective is what led to Sarma Melngailis serving time at Rikers Island on fraud charges.
Before she met Anthony Strangis, Sarma Melngailis was a successful restaurateur that ran in rather exclusive social circles. In fact, she came dangerously close to becoming romantically entangled with Alec Baldwin at one point. But everything Sarma worked so hard for fell to pieces when she crossed paths with Anthony Strangis. Strangis financially ruined Sarma and made her complicit in his fraudulent dealings. The two ultimately ended up on the run together and eventually served jail time for fraud. While Sarma made poor choices and must be accountable for that, she was misled, lied to, and preyed upon by a sociopath. Her journey is especially tough to watch when stopping to consider that she never set out to deceive anyone and was only trying to satiate her abusive husband’s constant demands for cash infusions.
Tags: American Murder The Family Next Door Bad Vegan Featured Post killer sally The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker The Staircase
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