“A tale of death, a tale of life”
The last time I saw a Werner Herzog documentary, it was at the South by Southwest Film Festival. I had the pleasure of seeing Cave of Forgotten Dreams which was meant to be seen in 3D. It was absolutely stunning film about a cave that none of us will ever see in our lives. While Herzog inserted some eccentricities into the film, it was a marvel to see.
Into the Abyss is Herzog’s latest documentary. I did not hear of it until recently, and the title does not give away what the subject is for the film. Into the Abyss focuses on three murders that took place in Conroe, Texas in October of 2001. The murder victims were a mother, Sandra Stotler, her son, Adam Stotler, and his friend, Jeremy Richardson. Two men were convicted of their murders. Michael James Perry received the death penalty and Jason Burkett received life in prison with the possibility of parole. The reason for the murders was to obtain a red Camaro sports car from the garage of Sandra Stotler’s house.
While just about everything has been found out and decided in this case, there was a possibility that Michael James Perry may not be executed. Herzog interviewed him only a few days before he was scheduled to move to the Death House for execution. I have to admire Herzog for doing this film and how he approached the subject. As soon as Herzog starts interviewing Perry, he makes it clear that while Perry may have done some horrible things, he does not support the death penalty. Even though Herzog makes that statement in the very beginning, it does not cloud his approach to the film. This is not an anti-death penalty film. The film is about a horrible crime and the consequences of those actions for all of the people involved.
One of the most striking things about the film is the use of the original crime scene video. You enter Sandra Stotler’s home after the murder and it is haunting how the house has been left. The TV is on, she was obviously baking cookies at the time as some dough was already on the pans, ready to be put in the oven. It was like someone just stopped and walked out of the house. But it is clear something had happened by the blood strewn across the house and the garage. Her body was eventually dumped in Crater Lake. The detective in charge of the case at the time describes what he thinks happened, and that adds to the eeriness of the videos and the scenes of the crimes as the look today. Her son and his friend were taken to a back woods area and shot to death.
Through the rest of the film, Werner interviews the relatives of the victims. That honestly is the most emotional part of the film, to hear them describe their relatives as they used to be and how their deaths affected their lives.
Werner also interviews acquaintances and friends of Perry and Burkett (some of whom are quite colorful), as well as the men themselves. This gives the audience some background on what their lives were like and how they grew up. After going to jail, Burkett married and somehow impregnated his wife. The woman could probably be thrown into the “jail groupie” category except that she herself has not had a good life herself. It was evident to me that she was looking for a family, just in a strange way.
One of the most poignant moments is when Werner sits down and talks to Burkett’s father who is also in jail. The man is embarrassed that he was a lousy father and was not there to raise his kids right. He also describes being handcuffed to his son for transport to the jail, and how that was one of the lowest points in his life to see his baby son off to jail with him.
Werner also interviews people outside the case. He talks to a prison chaplain and also the former captain of the Death House. This guy was in charge of about 120 executions and describes in detail the protocol of how someone is put to death. After the first female was executed, he decided to quit. The captain is a very well-spoken man and shared a saying that I thought was quite powerful; “Live your dash.” This refers to the dash on your gravestone between your birth and death year. He basically said to make the most out of your life, the dash.
The staple odd and strange moments that Herzog tends to create in his films are almost non-existent. There is one interview that gets a little strange, but it also provides for some laughs as well. In other words, the Herzog eccentricities are at a minimum. They do not get in the way or distract the viewer from the point of the film.
From my point of view, I do not think Into the Abyss is a political film or one with an agenda. The film is neither for nor against the death penalty. It lets you make up your own mind after the conclusion of the film. I have to admire Herzog for taking this approach. He lets the audience decide after the many interviews with all of those involved in the process. I applaud the approach he took with making his opinion very clear in the beginning, but not letting that sway the direction of the film.
This is yet another great documentary from Werner Herzog.
I give Into the Abyss 4 “Big Justins” out of 5.