The Son of Sam murders in 1970s New York City are some of the most well-known, the most chilling, in all of true crime. When David Berkowitz was identified as the gunman responsible for the shootings that left seven people dead and several more seriously injured, there was an overwhelming sense of catharsis. A city that had been terrorised by seemingly indiscriminate violence for an entire year could finally breathe again. But what if there was more to the story? Netflix’s latest true crime jaunt The Sons of Sam explores journalist Maury Terry’s decades-long battle to expose the truth behind the Son of Sam murders — but in focusing on one man’s obsessive investigation, it all too frequently gets lost in the weeds.
Most people who would feel the urge to turn on a Netflix true crime docuseries are probably already familiar with the Son of Sam: an unstable man who claimed to be receiving murderous commands from his neighbor’s dog, leading him to go out at night in Queens and the Bronx to shoot young couples seemingly at random while they were parked in their cars. Young women with long brown hair were frequently targeted, and the city went through a year of paralysing fear until David Berkowitz was finally caught, sentenced, and sent to jail. Case closed. Right?
Maury Terry became convinced that the evidence against Berkowitz didn’t add up, and he spent the better part of his life desperately trying to win public support for his theory. It was impossible for Berkowitz to have acted alone, he believed, and what’s more, he began to piece together a larger conspiracy that tied the Son of Sam murders to the Manson family, satanic cults, and a mysterious organization known as the Process Church of the Final Judgment, an off-shoot of early Scientology. Quite a tall tale, yes? That’s what everyone told Terry. But he remained doggedly convinced of his theory, spending years pulling at threads until he had assembled what he considered to be proof of a vast conspiracy. Even just watching the highlights of his ideas in The Sons of Sam betrays an unwieldy, almost incoherent collection of data, some of which is fairly plausible, some less so.
But at any rate, that’s what The Sons of Sam is about, for better or worse: the obsessive development of a conspiracy theory rather than the actual crimes themselves. David Berkowitz, the only man who has ever been charged with the Son of Sam murders, is unveiled by the end of the first episode, while the rest of the docuseries focuses on the idea that he may not have acted alone. The Sons of Sam works best when it’s closest to the murders — the exploration of the shootings themselves, the outcry from a terrified community, the police manhunt for Berkowitz, and even Terry’s initial attempts to connect the killings to a local satanic group called The Children are all fascinating.
But as years and even decades go by, with Terry still investigating tenuous ties to what he believes is an international network of Satanists, it starts to lose its thread. Terry claims that he has only ever sought justice for the victims by attempting to uncover the real murderers, but it’s clear at a certain point his primary motivation is proving himself right, and refusing to hear any criticism that would challenge his interpretation of the events. This is interesting, from a psychological perspective, but his endless, “I am the only one who cares about the TRUTH,” bit with self-important voiceover narration from Paul Giamatti wears thin over the course of four episodes.
It could have been interesting to see more on the impact of his ideas becoming more high-profile, as his true crime book The Ultimate Evil became a bestseller. The satanic panic that would sweep across the country in the 1980s partially as a result of Terry’s work would have merited an entire episode in and of itself. Instead, it remains laser-focused on the perspective of Maury Terry himself. Frankly, he’s not a compelling enough figure to build an entire series around, and his ideas, though interesting enough as a curiosity, are never quite convincing. They leave loose threads dangling everywhere as The Sons of Sam flounders the longer it tries to articulate Terry’s grand vision of murder, satanism, and ignored genius.
The Sons of Sam is available now on Netflix.