November 18th, 2011 in Reviews by 2 Comments

Into The Abyss was billed as an exploration into the human psyche in regards to murder. Werner Herzok, the director, claims to have achieved “a gaze into the abyss of the human soul.” This is simply not true. This documentary does give us some insights into the effects of such a horrendous crime as murder but very little of that can be attributed to Herzog.

The focal point of the film is a triple homicide that took place in Conroe Texas, where Michael Perry and his accomplice Jason Burkett were found guilty of killing Sandra Stotler, Adam Stotler and Jeremy Richardson. Perry was given a death sentence and Burkett received a life sentence.

The film was most filmed in the first person as Herzog interviewed everyone from Perry and Burkett to the guard who helped strap Perry onto the gurney where his lethal injection was administered. There was also some footage from the original police investigation and a revisiting of where the crimes took place and where the bodies were found.

Herzog’s questions were often poorly worded, open ended and not very compelling. At times he even made light of the situation which seemed really offensive and quite tasteless. Also, Herzog himself is anti-death penalty and his bias can be seen throughout the film. He misused the time he had and focused on showing us back stories we don’t need and focusing on details that are not so relevant to the subject at hand, which is the impact of murder on society. His story telling was poor and his interviewing style was very off-putting.

That being said, despite Herzog’s best efforts to the contrary, this film is quite fascinating and does offer us some very intriguing perspectives into the subject matter. Herzog was fair from the stand point getting the perspectives from the murderers, members of the victim’s family, relatives of the murderers and from the guards who help in the actual process of physically bringing the convicted inmate to his death bed. The only perspective that was missing was from the perspective of the State of Texas. It would have been more educational to get their perspective on things as well.

The interview with Perry yielded very little insight. He was a troubled kid who simply did not like following rules. His parents put him into a “scared straight” type of program when he was a teenager but he bailed on that. He never gives any sort of reason for committing the crime and blames Burkett too. It really seems after listening to Perry talk that he was simply a bad seed. He repeatedly used terms like murder and killing when referring to the state regarding his death sentence. He never really takes responsibility for the murders, even going so far as to tell “everyone involved” including the victims family that he forgives them for what they are doing to him! He believed there was a place in Heaven waiting for him.

Burkett’s case is much more fascinating. He also never really takes responsibility or admits to any serious wrongdoing. What makes his story fascinating are his circumstances he encountered in his life. His father was in jail for most of his life. His brother also had served time in jail. In fact, at one point Burkett, his brother and their father had a Thanksgiving meal together in a correctional facility and Burkett and his brother thought it was cool, the dad had the good sense to be embarrassed about it. In the case of nurture versus nature, both seemed to fail this young man. Interestingly enough, after being incarcerated for murder, he met and got married to a young woman named Melissa. At the end of the film Melissa claims to be pregnant. It is unclear how she became so but the implication she somehow got Jason’s semen and was artificially inseminated. Sickening.

Some of the most compelling interviews, as you can imagine, were with those of the family of the victims. Sandra Stotler’s daughter was visibly devastated at having her family taken away from her. She had previously lost other members of her family before her mother and brother were murdered. She took the phone off of her wall and didn’t leave her house for something like 4 years. It was very interesting to hear her talk about the impact Perry’s execution had on her. She said that although she felt closure, she felt no satisfaction

One of the most powerful perspectives was from a former Death Team member, Captain Allen who had been a part of over 120 executions. He talks in great detail about the duties he performed and the great toll they took on him. He eventually broke down and simply couldn’t do them anymore. His view had changed completely, at one point saying “no one has the right to take a life.” He quit his job and even left behind a pension.

The murders and the motives for them are shocking by themselves. Perry and Burkett killed 3 people because they wanted the Red Camaro that belonged to Sandra Stotler. The impact these baseless actions had on so many lives is astounding and inexplicable.

This film does not offer many answers but it does raise some interesting questions regarding the death penalty. Is it just? Does it really serve as a deterrent? It seems from the commentary of numerous people in the penal system, including the one who was executed that it does not. As misguided as Michael Perry was, was he right in characterizing his execution as murder or a killing? Jason Burkett is in jail until he is at least 59 years old, what exactly does that accomplish?

Despite Herzog’s pointless involvement, this documentary is powerful, intense and extremely thought provoking. It is hard to recommend a movie like this, but if you like to be challenged and really want to try and understand such a dark part of our society, this film would be worth your time.

Author: Mike D


Liz Parker - 11/18/2011

Interesting. I’ve heard mixed reviews about this one so far.

Mike D - 11/18/2011

The topic itself was fascinating but Herzog did nothing as a film maker to advance the story or its impact.

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