The critically acclaimed 2009 documentary Cropsey effectively mixed urban legend and true crime to tell the history of a Staten Island boogeyman who allegedly abducted children. Filmmaker Joshua Zeman rolls with the same format of how the dark histories behind cities can spawn urban legends in his new documentary Killer Legends, which aired as a special on the Chiller network. Did you know that Chicago is the hub of killer clown mythos? Me neither.
This time Zeman takes a look at four urban legends and broadens out to show how these cautionary tales spread across the U.S. and beyond. Along with his fellow researcher Rachel Mills, Zeman connects the true crime histories of the urban legends of the Hookman, the Candy Man, the Baby-Sitter murders, and the Killer Clown. It’s a deeply interesting and sometimes gruesome look at these well-known urban legends, though sometimes I was bugged by how much Zeman and Mills inserted themselves into the documentary. Like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, they feel the need to make themselves part of the story.
Killer Legends combines interviews, archival news footage, crime scene photos, and more to provide a wealth of history on its subjects. Clips from films inspired by the urban legends are also thrown in to add some context on their influence (Candyman, When a Stranger Calls, Urban Legend [duh]). The Town That Dreaded Sundown gets a lot of play, since it’s based on a real life series of unsolved murders that occurred in Texarkana, Texas in 1946.
That film works as a great springboard to show how the truth can be altered to form a universally shared urban legend. Typically these legends are embellished to serve as a cautionary tale for horny teens and anyone who dares talk to strangers. Zeman does a terrific job making his points and goes even deeper to look at how a community reeling from tragedy deals with it years down the road. What a lot of it boils down to is our need as a society to understand evil. They argue that’s why we have to put a name on these killers: “The Phantom Killer,” the “Halloween Sadist,” the “Moonlight Murders,” “Candy Man,” etc.
While many of the true crime aspects of the film look at one specific incident, such as a father who murders his son with a poisoned Pixie Stick, Zeman and Mills demonstrate how most urban legends are a culmination of crime, paranoia, and deep-seeded societal fears. They travel to the towns and cities where the tragedies took place, interviewing locals and going through case files. This is the aspect that kinda bothered me. It really turns me off when a documentarian inserts themselves into the film. It’s alright to a degree, but Zeman and Mills get a ton of screen time here. When they’re interviewing police or reporters or what have you, the camera constantly cuts back to them for a reaction shot. The stories are interesting enough without them. Some people might like this approach, but for me it’s a turnoff.
But besides that, Killer Legends is a wholly fascinating experience on a lot of levels. Even those familiar with the urban legends may come away with something new. I really hope this special leads to a regular series, if only Zeman will pull himself out of the frame for a while give the case experts some more time.
Killer Legends hits DVD on July 1.