Fans should go into true-crime movies that are based on documentaries with an open mind. Often, movies leave out information, archival footage, and crime scene photos because they are either too raw to include in the movie or because we already learned about them in a well-researched documentary. Former police officers and experts set the scene for fans who want to know all the gory details, while some people just want to see how the actor plays an infamous serial killer.
Biopics of famous people can be disappointing if movie fans feel like they already knew everything there was to know about the hero or heroine from the documentary. Whether you like movies or documentaries, sometimes one is better than the other. Check out these documentaries that you can watch online and are better than the movies they were based on.
Devil in Disguise v. The Hillside Strangler
Stephen Johnston and Chuck Parello wrote the first part of the 2004 movie The Hillside Strangler, which is a bit funny. Kenneth Bianchi (C. Thomas Howell) and Angelo Buono (Nicholas Turturro), who were cousins, killed a lot of women that society thought were worthless, like prostitutes and drug addicts. Turturro is one of the best things about the movie. His voice and moves remind me of Joe Pesci, which is a win and a much-needed energy boost. The actor is so funny as a serial killer that this true story almost feels like a dark comedy. Parello also directs the movie and makes sure it looks like it was made in the 1970s by giving it polyester clothes, shaggy rugs, and old furniture. Howell plays a weak, easily swayed, and misfit man who goes on a killing spree while pregnant, but the movie is still not as good as the documentary.
In the documentary series Hillside Strangler: Devil in Disguise, viewers learn that Buono has a relationship with Sheryl Kellison, who is underage and doesn’t know that her boyfriend kills people. Kellison’s mother tells the police that they need to look into Buono. They don’t pay attention to her, which gives the other member of the Hillside strangulation duo time to kill other women. In the movie, Turturro says funny things between killings, but the Peacock documentary is a creepy walkthrough meant to teach people about the bloodthirsty cousins (they killed two girls ages 12 and 14) and the game of tug-of-war between the police, the media, and the killers.
Falling for a Killer v. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile
In Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, Zac Efron makes serial killer Ted Bundy look cute. Fans shouldn’t feel bad if they think this. Director Joe Berlinger knew he had to find an actor who could show the audience why so many women trusted this stranger. In the 2019 movie, Efron plays a charming, handsome family man who claims to be innocent until he tells his longtime live-in girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall that he did it during a visit to prison. The film is about the relationship between Bundy and Kendall and stays true to the facts, as told by Kendall in a documentary. However, in the Berlinger film, Kendall moves on from Bundy a little too soon. Even though she still wants him at the end of the movie, her character is given more credit for being strong than Kendall. Even though both Efron and the movie are entertaining, the documentary has more interesting scenes than dialogue, as well as some truth and some fiction. Molly, Kendall’s daughter, says that Kendall throws away Bundy’s last letter to her mother instead of giving it to her. In the movie, Kendall is seen reading it.
Fans of the documentary Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer on Prime Video may start to question the idea that psychopaths can’t feel emotions. Did Bundy really care about Kendall and Molly, her daughter? When Kendall says she talked to Bundy after his arrest for kidnapping, viewers hear the producer scold her. Most of the time, producers aren’t seen or heard in documentaries. But Trish Wood, the producer, can’t understand how Kendall could feel sorry for a murderer. She asks Bundy’s lover from behind the camera, “Why would you do that?” The 2020 documentary has five episodes with a lot of pictures that tell (in the beginning) a good love story between Kendall and Bundy. If people didn’t know better, they would think it was a story about eternal love, not about a narcissistic psychopath causing trouble in seven states.
Muhammad Ali v. Ali
Ali, which came out in 2001 and starred Will Smith as Muhammad Ali, is a slow-moving movie with a lot of Ali’s bravado and Smith’s charm. In Ali, Mann and Smith don’t make the best magic together, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part but Smith. Smith makes fans trust him right away by being able to tell jokes naturally and by taking charge of the camera in every scene. The 2-hour-and-32-minute documentary talks about some of the athlete’s most important events, like his time in Vietnam, his fight with Joe Frazier, and his fight with Malcolm X. But Ali and Frazier were about more than just a fight. Ali turned his opponent into a real enemy, and the documentary looks at what started the fallout.
Fans don’t like it when a documentary is over eight hours long because they don’t want it to end. The 2021 PBS documentary Muhammad Ali is like no other history lesson about the athlete’s exciting career. People can watch a documentary about Ali the boxer, race relations, and his work with the Nation of Islam all in one place. It’s like reading an issue of National Geographic because Ken Burns, Sara Burns, and David McMahon create a travel itinerary with beautiful pictures and carefully untangle Ali’s strategy for becoming “The Greatest of All Time,” which was to not follow the rules and do things his own way.
O.J.: Made in America v. The People v. O.J. Simpson
The 10-part miniseries American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson has the feel of a soap opera. The 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson is reenacted on the show. Courtney B. Vance gives a great performance as Simpson’s lawyer, Johnny Cochran, who is confident and flashy. The documentary has interesting details about the athlete’s personal life, but the series shows Simpson as the leader of his “Dream Team” law posse. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Simpson with the same arrogance as Jerry Maguire’s Rod Tidwell, and David Schwimmer, who plays Robert Kardashian, a lawyer on the Dream Team, shows how surprised the lawyer is when he hears the verdict. This show is one of FX’s best-reviewed and most successful miniseries in its history, thanks to director John Singleton and his strong cast.
OJ: Made in America is an explosive documentary that reveals many shocking facts about the disgraced athlete. This led to the arrest of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman’s killer, O.J. Simpson. Here, family secrets come out. When Simpson comes to visit, he and a friend walk in on his father and his gay lover. The documentary almost acts as an evangelist for Simpson’s talent, showing fans who didn’t know about Simpson’s two careers why and how the famous football player and actor became so popular. Made in America is a heavyweight documentary that quotes Simpson as saying, “If she hadn’t opened that door with a knife in her hand, she would still be alive.” These details come from police reports, heartbroken friends, and 911 calls of a battered Nicole speaking in a weak voice.
The Hunt for a Serial Killer v. The Night Stalker
Fans probably got really excited when they saw Lou Diamond Phillips in The Night Stalker. He was great as serial killer Richard Ramirez, who terrorised Los Angeles in the 1970s. However, the movie is told from the lawyer’s point of view as he looks into one of Ramirez’s crimes. She talks to the killer behind bars in the hopes of getting information that will help save a Texas man on death row who is accused of killing a mother and her young son. Fans don’t get any rare photos of crimes, and the movie doesn’t show every single murder. Instead, the lawyer and Ramirez have a strange relationship. In the movie, director Megan Griffiths isn’t sure how to handle the lawyer’s sexual attraction to Ramirez. Instead, she focuses on how her childhood trauma has changed her.
Two people were told by Detective Gil Carrillo, “You’re lucky. This person is bad. No. He is terrible.” In Netflix’s four-part series Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, an overworked detective tells a couple about Ramirez, or “The Night Stalker,” as the press called him. The couple, however, manages to avoid Ramirez’s murderous wrath. In this well-researched, no-holds-barred show about Ramirez’s reign of terror over Los Angeles, the streaming service shows how good it is at doing research. The documentary goes into a lot of graphic detail and does a great job of taking viewers through the dark days and personal lives of the detectives who were working on the case. What becomes clear in the documentary is that there is no bias. Ramirez attacked his victims when they were most vulnerable, usually at night while they were sleeping. Unlike most serial killers, he didn’t just kill women. The tall, thin, greasy-haired man with bad breath and rotten teeth tortured and killed men, women, and children. Netflix makes great documentaries all the time because they aren’t afraid to “go there.” The movie The Night Stalker hints at what might have made Ramirez want to do bad things, but The Hunt for a Serial Killer shows that as a child, Ramirez’s father punished him by hanging him upside down in a cemetery for the night.
The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes v. Dahmer
In the 2002 movie Dahmer, Jeffrey Dahmer is played by Jeremy Renner. David Jacobson, the director, chooses to hide sexually explicit scenes with a series of flashes set to disco music. Dahmer is a complicated person, but he is portrayed as simple, even though he killed innocent men. Fans of this movie ask, “Why did they do that?” If fans watch the documentary before the movie, they will see that Dahmer drugged his victims in a nightclub instead of the bathhouse that banned him. One of Dahmer’s last surviving victims escaped and went back to his house with the police, but the movie retells the story as a requited love where Dahmer rejects his victim.
Where else can Star Wars fans hear about both the Emperor and Jeffrey Dahmer in the same show? In the Netflix documentary Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes, the serial killer’s lawyer said that Dahmer liked images of demons, so he bought yellow contact lenses to look like Emperor Palpatine and feel in control of his victims. The movie may have been scary because people know where the story came from. But the documentary is scary because it tells Dahmer’s stories, like how he would seduce young men and then break them down and dissolve their bodies. Doctors and experts can’t figure out what made Dahmer turn into a murderer who ate people. But with their help, Netflix digs deep into the necrophiliac’s past and cruel habits. Every part of this three-part documentary is interesting and exciting.
What Happened, Miss Simone v. Nina
Nina is not a daring movie about her life. It’s a gentle story about a civil rights activist and superstar singer who had problems with her mental health and might have deserved a movie more fitting for an entertainer. In the beginning of the 2016 Cynthia Mort movie, Nina Simone goes to a hospital and hires a hospital worker to be her assistant. Simone is played by Zoe Saldana, who wears dark makeup, padded clothes, and a fake nose to look like Saldana. But the actress has a nice singing voice, which she uses instead of Simone’s because the singer’s daughter didn’t want Saldana to play the part. The film shows all of Simone’s mistakes in detail, so fans must watch it to understand what happened to the late singer.
“She was in love with fire,” Simone’s daughter said about her mother. Netflix has pages from the late singer’s diary that say, “I love physical violence.” What Happened, Miss Simone, a documentary on Netflix, is an honest look at Simone’s career and personal life. The documentary is so clear that the singer’s daughter backs up Simone’s story that her manager/husband beat her up. The show also has some fun facts about Simone’s friends, or, as her daughter Lisa Simone says, the “Who’s Who of Black America.” Lisa’s godmother was the playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Since Malcolm X and his family lived on the same block, Lisa’s aunt was Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s wife. In this powerful 1-hour-and-42-minute documentary about Simone, fans can see photos and diary entries written in Simone’s handwriting that they have never seen before. In between special appearances by people who knew her best, Simone herself tells the story.
Whitney v. I Wanna Dance with Somebody
People may not have believed that Naomi Ackie was Whitney Houston in the 2022 movie I Wanna Dance with Somebody, but the actress gave the role her all. The movie leaves out important parts of the late singer’s life that help people understand why her death was so sad. The alcohol and drugs are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Houston’s problems. Director Kasi Lemmons seems to skip over the most important part of Whitney Houston, almost leaving Ackie to fend for herself, which she does just fine. It’s one reason why this movie seems like it could be the last one with Whitney Houston. The costume changes and wigs are great, and the remake of the classic music video for “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” takes pop music fans back to a time when the first Black “girl next door” was seen by the public.
Whitney is scary, but this documentary needs to show the bad things about Houston in order to make people feel sorry for her. The 2018 documentary shows new talks and theories about how a family member may have abused Houston and how she never told her mother or got better. Robyn Crawford, a controversial friend of Houston’s, filmed a lot of home video footage that director Kevin MacDonald uses in the movie. The movie only hints at the relationship between Houston and Crawford. But Houston’s handlers and friends talk about her sexuality in the documentary, and the person who gave the singer cocaine is named.
Who Killed Malcolm X v. Malcolm X
Spike Lee’s 1992 Malcolm X may have been one of Denzel Washington’s best movies and one of Spike Lee’s best, but many critics said the biopic didn’t do much for them. People get a glimpse of what led the killed activist to become a Muslim, but it doesn’t focus enough on the most important and interesting parts of his early life, and it doesn’t try to find out the truth about why he was killed. To Lee’s credit, 30 years after he researched and filmed the movie, many details about Malcolm’s murder came to light. Malcolm X has all the hallmarks of a Spike Lee movie: it’s beautifully shot, has good acting, and uses techniques like putting an actor on a dolly attached to a moving camera to make it look like they’re floating. However, we don’t learn very much about Malcolm. Sure, movie scenes in which Malcolm uses the Fruit of Islam (FOI) outside a police station to force officers to help a badly beaten fellow member are great. But the documentary gives fans what the 3-hour-and-22-minute movie doesn’t.
Who Killed Malcolm X, which was made by Fusion, is full of detective work by a Black Muslim who was inspired by Malcolm X and was determined to find the real answers about his death. The six-part documentary has sit-downs with former NYPD officers who talked to the activist and with members of the Nation of Islam who saw Malcolm’s relationship with the group’s first leader, Elijah Muhammad. FBI and NYPD notes about Malcolm run quickly across the screen, drawing people in and making them feel like they are part of the investigation. Most of what fans thought they knew about Malcolm X’s last day, February 21, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom may be made up.
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