Into the Abyss (2011)
|Category||Documentary||Bonus Episode-Four Part Documentary Series: Death Row|
|Year Of Production||2011|
|RSDL / Flipper||
Dual Disc Set
|Cast & Crew|
|Region Coding||1,2,3,4,5,6||Directed By||Werner Herzog|
|RPI||?||Music||Mark De Gli Antoni|
|Pan & Scan/Full Frame||None||English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)|
|Widescreen Aspect Ratio||1.78:1|
|Video Format||576i (PAL)|
|Original Aspect Ratio||1.78:1||Miscellaneous|
|Subtitles||English for the Hearing Impaired||Smoking||No|
|Annoying Product Placement||No|
|Action In or After Credits||No|
I had planned to start my review of German director Werner Herzog's new documentary Into the Abyss with the comment that any one of the legendary German director’s films could be given this title, so obsessed is he in looking at the dark side of human behaviour. Scanning the Wikipedia page for the documentary I noted that the director himself had made this comment. What do they say about great minds?
Into the Abyss is the result of Herzog's dialogue with a number of prisoners on death row in Texas and Florida. As it happened he found the story of one death row inmate to be fascinating and made his documentary film about that man and his associative in crime. The other stories were turned into a four-part documentary series which is included as an extra on a separate DVD with this release.
Herzog states at the outset that he is an opponent of capital punishment but the film and documentary series are never so simple as to take an overly sympathetic position. He does not set out to make these inmates "warm and cuddly" and at one point tells the interviewee that doing his job as a filmmaker "doesn't mean I have to like you".
Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were convicted of a triple homicide in Montgomery Texas in 2001. The pair had admired a Chevy Camaro owned by the mother of an associate and wanted to steal it. Ultimately they decided it would be easier to simply kill the woman and take the car. This then involved killing the associate and another friend when they came home. The murders were bloody, brutal and entirely pointless. Looking at the Chevy abandoned and forlorn in the police holding yard, after all these years, with tree roots growing through it, it is not hard to share the feeling of terrible waste at the number of lives destroyed for want of a car that the men only drove for a couple of days.
Werner Herzog interviews Michael Perry eight days before his scheduled execution. Perry bemoans the fact that Texas justice means that he, an innocent man, has been sentenced to death. Nevertheless he will go to his death with forgiveness for those who have wronged him and sent him to an early grave. It would be readily apparent that Perry, like others interviewed for the series, is not only unrepentant but in denial of the crime. Herzog goes to some detail to examine the background to the crime and the elements pointing towards Perry's guilt but ultimately it is not essential for his core idea which is that even for the worst criminal and the most horrendous murder, the person who deserves to die should not be murdered by the State.
Interviewing friends and family as well as law enforcement officers Herzog gets deeply into the question of what it feels like to be scheduled for execution. Herzog is the questioner throughout the documentary but he is not seen on camera. Sometimes his questions lead to unusual places, perhaps the province of fellow documentarian Errol Morris. Speaking to the chaplain, who administers last rites to the death row prisoners, he deeply questions the minister over a stray comment about a squirrel crossing his path as was travelling in a golf cart. The minister is undone. How is it that he can apply his brakes to stop and let the squirrel live but there is nothing he can do for his fellow man?
The true crime aspect of the show is heavily present with a good deal of footage from police investigation videos leaving us in no doubt as to the horrendous nature of the killings. Into the Abyss perhaps deserves repeated viewings. Initially it seems quirky and tragic. In Perry's case, as with some of the other death row inmates, it almost seems that his fate was set out for him. Fellow killer Jason Burkett is spared execution perhaps due to the heartfelt plea to the jury given by his father who is also in prison for life for murder.
Into the Abyss is certainly no breezily entertaining watch but it is essential viewing for those who like the ability of the documentarian to turn an unblinking eye on the dark side of the human soul.
Into the Abyss was shot on high-definition digital video. It was transferred to film for cinematic projection and comes to DVD in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. It is 16×9 enhanced.
The film consists of interviews mostly shot in the Allan B Polunsky Unit in Texas where death row prisoners are held prior to transportation to the place of execution. Herzog was limited to one hour with each of the inmates and as you might expect this did not allow for sophisticated filmmaking techniques.
Nevertheless there is a rawness and immediacy to the film footage which would appeal to documentary fans. There is a starkness to the prison and many of the interviewees, whether friends or participants in the justice system, appear to be in their own prison worlds. The police crime scene footage is exactly what you would expect from old video stock, but again this makes it chillingly real.
There are some minor aliasing to be seen though the picture is mostly sharp.
The flesh tones are accurate and the colours, though mostly drab, are well handled.
There are subtitles in English for the Hard of Hearing.
The soundtrack for Into the Abyss is an English Dolby Digital 2.0 track running at 224 Kb/s.
This is perfectly adequate for a documentary which consists of interview footage as well as old police materials. The dialogue can be heard clearly throughout.
In some of the police footage there are subtitles burned into the print.
Music for the film was composed by Mark Degliatoni and is used subtly in the background.
There are no technical defects with the sound.
|Surround Channel Use|
As said, Werner Herzog interviewed other death row inmates and used their stories to make up a four-part TV series with each episode lasting close to an hour. Although the stories of Perry and Burkett were ultimately of more depth, each of these death row inmates provides an interesting and thoughtful hour. They are:
Each of the stories is fascinating for different reasons. Barnes is pretty much the only one who admits being a stone cold killer and in fact was prompted by the series and also religious conversion to admit other murders.
Hank Skinner steadfastly maintains, against some serious weight of evidence, that he is innocent of the murders attributed to him and speaks with reference to ancient and classical literary texts. He is the only one who was scheduled for execution before a last minute reprieve. Skinner speaks with the bittersweet reflection of the moment when his lawyer told him on the phone that he had been granted a reprieve, an hour before his execution, only to find that the Governor did not actually ring the death house until a quarter of an hour before. The staff in the execution chamber was pleased to hear that the lawyer had called but pointed out that until their phone rang they were still obliged to put him to death.
Linda Carty is one of few women on death row and also maintains her innocence in a bizarre baby stealing plan which resulted in the death of the infant's mother. This episode presents perhaps the only time that Herzog seems to place his allegiance behind the inmate ignoring all the evidence presented in her multitude appeals for the easy rhetoric of her lawyers and the rendition of Amazing Grace by Carty.
Perhaps the most interesting story is that of the Texas Seven who were famous escapees from a maximum security prison in Texas. In the case of the very clever but conniving Rivas he was prompted to escape by a conviction for a robbery in which a number of witnesses were tied up. Under the law he received individual sentences for each of the large group of witnesses meaning that for a robbery, which might attract a 10 to 15 year sentence in our own jurisdiction, he was settled sentenced to multiple life terms. The hopelessness drove him to come up with a sophisticated and fool proof plan to escape the prison. It worked a treat and Joseph Garcia was, like Rivas, intending to go straight after the escape. The inability to survive without money lead them quickly back into crime and a robbery in which a police officer was shot and killed. Whilst Rivas admits doing the shooting, although he says that the police officer shot first, Garcia was still inside tying up the witnesses when the shooting took place. He now is on death row based on the same principle of collective guilt.
NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.
This is an All Region DVD.
Into the Abyss and the TV series Death Row are fascinating works examining the whole process behind execution and the people whose lives it affects. It does not try to glorify those on death row but rather to show why killing them doesn't solve any problems.
The DVD is of good quality bearing in mind its source both in sound and vision terms.
Having the whole TV series of Death Row as an extra on a separate DVD makes for exceptional viewing.
|DVD||Cambridge 650BD (All Regions), using HDMI output|
|Display||Sony VPL-VW80 Projector on 110" Screen. Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080p.|
|Audio Decoder||Built in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.|
|Amplification||Pioneer SC-LX 81 7.1|
|Speakers||Aaron ATS-5 7.1|