'Into the Abyss' is a Horror Documentary Based in a Texan Tragedy

From the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, a review of Werner Herzog's Death Row documentary.

Into the Abyss Herzog
IFC Films

This review of Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss was originally part of Christopher Campbell’s coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival as published by Movies.com on September 10, 2011.

Werner Herzog is against the death penalty. He has no problem letting it be known, and his stated reasoning is Nazi Germany, into which he was born. While presenting his new documentary, Into the Abyss, partly about a Texas Death Row inmate, at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, he told the crowd, “No one from my generation, none of my peers, is for capital punishment. It’s as simple as that.”

Simple, but perhaps problematic. I can’t find any comment from the legendary German filmmaker about the death sentences of the Nazi war criminals themselves, but I guess it’s really not too pertinent to this new film anyway. While it’s giving Herzog an opportunity to declare his side on the issue, I don’t accept that the doc is a message film, and it certainly isn’t a great argument for the abolishment of the death penalty in Texas or elsewhere, if Herzog does mean for it to be.

Rather, it is a singular story about a specific triple homicide in Conroe, Texas, ten years ago, and about those convicted of the crime, their family members and the victims’ family members. Through their versions of the story, we get both clear and muddled details and some defenses regarding the sad backgrounds of these people and the cyclical impact of their environment. To some degree it’s a doc like any other involving a murder case, such as The Thin Blue Line or fellow TIFF film Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, except that this film has no intention of exonerating or even questioning the guilt of the young men found guilty.

During his interview with Michael Perry, one of these two prisoners, and the only to be sentenced to be executed, Herzog makes it clear that he does not have to like the guy even if he believes he doesn’t deserve to be killed for his past mistakes. That moment, as well as inclusions of interviews with a tearful pastor who provides inmates their last rites and a former executioner who quit after changing his mind about capital punishment, do support the issue aspect of the film.

But if Herzog’s own personal reason for his stance is the Nazi atrocities, he’d probably be better off making a documentary about that which inspired his own views. He admits outside the film that he has no argument, only that experience to dictate his own belief. As a result, this doc is still as heavy and upsetting as a typical true crime novel. It’s Herzog’s In Cold Blood, I guess, and the director’s detached inquisitiveness is very present throughout. We have our own questions at the end, but we must do only with answers to what Herzog has thought to ask.

Into the Abyss ends up more a horror movie about Texas overall than anything else. Perry tells Herzog to get out of the state before he’s wrongfully accused of a murder he didn’t commit, like he claims so many are (including himself). Through the stories and testimonies of others we hear about so, so many who are incarcerated or dead that it sounds like at least the area of Conroe and nearby Cut and Shoot has an epidemic problem of tragic circumstance and dead ends. Maybe the problem is not the death penalty so much as the life penalties faced within this community every day.

The irony is that even someone similarly against the death penalty could have trouble caring, especially through Herzog’s perspective. Immediately following his 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which puts individual life into a perspective of little significance in the grand flow of time, Into the Abyss strangely wants us to now feel something for these tiny drops in the bucket. He even presents crime scene videos set to the same sort of sad violin music that scores Cave of Forgotten Dreams, as we are brought through a murder victim’s home with flashlights and thorough examination of blood-splattered nooks and corners as if it were the Chauvet. The film might as well have been called “Cave of Unforgettable Nightmares.”

Also, coming after both Cave of Forgotten Dreams and the Colbert Report interview in support of the film, where Herzog told millions of viewers about his preference for “ecstatic truth” over “accountant’s truth,” should audiences even expect anything in Into the Abyss to be truthful enough to support a cause-based documentary? Does the epilogue here, which involves an amazing yet not actually uncommon procedure, feature its own equivalent of the fake mutant albino alligators of Cave of Forgotten Dreams? I have no problem with documentaries playing with truth, but a filmmaker like Herzog can’t really have it both ways. And I actually don’t think he’s trying to. But others might.

If I was not moved enough by Into the Abyss, in spite of still being admittedly swept up in a usual appreciation for Herzog and his curiously philosophical voice, I couldn’t help thinking about the doc, or at least it’s issue, after following it with a festival screening of the Indonesian action movie The Raid. This Midnight Madness selection is very violent and is the sort of movie met with literal applause and cheering when certain bad guys are killed in gruesome fashion. It made me think of the applause Rick Perry received at Wednesday’s presidential debate when he mentioned how many people have been executed since he became Governor of Texas.

Films, docs or fiction, can tell us their stories and these may deal in social causes and other issues, but media is only as powerful as it is to each individual viewer in the context of that person’s experience with it. Just as Herzog has his own personal story affecting his perspective on capital punishment, I have my own and you have your own, and perhaps Into the Abyss will become a part of your thinking of the issue or something else entirely. Just don’t go in expecting Herzog to have gone all activist doc with his latest.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.