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DOC TALK

Satan on the South Coast, the death of Stalin, a tree museum grows in Georgia

Fall River as seen in the documentary "Fall River."
Fall River as seen in the documentary "Fall River."Epix

James Buddy Day’s four-episode “Fall River” joins “This Is a Robbery” as another recent documentary series about an infamous local crime.

Though overshadowed in Fall River lore by Lizzie Borden and her axe, the gruesome murders of three women in what was described by police as a satanic ritual sent shock waves across the state and the nation in 1979. The investigation focused on Carl Drew, a charismatic thug with a reputation for brutality and an aura of evil (his mug shots will haunt your dreams).

This was happening in the early days of what is now referred to as the “Satanic Panic,” a kind of mass hysteria that swept up supposedly rational people in a paranoid fear of devil-worshiping, pedophilic, and murderous secret cults whose ranks included some in the highest seats of power (sounds familiar). Drew made an all-too-convincing impression as an acolyte of the Evil One. He was convicted in 1981 of one of the murders and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Though there was no physical evidence, the testimony of Robin Murphy, a formidable 17-year-old female pimp who claimed to witness the killing, sealed Drew’s fate.

At first Day plays up the satanism angle and his interviews with several of the detectives who were on the case nudge the viewer in that direction. A police expert on cults sounds persuasive. The film’s style, with its suggestive episode titles (“My Soul to Keep,” “Deal with the Devil,” “Mark of the Beast,” and “Into Hell,” ), creepy, Goth-style graphics and animation, and horror-movie-like reenactments evoke the chill of wickedness..

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But cracks appear in the official story, and another unsavory character emerges – a genuine child molester who had apparently been getting away with his crimes for years. Murphy, too, turns out to be a more complex character than she initially seems. And one of the police officers on the case is so dissatisfied with the investigation that he quits the force and dedicates the rest of his life to uncovering the truth about crimes that were diabolical and all too human.

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Fall River” can be streamed on Epix at the following times: Episode 101, “My Soul to Keep,” on May 16 at 10 p.m.; Episode 102, “Deal with the Devil” on May 23 at 10 p.m.; Episode 103, “Mark of the Beast” and Episode 104 “Into Hell” on May 30 at 9 p.m.

Go to www.epix.com/series/fall-river.

From "State Funeral."
From "State Funeral."MUBI

Hail and, uh, farewell

Speaking of the demonic, you can get a good look at a monstrous cult of personality in action in Sergei Loznitsa’s “State Funeral” (2019). After Joseph Stalin died on, March 5, 1953, millions of shocked Soviet citizens gathered to mourn their leader’s demise and witness his burial. Some made the long journey to Moscow, others huddled by loudspeakers in villages throughout the country to listen to fulsome, lugubrious panegyrics broadcast over the radio.

Culled from 40 hours of color and black-and-white archival footage shot by hundreds of camera crews, the film shows the masses of mourners as they march up the staircase to the Pillar Hall at the House of the Unions, in Moscow. Grim-faced generals break down in tears, children are frightened, young women look grossed out. At last they glimpse the great man, ensconced in flowers and drapery like a giant, mustachioed Easter egg, and several artists labor at easels to capture the moment.

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Later mourners carry hundreds of unwieldy wreaths and lay them outside Lenin’s Tomb. There the fallen leader is laid to rest near the embalmed body of his predecessor. Mozart’s Requiem and Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, scratchily played over the proceedings, never sounded less appropriate.

The effect is lulling and sometimes darkly comic. The final salute with steam whistles, foghorns, and artillery is gloriously anti-climactic.

In 1956 Stalin was denounced by the 20th Congress of the Soviet Union, a process of “de-Stalinization” began, and in 1961 he was removed from the tomb and interred in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis. Though not as droll, sardonic, or farcical as Armando Iannucci’s “The Death of Stalin” (2017), Loznitsa’s film also offers laughter through the tears.

State Funeral” can be streamed on MUBI beginning May 21.

Go to mubi.com/films/state-funeral.

From "Taming the Garden."
From "Taming the Garden."Mira Film

“Garden” party

Fishermen cast their lines into the serene, cerulean Black Sea. Far offshore a tree sails by. It belongs to Bidzina Ivanishvili -- Georgia’s richest billionaire and chairman of the country’s ruling Georgian Dream party -- and it’s on its way to the Shekvetili Dendrological Park, where it will join hundreds of other rare and ancient trees uprooted and painstakingly transported to the site.

In her film “Taming the Garden,” Salomé Jashi follows the progress of these trees, from their origins in backyards and forests to Ivanishvili’s Shangri-La. She records the grumpy workmen, the complaining neighbors, and the outraged environmentalists along the way. Jashi makes no commentary on the process itself or the propriety of a rich man buying up nature and making it his own (though not for his exclusive use, because the park is open to the public).

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That message is part of the subtext, underlying the film’s wondrous and surreal images, such as that of an earth-moving machine crawling in the middle of the woods like some giant orange insect, or a towering tree hauled off in darkness followed by a crowd.

Taming the Garden” can be streamed at the DocYard May 21-27. An online conversation with Jashi takes place May 24 at 1:30 p.m. Register at bit.ly/2SHbuxw or watch through The DocYard’s Facebook page.

Go to thedocyard.com/2021/04/taming-the-garden.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.