'Sasquatch' And 'Confronting A Serial Killer' Showcase How Different Two True Crime Shows Can Be [SXSW 2021]

We live in the age of Peak True Crime. You can't search for a podcast without stumbling over countless new shows about grisly murders. You can't browse Netflix without skimming past that week's latest miniseries about a serial killer you've never heard about. And let's face it: we eat it up. We devour these unsettling stories of monsters and victims because they are fascinating, because they are primal, because they are real, because they hold consequence. Nothing grips like a cold, hard truth.

And yet, we've also reached the point where the beats of a true crime series are so familiar, their style and pacing so specific, that they can be effortlessly parodied in something like the late, great American Vandal. So, what's a true crime series to do?

This year's online SXSW Film Festival premiered two new true crime shows with very different priorities. Hulu's Sasquatch feels like a bold new statement for the genre, an offbeat blend of investigative reporting and documentary filmmaking with a deep dive into the supernatural and the unexplainable. Simply put: it's a true crime doc where the killer may be Bigfoot. Really. Meanwhile, Starz's Confronting a Serial Killer doubles down on a back-to-the-basics approach, stripping away the bombast of so many modern series and putting its lens on what often gets lost in true crime stories: the victims.

sasquatch trailer

Sasquatch has one hell of a premise. In 1993, investigative journalist David Holthouse was working on a pot farm deep in the forests of northern California when he overheard a disturbing story. Three men at a neighboring farm were killed, their bodies torn to pieces and mutilated. The culprit? The one and only Bigfoot, of course. Several decades later, this story is still stuck in the back of Holthouse's mind and he decides to investigate, with cameras rolling as he gets to work. The rabbit hole he discovers is deep enough for a three-episode Hulu true crime series, and it is one weird, creepy journey.

Although produced by indie film royalty the Duplass Brothers, Sasquatch is directed by Joshua Rofé, who makes a key choice early: he takes the material seriously and never wavers. The sequences where Bigfoot researchers and witnesses share their stories are given weight, treated as actual evidence in an increasingly baffling missing persons and murder case. And it's impressive how much ground Rofé covers in the briskly-paced 46-minute premiere episode: you learn the Bigfoot basics, the surprisingly rich history of Northern California marijuana farms, and, most importantly, why Holthouse is the exact right journalist to pursue this strange story.

The last one is especially important because Sasquatch is structured like a thriller and Holthouse is our lead detective, a seasoned pro wandering into a new mystery and dangerous territory. There's an addictive quality to the series and to Holthouse himself, who is just eccentric enough to stand out from the pack but has the credentials to demand your respect. Holthouse doesn't write off the Bigfoot angle, so neither do we. All he knows is that this weird story, overheard while living deep in the woods amongst weirdos and criminals, has been gnawing at him for decades. And don't we all have a nagging mystery that we want to solve?

Sasquatch never presents itself as a series out to prove the existence of Bigfoot. It doesn't mock the subject, but it also doesn't embrace it. It's a show about knowing something is wrong, that something bad happened, and knowing that the only way to get an answer is to track it down yourself. The dense redwood forests of California may hold the answer among their many mysteries. If they can hide Bigfoot, who knows what else they're hiding?

The first episode of Sasquatch ends with a cliffhanger so enticing that it all-but-guarantees future binges from true crime aficionados. Will Bigfoot be proven innocent in future episodes? Is the actual culprit something far more human? After one episode, it's hard to say. But one thing is clear: this slick, propulsive series plays like a classic paranoid thriller. You come for the Bigfoot, you stay for the other half dozen revelations and questions the first episode dredges up from the shadows.

While Sasquatch is addictive, propulsive, and cinematic, a true crime show presented as pure entertainment meant to be gobbled and discussed in breathless tones, Confronting a Serial Killer is joyless by design. Its straightforward title and blunt presentation strip the romance from the entire production. There is no fun to be had here. You won't enjoy this. It's a march straight into hell, into a meeting with the Devil himself.

That's not to say Confronting a Serial Killer isn't frequently mesmerizing. It is. Director Joe Berlinger is a veteran of the true crime documentary genre (he practically helped invent the modern form with the Paradise Lost trilogy and he just made another true crime series for Netflix this year), and he brings a practiced, steady hand to the story of Jillian Lauren, a writer who sets out to learn as much as possible about one of America's most prolific serial killers.

The audio of Lauren's conversations with Sam Little, who may have killed nearly 100 women over the course of 30 years, form the backbone of the series. His confessions are chilling. His stories terrifying. His eye for detail makes the stomach churn. Berlinger finds no joy in the sequences where Lauren coaxes one nightmarish story after another out of Little. Berlinger has been accused of indulging monsters in his previous documentary work, giving them a bigger platform than their victims. But the audio, when allowed to play at length, speaks for itself. There are no redeeming qualities to be found in this man, and the filmmaking forces us to endure him alongside Lauren.

Berlinger balances the story by spending more time focusing on the victims, the women who survived Little's assaults and the family who grieve those who did not. Lauren herself, a recovering addict who recognizes herself in the many women Little murdered, speaks plainly about her own difficult journey to sobriety, the boyfriend who attempted to kill her, and her daily battles with PTSD. Lauren's journey never aggrandizes Little. Instead, it sheds light on how women are not believed when they survive and are forgotten when they don't. Someone must speak for the dead.

While so many true crime shows (and podcasts and movies and websites) seem to take pleasure in recounting horrifying acts, Confronting a Serial Killer drains all possible romance from the equation. Perhaps this makes it a little dry, a little slow, and, quite frankly, a little old-fashioned in its structure and filmmaking. But the lack of indulgence means that Lauren's story, and the stories of the victims, are allowed to be heard above any discussions of filmmaking style.

When the SXSW online platform started playing the second episode of Confronting a Serial Killer right after the first, I had to press pause and take a break. Unlike Sasquatch, there's nothing addictive or propulsive here. But sometimes, we need that slap across the face. These stories can be fascinating, but let's not pretend they're fun.

***

Sasquatch premieres April 20, 2021 on Hulu. Confronting a Serial Killer premieres on Starz this Spring.