Into The Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, focuses upon three murders which occurred in the small, dead-end Texan city of Conroe. In 2001, while under the influence of alcohol and drugs Michael Perry and Jason Burkett murdered housewife Sandra Stotler in her kitchen, while she was baking cookies.
Rather unbelievably, they committed this heinous crime because they wanted to steal her car.
After disposing of Stotler’s corpse, the duo attempted to re-enter the family home, however, Stotler lived in a gated community and without the gates ‘clicker’ they were unable to gain access. Sadly, their crimes didn’t stop there. Perry and Burkett were acquainted with Stotler’s stepson, Adam, and so they called him and asked him to meet them. Shortly after meeting Adam and his friend Jeremy Richardson, Perry and Burkett murdered the two teenagers. Several days later, and after a shoot-out with the police, the two blue-collar teens were arrested and charged.
Herzog clarifies rather early on -and predictably -that he’s against the death penalty, however, his film isn’t a polemical. Testament to the Bavarian filmmaker’s prowess, he delivers a film which clearly aligns itself as opposed to the death penalty by simply showing us the damage which it inflicts upon society and those involved.
Also, Herzog is keen to stress -although implicitly so -the background of the murderers, with both of them coming from unsettled families -suggesting that society at large is somewhat culpable.
Burkett in particular is interesting because he’s a second generation criminal. His father is interviewed and seems genuinely remorseful for his son and friend’s crimes, but also shamed by the experience of being shackled to his son. Both Burkett’s were taken to prison together, presumably after the trial at which his father gave testimony -a lifesaving testimony for Burkett Jr. However, Michael Perry would not be so fortunate and on July 1, 2010 he was executed by lethal injection.
The interviews with family members are moving and their desire for retribution is understandable, but Herzog wisely crafts a narrative which focuses upon the preciousness of life.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the interview with Fred Allen, former chief of the Death House at Huntsville Prison and lifetime advocate of the death penalty. It appears as if Allen went through some form of post-traumatic stress, which is hardly surprising after supervising over 120 executions.
Allen quit his job, forfeiting his pension, due to his newly found moral opposition to the death penalty. Allen states that ‘an eye for an eye’ mentality is not the answer and that despite capital punishment being ‘law’, it is wrong. This is cheekily juxtaposed with a preacher’s comment, a preacher who not only states that the death penalty is lawful, but that it is God’s will. Herzog’s disdain for religion, and for the crimes committed ‘in the name of’, is evident throughout.
This is one of Herzog’s finest documentaries, nay films. The fact that Herzog doesn’t narrate the film suggests that he understood the detrimental effect, which his ‘voice’, could have had on such a sensitive subject. What with Herzog’s dulcet tone becoming something of a comedic YouTube sensation. Into The Abyss isn’t simply a discussion about death, but as its full title suggests, it is about how precious life is, all life -something else which permeates the filmmaker’s work.
Herzog isn’t just one of Germany’s finest working directors, he’s one of the best working director’s in the world.