By Gen Terblanche4 May 2023
The killer next door: Love & Death, The Staircase and more
It’s a peaceful day in the neighbourhood. Amid the bustle of children playing, lawnmowers and barking dogs, Candy Montgomery is in the laundry room chopping up her friend Betty Gore with an axe. House flipper Pam Hupp has a busy day ahead of mixing poisons, forgery and lies, and keen gardeners Susan and Christopher Edwards are outside planting shrubs over Susans’ parents’ backyard graves. Meanwhile, novelist Michael Peterson is hard at work plotting his real-life true crime scene as another keen writer, 17-year-old Michelle Carter, chats with her online BFF, Conrad, urging him to get back in his truck and reach that final destination.
True-crime drama series like Love & Death have us convinced that there’s a slaughterhouse of emotions lurking in mundane lives. Pull back the curtain on five suburban murder stories with Showmax…
Love & Death
Series writer-creator David E Kelley (Big Little Lies and The Undoing) is behind this star-studded, seven-episode drama series. Love & Death is based on the murder of teacher Betty Gore (Lily Rabe) by her friend from church, Candy Montgomery (Elizabeth Olsen), who was cheating on her husband Pat (Patrick Fugit) with Betty’s husband Allan (Jesse Plemons). Betty’s murder has been called a crime of passion, which is a tricky phrase to associate with anyone involved – until Love & Death helps us to see beneath the moustaches and mousiness.
With David writing the trial scenes we’re in for a thrill ride as the show tries to make sense of a shocking verdict, and how shrewdly Candy’s lawyer Don Crowder (Tom Pelphrey) fine-tuned her appearance and behaviour to manipulate the court. This wasn’t some desperate, meth-driven drifter foaming at the mouth, but a nice church lady, housewife wife and mom unleashing all her suppressed rage.
The case: On Friday, 13 June 1980, while Allan was away on a business strip, Candy struck Betty 41 times with an axe, chopping into her face 28 times, while Betty’s baby daughter Bethany lay in her crib asleep. She then showered off Betty’s blood and went back home, leaving the baby to cry in an empty house. Candy was arrested for Betty’s murder on 27 June 1980. Her trial began on 21 October 1980, ending just eight days later on 29 October 1980, with Candy claiming self defence. Candy has refused to engage with the media ever since her trial and the shock verdict.
The Thing About Pam
True crime meets dark comedy in this dramatic unravelling of the web of crimes committed by Pam Hupp (played by Renée Zellweger, who was obsessed with the story and also acted as an executive producer on the series). The series is based on the case’s coverage in true crime series Dateline TV, and the 2019 The Thing About Pam podcast.
It’s an unusual show about media and murder thanks to the fact that Dateline became interwoven in Pam’s story, to the extent that Pam even pretended to be working for the show. We watch Pam construct an elaborate smoke screen of lies, alibis and misdirection after she persuades her friend Betsy (Katie Mixon) to make Pam the sole beneficiary of her insurance policy, then kills Betsy and frames Besty’s husband Russ (Glenn Fleshler) for murder.
The case: Terminally ill Betsy Faria was found dead in her home on 17 December 2011. She’d been stabbed 55 times, her wrists had been cut to the bone, and a serrated kitchen knife was still stuck in her throat. Her husband, Russ, called 911 in a panic, claiming that Betsy had committed suicide. Pam’s testimony became a key component of the case against Russ, who was found guilty and spent three years in prison until his lawyer Joel (Josh Duhamel) was finally able to prove his innocence and he was exonerated in 2015.
On 16 August 2016, Pam came to the police’s attention again when she shot a disabled man named Louis Gumpenberger (Jeff Ryan Baker) dead in her home and framed him as a kidnapper sent by Russ. But on 23 August 2016, Pam was arrested for Louis’ murder. During her trial, the St Louis County Medical Examiner’s Office also challenged the ruling on her mother Shirley Neumann’s cause of death. Pam was sentenced to life in prison without parole for Louis’ murder in August 2019, and she was finally charged with murdering Betsy in July 2021. As of May 2023, Betsy’s murder trial is ongoing – complicated by not just Pam’s actions, but the shockingly incompetent original investigation.
Like The Thing About Pam team, writer-creator Ed Sinclair brings a touch of dark comedy to the stylish four-episode true crime drama mini-series Landscapers. The show is based on the 1988 murders of William (David Hayman) and Patricia Wycherley (Felicity Montagu) by their daughter Susan Edwards (Olivia Coleman) and her husband Christopher (David Thewlis). After catching a glimpse of the story in the newspapers, Ed reached out to Susan’s legal team and even corresponded with Susan and Christopher in prison. The series explores how and why they killed, and how they kept up the lies for nearly 15 years. As the police interrogate the couple, the different theories they put forward play out on screen like Hollywood mini-movies, starring Susan and Christopher. To Ed, the couple’s tale is a love story with a dark detour into murder.
The case: In May 1998, William (85) and Patricia (63) Wycherley were shot dead in their home, most likely by their son-in-law, Christopher. Christopher then dug holes in the garden where he buried mom and dad, before planting bushes over them. From then, Susan and Christopher claimed that the Wycherleys were travelling, and sent relatives forged correspondence. Shortly after the murder, Susan transferred her parents’ savings into a joint account, and started using the Wycherleys’ identities to commit fraud and sell their house. But the couple spent most of the money on buying Hollywood memorabilia!
In 2012 in an effort to dodge a government visit to William, who would have been close to 100 years old, Susan and Christopher moved to France. But the couple ran into more financial difficulty after a year and Christopher confessed to the murder when he contacted his stepmother to ask for money. Police dug up the garden and found the bodies in October 2013, and the couple surrendered three weeks later. They were found guilty of murder in June 2014.
A true-crime murder mystery in which the alleged killer is a rich novelist, newspaper columnist, aspiring politician, and compulsive liar is going to get complicated! Series creator Antonio Campos’s 2022 eight-episode mini-series not only drew on the 13-episode French documentary mini-series The Staircase – which explored the trial of novelist Michael Peterson from his arrest in 2001, to his plea in 2017 (covering his arrest and trials in three parts, released in 2004, 2013, and 2018) – but wove the making of the documentary into his series.
Antonio Campos’s series delves into the mystery of whether Michael (Colin Firth) was responsible for his second wife Kathleen’s (Toni Collette) death in 2001, after he found her bleeding at the bottom of their home’s staircase, mirroring the death of his friend Elizabeth Ratliff in Germany in 1985.
The case: In 1985, Elizabeth Ratliff’s nanny Barbara found her dead at the base of the staircase in her home in Germany, with severe head injuries. Michael Peterson was the last person to see her alive, and he and his first wife Patricia (Trini Alvarado) became the guardians of Elizabeth’s children, Margaret (Sophie Turner) and Martha (Odessa Young). While her death was initially ruled as accidental, a medical examiner determined that the injuries were the result of homicide during Michael’s trial in April 2003.
Elizabeth Ratliff’s death resurfaced in December 2001 after Michael became the prime suspect when his second wife Kathleen was found dead at the base of their home’s staircase in North Carolina. The coroner found her injuries consistent with someone who’d been beaten, rather than suffering a fall down the stairs. The trial became a sensation as it exposed Michael’s affairs with men and the fact that he’d lied about earning two Purple Heart medals during the Vietnam War.
Michael was found guilty of murder in October 2003, but the case came back in question in August 2010 when blood spatter analyst Duane Deaver, one of the key witnesses in Michael’s trial, was found guilty of falsifying evidence in 34 different cases. Michael was released on bail in December 2011 and freed in 2017. He continues to maintain his innocence.
PS: Michael Peterson himself commented on the documentary in his own 2019 memoir, titled Behind The Staircase.
The Girl From Plainville
Content warning: self harm/suicide
Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus created this eight-episode true-crime drama miniseries inspired by an infamous case that pushed the borders of who could legally be accused of murder. The series digs into the two-year relationship between 17-year-old Michelle Carter (Elle Fanning) and her 18-year-old boyfriend Conrad Roy III (Colton Ryan), who was found dead on 13 July 2014. Conrad’s mother, Lynn (Chloë Sevigny), later discovered text messages between the two, which revealed that Michelle was egging on Conrad’s suicidal ideation. Was it a case of tough love gone wrong, or was there a darker, sadistic impulse at play?
Liz and Patrick drew heavily on Jesse Barron’s 2017 article in Esquire magazine, which explored Michelle Carter’s story following her trial for murder. And the Girl From Plainville uses powerful performances from Elle, Colton and Chloë to question the image of Michelle that emerged during the trial as a blonde, prom queen psychopath.
The case: Following Conrad Roy III’s death by carbon monoxide poisoning on 13 July 2014, investigators waded through 317 pages of text and email messages between Conrad and his friend/girlfriend Michelle Carter, sent between their meeting in February 2012 and his death. During hospitalisation for a suicide attempt in October 2012, Conrad texted 15-year-old Michelle to ask whether she cared what was happening to him. The two continued to share their troubles with one another, and when Michelle went into treatment for anorexia in June 2014, she reached out to Conrad, encouraging him to seek help for his own issues with depression. He refused, and three weeks later, he told her they should be like Romeo and Juliet, “joking” about a death pact, which she flat out refused.
But from 29 June 2014, Michelle switched. She started leaning in to Conrad’s obsession with suicide, and on 3 July she berated him for constantly circling the idea but putting it off. As the two debated methods, she asked whether she could claim to be his girlfriend if he died. During Conrad’s suicide on 12 July, the two continued to communicate, as two calls show on their phone records. The trial hinged on Michelle’s later claim to a friend that she had urged Conrad to get back into his car during these calls, when he tried to back out of the attempt. On 16 June 2017, Michelle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. She began serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence on 11 February 2019 and was released on 23 January 2020.
PS: For a different perspective, watch the insightful documentary I Love You, Now Die.
In all five stories it’s the ordinariness that really shocks us. The same way that a movie like Ratatouille can convince us that anyone can cook, these suburban horror stories convince us that anyone can kill. Explore your true-crime fascination with more stories about more of the Originals, documentaries and series on Showmax.
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