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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

HBO’s ‘Cheshire Murders’ a real-life horror story

I saw a number of movies in theaters last week. But nothing affected me more than a movie I just happened to catch on my television. So that movie, titled “The Cheshire Murders,” is what I decided to review for Spokane Public Radio.

Why? Well that is the operative word, in more ways than one. The main reason has to do with just how scary the movie is. It is a documentary that examines a horrible, deranged act committed by two men who victimize an unsuspecting family. In other words, as I try to explain in my review, the movie is a study of something that is the real-life equivalent of the bogeyman.

An edited version of my review follows:

Horror movies thrive on our innate fears. Fears of creatures bearing sharp teeth, of bloodsucking vampires and mindless zombies, of extraterrestrials wielding anal probes, of weapon-wielding sociopaths – anything, in short, that lurks in the dark zones of our imagination and threatens to pounce on us with murderous intent.

Chances of our being confronted by anything other than our fears are actually remote. Reality has no room for vampires or zombies, much less curious beings from other galaxies. And sharp-toothed animals pose no real danger to anyone who stays out of the woods, the ocean or the jungle. Even the threat posed by psychopathic killers is so low as to be virtually nil.

Yet our fears persist. And moviemakers keep playing to them. And we continue to sit in the dark, chewing on our popcorn as blends of these imagined threats haunt us on screens both big and small.

Sometimes, though, sometimes … horror is real. And as the HBO documentary feature “The Cheshire Murders” proves, when such a danger does manifest itself, it can prove senselessly, mercilessly fatal.

Released a year ago, and available both through HBO On Demand and on DVD, “The Cheshire Murders” explores a heinous crime that occurred in July 2007 when two men, Steven Hayes and Josh Komisarjevsky, broke into the suburban home of Cheshire, Connecticut, doctor William Petit. The day before, Hayes and Komisarjevsky had spotted Petit’s wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and their daughter, 11-year-old Michaela, at a local store. When they showed up at the house, the men beat Petit with a baseball bat and left him tied up in the basement. They then restrained Hawke-Petit, Michaela and the couple’s other daughter, 17-year-old Hayley.

Over the next several hours, they mulled their options before, the following morning, deciding to take Hawke-Petit to the bank and force her to withdraw some $15,000. Upon returning to the house, Komisarjevsky sexually assaulted Michaela, Hayes raped and – when it became clear that William Petit had escaped – murdered Hawke-Petit. The two then doused the house with gasoline, set everything on fire and attempted to escape.

They didn’t get far. Notified by bank officials, who had called 9-1-1, police officers were waiting outside. They arrested Hayes and Komisarjevsky but were unable to save either of the daughters, both of whom died from smoke inhalation. Petit alone survived.

The crime made national headlines, as much for its senseless nature as for the ferocity with which it was carried out. And even though co-directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner do a comprehensive job of exploring the case, that aura of senselessness pervades everything.

We learn of the defendants’ past histories, which involved sexual abuse. We hear from police officers, lawyers, prosecutors and family members. We listen to Hayes’ taped confession. The film questions the actions of Cheshire police, who were sitting outside as the three women were being murdered. It argues the effectiveness, even worth, of the death penalty. We gets lots of theories and opinions and rants both quiet and angry. But “The Cheshire Murders” never satisfactorily answers the most basic question of all: Why?

The sound of that silence is more frightening than even Hollywood could conceive.

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