Best True Crimes Documentaries of All Time
Real-life crime stories have always fascinated people. Because the events really happened. And if they happened once, they could happen again.
But true crime documentaries have become more popular than ever. The best true crime documentaries have just the right mix of intrigue and horror.
And they don't get any better — or scarier — than this.
15. The Confession Tapes
Directed by: Kelly Loudenberg
Running time: Two seasons, 11 episodes, 45-54 minutes for each show
Rotten Tomato audience score: 81 percent
What critics said: "Yes, it's compulsive. Stoked by bloody police photographs, the atmosphere can be suspenseful to a queasy-making degree." —Rachel Cooke, New Statesman
Bottom Line: The Confession Tapes
Disturbing, yet addictive, "The Confession Tapes" is one of the best true crime documentaries on Netflix. It’s so good that it's been compared to other big Netflix winners like "The Keepers."
What’s interesting about this one is that it raises questions about whether or not a confession is really enough for a conviction. In this series, at least, false confessions led to murderers running free. But how? Why?
You’ll just have to watch it to find out.
14. The Confession Killer
Directed by: Robert Kenner and Taki Oldham
Running time: Five episodes, 45-50 minutes for each show
Rotten Tomato audience score: 93 percent
What critics said: "If 'The Confession Killer' was simply intended to be a series about [Henry Lee] Lucas ... it's a mediocre one at best. But if it's actually a sly jab at us and our obsession with reheating gruesome deaths, then perhaps it's Netflix's smartest true-crime saga of them all." —Stuart Heritage, Guardian
Bottom Line: The Confession Killer
Murderers are scary enough as it is. But a murderer so pleased with himself that he confesses? That’s a whole other level of terrifying.
Murderer Henry Lee Lucas had already served 15 years in prison when he was released in 1975. Just eight years later, he was arrested for murdering Kate Rich. After he was arrested, he bragged about having killed over 200 people during his years of freedom.
Strangely, his confessions turned out to be twisted fibs. "The Confession Killer" gives a disturbing peek into the mind of a maniac.
13. Night Stalker
Directed by: Tiller Russell
Running time: Four episodes, 46-48 minutes for each show
Rotten Tomato audience score: 83 percent
What critics said: "For a series about such a brutal string of killings, 'The Night Stalker' is filled with humanity." —Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times
Bottom Line: Night Stalker
"Night Stalker" details the life of Richard Ramirez, an American serial killer who earned the dark nickname after a terror spree in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. In just over two years, from June 1984 to August 1985, he killed 13 people and tortured many more.
"Night Stalker" examines how his horrifying case was finally cracked by Los Angeles Sheriff's detectives and led to Ramirez being convicted of 13 counts of murder, five attempted murders, 11 sexual assaults, and 14 burglaries.
Ramirez was given the death penalty and died of complications from lymphoma on California's death row in 2013.
12. The Disappearance of Madeleine McCain
Directed by: Chris Smith
Running time: Eight episodes, 43-65 minutes each
Rotten Tomato audience score: 37 percent
What critics said: "This series allows many theories and sympathies to wash over viewers but then flicks them away like exercises in gullibility." —Katherine Steinbach, Nonfics
Bottom Line: The Disappearance of Madeleine McCain
While this documentary didn’t get the highest ratings from critics, the story is too enthralling to miss. If you didn’t catch it on the news, a little girl named Madeleine McCann disappeared from an apartment in Portugal while she was on vacation with her family.
Supposedly, her parents were dining right around the corner. How does that even happen? How can a kid vanish like that?
This true crime documentary reviews the evidence.
11. The Ripper
Directed by: Jesse Vile
Running time: 4 episodes, 195 minutes (entire series)
Rotten Tomato audience score: 68 percent
What critics said: "Even though the case has been settled for almost 40 years — and [Peter] Sutcliffe died in November  — 'The Ripper' is fascinating to us because it will examine the underlying factors that slowed down the investigation, instead of talking about the killer himself." —Joel Keller, Decider
Bottom Line: The Ripper
A violent murderer ran rampant along the midnight streets of Yorkshire, England, in the 1970s and 1980s, wreaking havoc on the safety and security of English residents for almost two decades.
While the chilling tales of his torturous murders are enough to keep you up at night, the frustrating practices of the Yorkshire police during this time are covered through a journalistic and feminist light.
That's what makes this docu-series more than just a jump-scare for the senses.
10. Out of Thin Air
Directed by: Dylan Howitt
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Rotten Tomato audience score: 44 percent
What critics said: "Chilling, jaw-dropping and somewhat frustrating account of Iceland's most infamous murder case, and the convictions for it pulled 'Out of Thin Air.'" —Roger Moore, Movie Nation
Bottom Line: Out of Thin Air
Murder is a relatively rare crime in Iceland in the 1970s, but those who saw the victim last are roped into their local police station to give reports. However, investigators quickly mark them all as potential suspects, and confessions soon come flooding in.
For the next 40 years, it was assumed the case was closed. That was until new doubt from some fresh faces sprung up on the scene and discovered that none of the confessions were at all cohesive.
With the help of the documentary, audiences get a front-row seat into the real and complex story behind this notorious Icelandic murder.
9. The Keepers
Directed by: Ryan White
Running time: Seven episodes, 436 minutes total runtime
Rotten Tomato audience score: 94 percent
What critics said: "'The Keepers' initially begins as a Making a Murderer or The Jinx-style true-crime whodunnit, promising an investigation into the unsolved 1969 murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a Baltimore nun and teacher. But it quickly reveals itself to be much bigger, and more far-reaching, than that, exposing decades of child abuse within institutions across Baltimore, from the church to the police force, and distressingly, the extent to which they colluded in silencing the victims and covering up such horrific crimes." —Rebecca Nicholson, The Guardian
Bottom Line: The Keepers
"The Keepers" covers the unsolved murder of Cathy Cesnik, a nun who was loved by her colleagues and Catholic high school students in Baltimore. Cesnik vanished in November of 1969, but her body was sadly found in a gruesome state two months later. What remains unknown, however, is the identity of her killer.
This documentary shines a light on the case and also covers its resurgence during the early 1990s, when one of Cesnik’s former students accused the high school chaplain of sexually assaulting her, then taking her to Cesnik’s corpse and threatening her.
Through recorded conversations with friends, relatives, journalists, government officials, and fellow Baltimore residents, the director of "The Keepers" dives deep into an opportunity for resolution.
8. Abducted in Plain Sight
Directed by: Skye Borgman
Running time: 1hour, 31 minutes
Rotten Tomato audience score: 65 percent
What critics said: "Borgman handles these confessions responsibly. A lot of painful truth — about the escalating nature of sin, for example — comes from watching Bob and Mary Ann Broberg crumple into tears as they recount their guilt." —Megan Basham, World
Bottom Line: Abducted in Plain Sight
"Abducted in Plain Sight" covers the 1974 kidnapping of 12-year-old Jan Broberg by the hands of her trusted neighbor and family friend.
This rather discomforting documentary shows the conflicting reactions within Broberg’s small-town church community in Idaho, the complicated relationship between herself and her kidnapper, along with her overly trusting parents, and the painful remorse that followed.
7. American Murder: The Family Next Door
Directed by: Jenny Popplewell
Running time: 1hour, 23 minutes
Rotten Tomato audience score: 75 percent
What critics said: "Popplewell's film presents the Watts story as more than a crime story. It is a thematic film about marriage and the deception of social media, as well as a piercing examination of domestic violence constructed with care and undeniable craft." —Bilal Qureshi, New York Times
Bottom Line: American Murder: The Family Next Door
In 2018, the mother and two daughters of the Watts family, a seemingly happy household in Frederick, Colorado, were reported missing.
The distressed father and husband, Chris Watts, got plenty of news coverage where he pleaded for his family’s safe return, but it didn’t take long before a failed polygraph and suspicious investigators became apprehensive about Chris’s innocence.
With the help of archived police footage, home videos, and text messages, no one can stop the truth from being revealed.
6. Evil Genius
Directed by: Barbara Schroeder
Running time: Four episodes, 45-53 minutes for each show
Rotten Tomato audience score: 82 percent
What critics said: "It's the perfect story for one of the streaming service's true-crime deep-dives." —Josh Modell, Rolling Stone
Bottom Line: Evil Genius
"Evil Genius" focuses on one of the most infamous bank heist cases in recent history.
Often referred to as the "collar bomb" or "pizza bomber" case, the documentary follows the death of Brian Wells, the man with the bomb, and looks into the manipulative influence of Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, the woman behind the curtain.
Although the initial story of this case is already gruesome, it only becomes increasingly baffling the further you dive into this layered documentary.
5. Don't [Mess] With Cats
Directed by: Mark Lewis
Running time: Three episodes, 66 minutes each
Rotten Tomato audience score: 80 percent
What critics said: "'Don’t [Mess] With Cats: Hunting An Internet Killer' is Netflix’s powerful new true crime documentary about a serial killer – that will make you question your own behavior." —Alicia Lutes, Stylist
Bottom Line: Don't [Mess] With Cats
When a video surfaces online of an anonymous individual killing kittens, it inspires a group of amateur online sleuths to track down the relentless and rather sadistic killer.
However, what they end up finding on their investigative journey is much more expansive than they bargained for.
4. The Innocence Files
Directed by: Roger Ross Williams
Running time: Nine episodes, 51-85 minutes for each show
Rotten Tomato audience score: 95 percent
What critics said: "Essentially, 'The Innocence Files' isn't so much of a series, but a case-by-case indictment of a system where being poor is the biggest crime of all." —Fionnuala Halligan, Screen Daily
Bottom Line: The Innocence Files
"The Innocence Files" wasn't just one of the best true crime documentaries of 2020. It is one of the best true crime shows ever made.
The series is all about wrongful convictions and is based on the efforts of the Innocence Project to clear the names of those who have been unfairly convicted.
This true crime documentary goes deeper than most. Rather than merely answering the question "who did it?" the series examines how our justice system fails victims in the first place.
3. Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult
Directed by: Cecilia Peck
Running time: Four episodes, 54-80 minutes for each show
Rotten Tomato audience score: 89 percent
What critics said: "Forewarned is forearmed, and on that score 'Seduced' should be compulsory viewing for everyone so they can see the warning signs." —Brad Newsome, Sydney Morning Herald
Bottom Line: Inside the NXIVM Cult
We’d all like to think we’re too smart to be tricked into joining a cult, but the story of India Oxenberg demonstrates how cults quietly worm their way into people’s lives.
She joined what she thought was a self-help group. Once she realized it was a dangerous, abusive cult, it was hard to escape.
"Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult" follows her story and those of others who were victimized by NXIVM. The contributions from therapists give credence to their explanations, which are, at times, challenging to believe.
2. The Lady and the Dale
Directed by: Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker
Running time: Four episodes, 55 minutes each
Rotten Tomato audience score: 57 percent
What critics said: "Thanks to lots of old clips and some shockingly candid interviews, this close look at the media treatment of her is one of the most valuable aspects of 'The Lady and the Dale.'" —David Bianculli, NPR
Bottom Line: The Lady and the Dale
Elizabeth Carmichael, the star of this true crime documentary series, launched Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation and invented a car called "The Dale." It only had three wheels, and its unique design threw Carmichael into the limelight.
As her past is revealed, details emerge about the origins of the car’s technology that bring her accomplishments into question.
The show includes interviews with several of her children and grandchildren, along with employees of the car corporation and journalists who covered the case.
1. The Staircase
Directed by: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
Running time: 1hour, 34 minutes
Rotten Tomato audience score: 83 percent
What critics said: "If 'The Staircase' proves one thing, it’s that the arc of the legal system is long as hell, and doesn’t always bend toward justice. It also proves that cases as long as this one don’t necessarily ever bring closure." —Jen Chaney, Vulture
Bottom Line: The Staircase
In 2001, novelist Michael Peterson found his wife dead at the bottom of their staircase, as chilling real-time footage from police reports later shows. Peterson claimed she had fallen down the stairs after consuming alcohol and Valium, but the public, medical examiner, and district attorney are quick to judge.
The medical examiner believes she was beaten to death, leading Peterson to become the number one suspect in a murder investigation that will turn his life upside down, perhaps unnecessarily.
The more recent updated documentary covers the investigation and Peterson’s journey through 2005 to 2018, including the arrest of Peterson to the ultimate verdict. This documentary provides an introspective look into not only the life of a grieving family, but also the American justice system.
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