In the late 1970s, New York City was electrified and petrified by a serial killer who snuck up on people sitting in parked cars and shot them; most of his victims were women. A new documentary, The Lost Tapes: Son of Sam, gives you a vivid sense of what it was like to live in Manhattan or the Bronx in those days, wondering whether the man who signed his letters “Son of Sam” was going to creep up behind you with his trademark .44 caliber pistol.
We now know that Son of Sam was David Berkowitz, a postal worker who claimed that a demonic spirit named Sam spoke to him through his neighbor’s dog. Dubbing himself Son of Sam, Berkowitz made himself into a media figure by sending messages to the police and the public, taking credit for some of the killings and warning that he’d soon do it again. The killer sent Jimmy Breslin, then a star columnist for The New York Daily News, a letter that was not without some small literary merit. It began, “Hello from the gutters of N.Y.C., which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine, and blood.”
This bloody saga is made vivid and engrossing by Smithsonian Channel’s The Lost Tapes series, which does something ever more valuable on television these days: It’s a true-crime show without voice-over narration and, most important, none of those awful dramatic recreations that make so much true-crime TV look cheap and unconvincing. The Lost Tapes method sounds simple — use local TV footage of man-and-woman-on-the-street interviews, press conferences, and period interviews with the principals — but it gives the resulting narrative a stinging authenticity.
For its Son of Sam entry premiering July 30, The Lost Tapes summons up the spirit the Manhattan media of the ’70s: the TV-news reports and newspaper coverage that was at once solid shoe-leather reporting and tabloid-exploitive rabble-rousing. Anyone who lived in New York City at the time will be pleased to see the faces of once-familiar reporters like Dick Schaap, Dave Marash, Geraldo Rivera when he was just beginning his career of exploiting tragedy for melodramatic self-promotion, and, above all, Jimmy Breslin, with his gravelly Queens accent and surly pugnaciousness. In that era, before the Internet leveled the playing field, a newspaper columnist like Breslin spoke to his readers in so intimate a way that even an addled murderer like Berkowitz understood that, if you wanted to scare the daylights out of the citizenry, your best bet was to get Breslin to serve as your mouthpiece. Breslin shared his Son of Sam communiques with the New York City Police Department, which had placed no fewer than 75 detectives on this one case full-time, to maintain contact with Berkowitz until the latter’s arrest in 1977.
Berkowitz is now in jail and in his 60s, an evangelical Christian who has re-named himself Son of Hope. Forty years on, pop culture has been overrun with serial-killer movies, TV shows, and books. (Spike Lee made a Son of Sam movie called Summer of Sam in 1999.) But if you want to know — to feel in your bones — the fear that gripped New York City 40 years ago, this Lost Tapes entry will probably send a shiver up your spine.
The Lost Tapes: Son of Sam airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on Smithsonian Channel.
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