Netflix’s most important true crime documentaries, from Unsolved Mysteries to The Vanishing At Cecil Hotel

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From Unsolved Mysteries to American Murder: The Family Next Door, these are the most important true crime documentaries and docuseries to watch on Netflix right now. 

We are currently inundated with true crime stories at the moment, with documentaries about serial killers, strange disappearances, and murders popping up on pretty much every channel.

Netflix, of course, has long been hailed as the true crime supremo, thanks to its bevy of documentary films and TV series.

But which ones are really worth your time? 

Here, we’ve picked out the most important true crime documentaries on Netflix.

And don’t worry; we’ll be sure to keep this article updated with new titles as and when they become available.

Crime Scene: The Vanishing At Cecil Hotel

Aiming to deconstruct the mythology and mystery surrounding infamous locations in contemporary crime, the first season of this true crime documentary series will be focusing on the tragic case of Elisa Lam.

“For nearly a century the Cecil Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles has been linked to some of the city’s most notorious activity, from untimely deaths to housing serial killers,” reads the synopsis.

“In 2013 college student Elisa Lam was staying at the Cecil when she vanished, igniting a media frenzy and mobilising a global community of internet sleuths eager to solve the case. Lam’s disappearance, the latest chapter in the hotel’s complex history, offers a chilling and captivating lens into one of LA’s most nefarious settings.”

Crime Scene: The Vanishing At Cecil Hotel will be available to stream on Netflix from 10 February.

Carmel: Who Killed Maria Marta?

Carmel: Who Killed Maria Marta?
A still from Carmel: Who Killed Maria Marta?

The Spanish-language docuseries takes us back to 2002, when Argentinian socialite María Marta García Belsunce was found dead in her bathtub at the age of 50, with a puddle of blood nearby.

The doctor who filled out her death certificate listed the cause as “non-traumatic cardiac arrest,” her family signed off on it, and her body was interred barely 24 hours after she died.

Not one person called the police. And, about a month after she had been interred at Recoleta Cemetery, though, prosecutor Diego Molina Pico ordered the exhumation of her body.

The results of that autopsy, as this four-part documentary series shows us, told a very different story – and the case quickly became one of the most controversial criminal cases of Argentina.

Night Stalker: The Hunt For A Serial Killer 

As per the official Netflix synopsis, Night Stalker: The Hunt For A Serial Killer tells “the spellbinding true story of how one of the most notorious serial killers in American history was hunted down and brought to justice.”

It continues: “In the sweltering summer of 1985, a record-breaking heatwave hit Los Angeles, along with a series of murders and sexual assaults that at first seemed disconnected. The victims were men, women, and children. They ranged in age from six to 82. They came from different neighborhoods, racial backgrounds and socioeconomic levels. Never before in criminal history had a single killer been responsible for such a grisly array of crimes.

“Racing against the clock to stop this nocturnal monster were a young detective named Gil Carrillo from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the legendary homicide investigator Frank Salerno. As they worked tirelessly to solve the case, the media hounded their tracks, and panic gripped California.”     

American Murder: The Family Next Door

Using home videos, social media posts, text messages, and police footage, the film aims to piece together the investigation into the August 2018 murders of Shan’ann Watts and her daughters Bella and Celeste.

For those who aren’t aware of the details surrounding the case already, Nickole Atkinson grew concerned for Shan’ann when her friend, who was 34 years old and 15 weeks pregnant, missed an OB-GYN appointment and didn’t show up to work.

Unable to locate Shan’ann and her children after visiting the Watts home in Frederick, Colorado, Nickole reported them missing to local police. And, while their murder has been recounted for TV many times over, the official Netflix synopsis for this documentary explains that this film is not about their killer.

Rather, it is “the first film to give a voice to his victims”.

American Murder: The Family Next Door follows the success of Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries.

Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries

Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries looks at a range of (ahem) unsolved mysteries. And that could mean pretty much anything, from the trauma of a loved one’s unexplained disappearance, to a bizarre paranormal encounter, to the disappearance of an entire family.

But here’s where things get really interesting. Rather than tie things up neatly and present you with the full package, the show’s creators are relying on you, the viewer, to help them get to the bottom of things.

“Alongside detectives and journalists, family members offer clues, present theories, and identify suspects, hoping one viewer holds the key to solving the mystery,” reads a statement from Netflix.

Currently, there are only six episodes of Unsolved Mysteries available to stream on Netflix. Thankfully, though, the series is just one of many compelling investigative documentaries on the streaming platform right now. 

The Two Killings Of Sam Cooke

On 11 December 1964, officers of the Los Angeles Police Department were dispatched to the Hacienda Motel after a reported shooting. There, they found musician and activist Sam Cooke dead on the office floor. He had been shot three times in the chest by the motel’s manager, Bertha Franklin. 

The authorities ruled Cooke’s death a case of justifiable homicide, based on the testimony of Ms. Franklin, who claimed that Cooke had threatened her life. The Two Killings Of Sam Cooke, which boasts a 100% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, explores the circumstances and controversy surrounding his murder.

The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson

When the body of pioneering transgender activist Marsha P Johnson was found in the Hudson River, her death was ruled a suicide by New York City police – much to the disbelief of her friends and fellow activists. Years later, Netflix’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson explores her little-investigated death while celebrating her integral role in the Stonewall riots. 

Of course, The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson is by no means a perfect film. Indeed, there’s almost too much here for a standalone 105-minute format, which means that not nearly enough time is devoted to Johnson’s formative years. While her legacy is explored in great detail, her life is not – and hers is, undeniably, a life that deserves more screentime.

Saying that, though, the film highlights the extraordinary effect that Johnson had on the people around her. The importance of her activism. And the continued violence felt by the trans community.

In doing so, The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson shines a light on the continuing fight for justice by the LGBTQ+ community.

Watch the trailer below:

Surviving R. Kelly

Once famed as one of the greatest R&B singers of all time, R. Kelly’s name has since become synonymous with rumours of abuse, paedophilia, and predatory behaviour toward women. In this powerful documentary, civil rights activist Tarana Burke, musician John Legend, talk show host Wendy Williams, R. Kelly’s family members, and countless others shed light on the singer’s controversial past. And, in doing so, they expose the dangers of enabling predators.

Wild Wild Country

Every single episode in this phenomenal docuseries ends on a cliffhanger that leaves you desperate for more. It tells the tale of a controversial guru who builds a utopian city in the Oregon desert, and, in doing so, causes a massive conflict with local ranchers. A massive conflict which, we might add, leads to the first bioterror attack in the United States and a massive case of illegal wiretapping. Prepare to be hooked.

The Innocence Files

The Innocence Files on Netflix
The Innocence Files, available to stream now on Netflix, is a very different kind of true crime docuseries.

A very different sort of true crime series, The Innocence Files is composed of three compelling parts – The Evidence, The Witness and The Prosecution. Each of these stories expose difficult truths about the state of America’s deeply flawed criminal justice system, while showing when the innocent are convicted, it is not just one life that is irreparably damaged forever: families, victims of crime and trust in the system are also broken in the process.

How To Fix A Drug Scandal

Oh yes, it’s the true crime series everyone was talking about on Twitter. In How To Fix A Drug Scandal, two drug lab chemists’ crimes cripple a state’s judicial system and blur the lines of justice for lawyers, officials and thousands of prison inmates.

Who Killed Malcolm X?

Historian, activist and investigative journalist Abdur-Rahman Muhammad helms this deep dive into the murder of civil rights activist Malcolm X.

Amanda Knox

Thanks to the tabloids’ ceaseless coverage of ‘Foxy Knoxy’, you might think you know everything there is to know about Amanda Knox. As this Netflix documentary proves, though, there’s far more to it than that.

The Staircase

Michael Peterson told police that his wife fell down the stairs after consuming a potent mixture of alcohol and Valium – a theory that was disputed by the post-mortem’s toxicology results. When investigators concluded that Kathleen’s injuries were not consistent with an accidental fall, they arrested Peterson on suspicion of murder. It is at this point that Jean-Xavier de Lestrade stepped in to begin filming the events for what would eventually become The Staircase, an award-winning docuseries that chronicled the legal battle all the way through Peterson’s eventual conviction.

Time: The Kalief Browder Story

Kalief Browder was 16 when he was arrested in the spring of 2010 for a robbery he insisted he had not committed. He spent three years in prison without being convicted of a crime, waiting for a trial that never happened. Tragically, he killed himself after his eventual release. This powerful documentary uses first-person accounts, archival footage, and cinematic re-creations of key scenes from Browder’s to offer a comprehensive look at the case, and explore how this teenager was repeatedly failed by the criminal justice system.

Tiger King

Almost everyone on the face of the earth has seen Tiger King, Netflix’s documentary about Joe Exotic – a gun-toting polygamist who presided over an Oklahoma animal park – and the murder-for-hire plot against animal activist Carole Baskin that led to his arrest. But if you somehow missed the lockdown TV sensation, go forth and start streaming now.

The Pharmacist

A true crime documentary unlike any other. The Pharmacist follows small-town pharmacist Dan Schneider who, after losing his son in a drug-related shooting, embarks on a crusade to bring a reckoning against the powerful figures behind the nation’s devastating opioid epidemic.

Abducted In Plain Sight

Abducted In Plain Sight isn’t just the story of a kidnapped girl. It’s the story of how that teenager was abducted twice by her neighbour and family friend Robert ‘B’ Berchtold, and the circumstances that allowed such a shocking crime to occur on more than one occasion.

Strong Island

Boasting a 100% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Strong Island explores themes of grief, loss, and racial inequality as filmmaker Yance Ford investigates the 1992 murder of his brother, William Ford Jr.

The Keepers

Cathy Cesnik, a beloved nun and Catholic high school teacher in Baltimore, went missing on 7 November 1969. Nearly two months later, her body was found – but to this day, the killer remains unnamed. The story made headlines for a time, but eventually disappeared from the newspapers. That is, of course, until the 90s, when one of Cesnik’s former students accused the high school’s chaplain of sexual abuse, and claims that she was taken to Cesnik’s then undiscovered corpse and threatened. In The Keepers, director Ryan White pieces together the story through conversations with friends, relatives, journalists, government officials, and Baltimore citizens, hoping to uncover the truth.

Making A Murderer

The 10-part Netflix series that turned us all into amateur sleuths, Making A Murderer – which took a decade to film and construct – follows the story of Wisconsin-based Steven Avery. In the first episode, we learn of how Avery served 18 years of a rape sentence, that began in 1985, but was exonerated by DNA evidence which it is suggested the police previously had access to.

The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez

This devastating true-crime docuseries explores the tragic death of eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez. Detailing the abuse that Fernandez was subjected to at the hands of his guardians, and the subsequent public trials, this series prompts questions about the system’s protection of vulnerable children.

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Images: Netflix

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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