Revising a Confounding Case, Morris-Style

In 1970, a Green Beret Army surgeon was accused of killing his wife and two young daughters. He blamed it on a roving band of Manson-inspired hippies who wrote crude messages in blood on the walls like “Acid is Great.” and “Kill All the Pigs.” It was tried twice with differing results and became a source of public fascination, including the 1984 TV movie, “Fatal Vision.” 

Even the documentarian Erroll Morris became interested, especially since a lot of key witnesses were never called. But instead of making a film like his groundbreaking 1988 film “The Thin Blue Line,” he wrote a 2012 book instead. 

Now a documentary series based on that book (and using the same title) “A Wilderness of Error” (FX, ) premieres tonight, from director Marc Smerling, who certainly uses a lot of the techniques of an Erroll documentary with exacting, often repeating, re-enactments, slow motion, enervating music, and even Erroll himself, musing about the confounding case in interviews. 

Also, Smerling found an awful lot of audio tape and TV coverage from the era, and augmented what he didn’t have with re-enacted courtroom arguments. Even in an era of documentary series riches (such as HBO’s “The Vow”), this one is quite compelling as well as artful. 

I had the opportunity recently to ask Morris why he hadn’t made the documentary series instead of being in it, having written a book about it. 

“Too many series, too many movies,” he declared. “Haven’t really written enough books, so I thought this was an opportunity to actually write a book instead of making a series or a movie.

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