By Joe Queenan
June 10, 1996 12:00 PM

MAY WAS NOT A BANNER MONTH FOR HBO: a dismal TV movie about Marilyn Monroe (Norma Jean and Marilyn) followed by an Andrew Dice Clay “comedy” special featuring an unusually large number of proctology jokes. But this month HBO bounces back with a remarkable documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (premiering on Mon., June 10, at 8 p.m. ET). On May 5, 1993, the mutilated bodies of three 8-year-old boys were found next to a creek in West Memphis, Ark. One month later, police charged three local youths with the murders, indicating that the atrocity might have been part of a satanic ritual. The crime caught the attention of filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, most famous for their award-winning 1992 documentary Brother’s Keeper, which helped to acquit an elderly man accused of the mercy killing of his ill brother. For Paradise Lost, Berlinger and Sinofsky went to Arkansas, interviewed everyone in sight and finished shooting in April 1994, by which time the three young men had been convicted (one was sentenced to death; the other two got life in prison).

The gut-wrenching film, which opens with police footage of the butchered children, focuses largely on the intense local hatred of the three accused youths, but demonstrates that the physical evidence of their guilt was not overwhelming. What makes Paradise Lost so powerful is the filmmakers’ unconventional technique: They do not conduct interviews in which the interviewers become part of the story; they do not make abrupt cuts and instead let the principals speak at length; they do not even use a narrator to tell the story. Admittedly, some of the scenes have a staged quality: Two of the victims’ parents are seen at target practice, using a pumpkin as a substitute for the alleged killers, and the third father is seen planting a Christmas tree on his child’s grave. There are also several intensely creepy scenes, including a Happy Birthday serenade by one of the killers’ families. Still, largely because much of the footage has a home-video intimacy, the filmmakers do an amazing job of making the viewer feel that he actually knows the people involved. All in all, a program HBO can be proud of. Now, lose Dice Clay.


Showtime (Sun., June 9, 10 p.m. ET)

Grade: C

A claustrophobic drama about a dysfunctional family in Houston circa 1910. Reunited with his mother (Stockard Channing) and sister (Mary Stuart Masterson) years after his father died and he was sent to live with other relatives, John Slattery fails to get the red-carpet treatment from stepfather Sam Shepard. He there-upon falls into a bit of a swoon and spends most of the remainder of the program lying on the couch in a cold sweat. Meanwhile, Masterson mopes and plays the piano, Shepard mopes and reads the newspaper, and Channing just mopes.


NBC (Mon., June 10, 9 p.m. ET)

Grade: C

Feisty daughter of embattled garment district executive tries to save Dad from the mob. Oddly, the runway models are scarier-looking than the gangsters.


USA (Wed., June 12, 9 p.m. ET)

Grade: B-

Wispy, formulaic comedy written by comedian Rita Rudner, who also stars. A pregnant journalist (Rudner) falls in love with a vineyard owner (Dudley Moore) who was once married to the owner of the hotel where she is staying (Christine Lahti). Meanwhile, Lahti has fallen in love with a man married to the woman (Faith Ford) whom another guest, a standup comic (Richard Lewis), is trying to seduce. Lahti is quite good as the New Age hotelier who is secretly working on a musical about a fifth-dimensional subterranean city made entirely of crystals, and Jack Lemmon is perfectly cast as a seedy showbiz promoter. Everyone else phones it in. Indifferently directed by Rudner’s husband, Martin Bergman, who also indifferently cowrote it.