I got into the Serial podcast late in the game, just before the second season came out in December last year, so I’m a new addict to the true crime boom that has been spreading with that and some recent hit TV series. Because of this, my ears perked up when I was sent a press release for The Fear of 13 as it featured a quote from Empire magazine, stating it was “guaranteed to reel in those recently obsessed with Serial and HBO’s The Jinx”. Added to the fact that I’m a huge documentary fan in general, The Fear of 13 sounded to be the perfect fix I needed after Serial, particularly as I don’t have access to Netflix or Sky to watch anything like The Jinx or Making a Murderer.
Well, The Fear of 13 ended up being quite a different kettle of fish to Serial, but in no way did it disappoint.
The Fear of 13 opens with a statement saying that; ‘after more than 20 years on death row, convicted murderer Nick Yarris made a final petition to the Pennsylvania courts. He requested that all appeals cease and his sentence of death be carried out. He agreed to be interviewed about the decision. His story has been independently verified.’ After this text appears on screen, the rest of the film consists solely of Yarris telling his own story to the camera. And what a story.
I don’t want to say too much as the power and joy of this film is hearing this tale play out, so apologies if this review ends up being a little short. All I can say is that it’s utterly captivating. I literally found my jaw agape towards the end and I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen. Listening to just one man talk for an hour and a half sounds tedious, but I can’t think of a more gripping film I’ve seen in recent years.
With the aforementioned quote likening this to Serial, I was expecting it to be an in-depth investigation into Yarris’ case. However, the film instead has a slightly unusual structure which is quite episodic, at least in the first half. This portion of the film looks into Yarris’ life in solitary confinement, including a beautiful story about a musical shattering of years of silence. Yarris’ telling of how he got a life sentence and what lead him to request the carrying out of his death sentence doesn’t truly begin until just past half way through. So it’s not a piece of investigative journalism by any means. We’re not hearing anyone try to figure out who did a crime. We’re just led through an amazing story about one and its repercussions.
What makes the film work as well as it does is of course Yarris himself. He’s an amazing storyteller. From hearing about his past as a young offender and drug addict, it’s surprising how clear and literate he is. This is possibly explained in the film where he tells of how he discovered the joy of reading. He had poor literacy skills when he first went into prison aged 20, but he became addicted to reading novels and developed his skills, reportedly getting through 1,000 books in only three years.
His delivery of the story can feel a bit performed perhaps, so it can be difficult to fully believe everything he says, but if the verification mentioned in the opening statement did its job, the majority of it should be true. Also, without this level of ‘performance’ in delivering the story, the film wouldn’t be as gripping as it is.
From my description it may sound as though the film is one long talking head, but there are other things to look at. The director David Sington provides reconstructive cutaways throughout to keep the film visually interesting. These are very slick and stylish, employing an incredibly shallow depth of field throughout. They aren’t reconstructions in terms of showing actors performing everything that’s described on camera. Instead they’re subtle representations of key objects or settings such as images of prison bars or similar. It’s tastefully and classily done, so works a charm.
All in all it’s a stunningly good film. At times harrowing yet occasionally inspirational and at times heartbreaking yet sometimes heartwarming, it provides a rollercoaster of emotions through its hugely engrossing running time. If I’d seen it at the end of last year when it played at selected cinemas it would have easily made my top 5 films of 2015. I’m surprised it hasn’t had more attention to be honest, but I guess on paper it seems quite dull (in terms of presentation at least). Don’t make the mistake of thinking that though. Track it down and watch it, as soon as you can.
The Fear of 13 is out on DVD now in the UK, released by Dogwoof.
Special features include two Q&A’s with the Director. I was sent an online screener though so I can’t comment on these.