In William Peter Blatty
's 1971 novel The Exorcist, and William Friedkin
's 1973 filmic adaptation, a young girl is possessed by a demon named Pazuzu, a figure from the mythologies of Ancient Mesopotamia. Fast-forward a few thousand years, and travel a few thousand miles to Clemmons, North Carolina where Pazuzu Illah Algarad (born John Alexander Lawson) is a mentally-ill young man who worships Satan, sacrifices animals, and claims he can control the weather. And he murdered at least three people.
Although The Devil You Know, directed for Vice by Patricia E. Gillespie
, is an excellent overview of the Pazuzu Algarad case, its real focus is the efforts of local journalist Chad Nance to get beyond the sensationalist media headlines of cannibalism and witchcraft, and get to the issues which gave rise to someone like Pazuzu. Through Nance, the show branches off to examine issues such as addiction, law enforcement, societal apathy, and the ease with which directionless and marginalised young people can drift into potentially dangerous situations in the hope of finding somewhere they can belong. Devil You Know paints a vivid, compelling, and often heartbreaking picture of a community and way-of-life that appears idyllic, but which is rotten at the core and fundamentally broken in so many ways.
For Nance, Pazuzu's story isn't about Satanism or animal sacrifices - it's about a broken mental healthcare system that allowed an ill young man to fall through the cracks, it's about an indifferent law enforcement agency that allowed him to act without repercussions for years, it's about a man (Matt Flowers) so disgusted by the actions of his best friend that he's driven to act against him, and it's about the tragedy of one of his victims, Josh Wetzler, and the concomitant pain of Wetzler's wife, Stacey Carter. In this sense, the first episode, "There's a Satanist in the Suburbs (2019)
", goes into Wetzler's background to a far greater degree than Pazuzu's, which is unexpected - how many documentaries dealing with murder spend more time telling us about a victim than about the killer?
When Wetzler and Carter lost their life-savings trying to open a horse rehabilitation centre, Wetzler turned to selling weed and mushrooms to try to make ends meet. However, after having some mushrooms sent to his house in the mail (a federal crime), he was arrested and convicted on a felony drug charge. Nance uses this as a launching pad to examine some of the incongruities found under the surface of the Pazuzu case. Speaking of how Pazuzu got merely a few months' probation after participating in a murder, Nance opines, "the system is really just broken. You have Pazuzu and his posse committing crimes that seriously affect everyone around them, but they get just right back out on the streets. But non-violent crimes like having a bag of pot or mushrooms in your pocket? Those lead to felony convictions that fills up prison and totally ruin lives."
Another major theme is addiction, with the show being remarkably open about the heroin usage of Nate and his girlfriend Jenna (two of Pazuzu's followers), showing them openly shooting up on-camera. In the case of Jenna, before she's even said anything, we see her injecting, and whilst she's happy to admit she doesn't want to kick the habit, Nate laments how he's been an addict for more years than he's been clean, pointing out (as he's shooting up) that drug possession is a violation of his parole and would land him in jail if he were caught.
Indeed, directionless youth, in general, is an important theme, as it was this kind of societal alienation that brought so many impressionable young people into Pazuzu's circle. This theme is also touched on in relation to Matt Flowers, an Iraqi War vet and John Lawson's friend before he became Pazuzu. When Flowers learned that Pazuzu had supposedly killed and buried someone in his backyard, he was one of the first to contact the police, even telling them where in the garden the grave was supposed to be. However, when nothing happened, and as years went by, Flowers saw Pazuzu becoming increasingly unhinged and dangerous. In a remarkable admission, he explains that he told police that if they didn't properly investigate, then he was going to kill Pazuzu himself to prevent anyone else dying. But what's really extraordinary about how the show presents this part of the story is how guilt-ridden Flowers is at turning Pazuzu in. That he turned on his best friend haunts him deeply, and the heartbreaking self-destructive behaviour with which we see him engage in the fourth episode, "Another Dead Boy (2019)
", is difficult to watch. To see him sitting alone in a bar burning himself with cigarettes and grieving about his involvement in Pazuzu's downfall is almost as dark and upsetting as the show gets. Almost. But not quite.
It's in the fourth and fifth episode that the show really steps outside the mould of multi-episode crime documentaries and becomes something else - an examination of despair, an unflinching look at the dark underbelly of suburbia. The scene where we see Flowers burning himself is intercut with a sequence which sees Jenna nonchalantly turn to prostitution to get money for drugs, and the cumulative effect of such editing is extremely effective, creating a sense of hopelessness that transcends anything individualised. And it's within this general theme where the show features its darkest and most heartbreaking moment. During the fourth episode, Nance reveals that his son has started to mess around with drugs, and there's a scene where he describes working late one night when he looked up and saw his son in the doorway - sweating, pale, shaking, his eyes bloodshot. Nance describes, or tries to describe, the emotion of seeing this person who is his son, but who isn't his son. It's his son's body, but it's not his son's soul. It's deeply upsetting and thought-provoking, and it's not somewhere I was expecting to end up with a documentary about a murderer. So hats off to the filmmakers for having the courage to go that far and yet never for one second have it feel manipulative or irrelevant.
I was impressed with The Devil You Know. The show is not about a Satanist murderer called Pazuzu. It's about the child he once was and how that child was failed. It's about the people who were affected by the murders and how they are trying to get on with their lives. It's about societal indifference. It's about apathy. And as it branches out to take in issues such as addiction, PTSD, guilt, and police incompetence, the wider it casts its net, the better it gets, painting an increasingly complete picture of a community that is either incapable of or uninterested in caring. Genuinely surprising me on multiple occasions, genuinely moving me on others The Devil You Know may disappoint those looking for salaciousness and Satan and gore, but for those more interested in the why than the how, and in the aftermath than the act, this is a richly rewarding viewing experience.