Fascinating Films About Real-Life Unsolved Mysteries


With the Making a Murderer controversy creating headlines, the new season of Serial hashing out why Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl walked off his base in Afghanistan, and last year’s weird news still fresh in our minds (like the bizarre case of the Japanese “ghost boats”), we’re feeling a little bit like Robert Stack with unsolved mysteries on the brain. We turned to cinema to soak up the stories of several real-life cases (from serial killers to cryptozoology) that have defied explanation and remain a mystery.

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles

First spotted in the 1980s, the “Toynbee tiles” are cryptic messages embedded in the ground around cities in the United States and South America. Several hundred of the tiles have been reported, containing messages like: “TOYNBEE IDEA IN MOVIE 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER.” The tiles are usually located in strange places like the middle of a highway or the intersection of a bustling city street. Philadelphia artist and filmmaker Justin Duerr examined the conspiracy theories behind the tiles, while exploring his own fascination with them in the 2011 indie documentary Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. Duerr presents evidence that Philadelphia recluse Severino “Sevy” Verna is responsible for installing the bizarre messages, but nothing has been officially confirmed to this day.

The Otherworld

The Hollywood Reporter on visionary filmmaker Richard Stanley’s 2013 documentary about a mysterious region in France:

A singular introduction to “a place where magic still has currency,” Richard Stanley’s L’Autre Monde is part documentary about a storied region in southwestern France, part first-hand testimony of the paranormal, and part psychedelic head trip. It’s all entrancing, though, and even viewers who walk out unsure what they’ve seen (they’ll have plenty of company) may well want to share the experience with friends. It has “Cult Movie” written all over it, and for once that flavor isn’t affectation but the result of perfect sync between filmmaker and subject.

A Man Vanishes

Variety on Japanese filmmaking legend Shôhei Imamura, who blends fiction and reality in his 1967 documentary drama A Man Vanishes:

The belated American release of Shohei Imamura’s 1967 “A Man Vanishes” has sent critics scrambling to rewrite cinema history, as the explosively provocative film progressively and aggressively blurs distinctions between documentary and fiction. What begins as an investigation into a man’s disappearance soon takes off in one convoluted direction after another, continually shifting cinematic gears. Imamura’s square-framed, black-and-white imagery, in all its various stylistic incarnations, proves as compelling through the docu’s myriad detours as in any of his better-known psychological thrillers.

Who Took Johnny

The case of missing Iowa paperboy Johnny Gosch has been a mystery for over 30 years. Multiple television series and documentaries have covered the case. Who Took Johnny (2014) is the latest chapter in the tragic family story. Johnny’s mother Noreen Gosch has been a vocal figure at the center of the case, speaking out against the police and presenting strange new evidence about the crime over the years.

Ghost Bird

About the Bigfoot of the birding world. The New York Times writes about the film, which “focuses on Brinkley, Ark., a tiny town in the eastern part of the state that went woodpecker crazy after one of the birds was or wasn’t seen there in 2004. An inconclusive bit of video helped start the mania, and the scruffy town did its best to capitalize, with a woodpecker gift shop, a woodpecker hamburger and so on; a barber shop even offered a woodpecker haircut.”

Memories of Murder

Before Bong Joon-ho directed horror film The Host and 2014 favorite Snowpiercer, he was exploring a real-life serial killer case in the South Korean crime-drama Memories of a Murder. The fictional film is based on real serial murders that happened in the city of Hwaseong between September 15, 1986 and April 3, 1991. The case became the South Korean equivalent of the American Zodiac case, with ten women found bound, raped, and murdered. More than 21,000 suspects were identified by a police force of over two million, and the case remains unsolved.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown

From DVD Talk:

Charles B. Pierce’s low-budget thriller The Town That Dreaded Sundown [is a] creaky dramatization of several real-life Texarkana murders proves an interesting mix of terror, oddball humor and crime documentary. Several months after World War II ended, a hooded murderer known as the “Phantom Killer” sent this peaceful community on the Texas/Arkansas border into a tailspin. Five people lost their lives before the killer crept back into the woods and swamps from which he came, and authorities never closed the case. Pierce’s film is not exactly polished, but it injects a fair amount of suspense into the proceedings, which unspool like an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries” mixed with the good-natured humor of “The Andy Griffith Show.” The Town That Dreaded Sundown may not be as frightening today as it was in 1976, but it’s a fair shake better than many horror films of the decade.

Fire in the Sky

Whether you believe in aliens or not, good luck sleeping after watching the terrifying abduction scene in Robert Lieberman’s drama Fire in the Sky, based on real-life abductee Travis Walton. The Arizona logger went missing for five days in 1975. When found, Walton claimed he had been taken by aliens who performed gruesome experiments on him.

The Nightmare

Room 237 documentarian Rodney Ascher returned last year with The Nightmare, exploring the mysteries of sleep paralysis amongst eight different subjects and the strange similarities between their stories.