What’s the premise?
True crime aficionados will no doubt already be aware of the case of the ‘pizza bomber heist’: in 2003, a pizza delivery man named Brian Wells attempted to rob a bank in Erie, Pennsylvania, with a cane that was actually a shotgun and a collar bomb fixed around his neck. He was following the instructions of an elaborate scavenger hunt that said the completion of all tasks would see the bomb released from round his neck. But as soon as Wells left the bank he found himself in a tense stand-off with the police. “I’m not lying,” Wells said to officers. “It’s going to go off.”
And it was true – the bomb was real. Wells died without getting to the end of the hunt – which police determined was impossible to finish anyway.
What comes next is the hunt for Wells’s killer, narrowed down to jolly local handyman Bill Rothstein and his former girlfriend Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong. When we meet Marjorie, she had just murdered her boyfriend, and Bill was storing his body in his freezer, wrapped up in tarp and trussed like a piece of meat. Were these two the masterminds behind the heist, were there more accomplices and – perhaps the strangest part – was Brian Wells himself in on the plot?
Who is Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong?
Marjorie takes centre stage in this doc. Beautiful, brilliant and bipolar, she previously had a number of husbands and boyfriends who died under suspicious circumstances – most recently her partner James Roden. Whilst she and ex-partner Bill were busy bickering over who killed James, the police were attempting to get to the bottom of whether Marjorie was the real mastermind of the pizza bomber heist.
Despite Marjorie’s long history with mental illness (one symptom of her bipolar was her desire to hoard; a search of her house showed that floor space non-existent as she stored a rotting surplus of government butter, cheese and soft drinks around the property), she was extremely clever. She was an accomplished musician and often claimed to have five degrees under her belt, which makes her dark past all the more intriguing.
What’s good about it?
For starters, it’s made by Mark and Jay Duplass – the same guys who produced our other favourite docu-series Wild Wild Country, which we raved about just last month.
If you’re obsessed with true crime, then this will tick all your boxes. There’s murder, mystery and intrigue. There’s never-before-seen in-depth insight. There’s interviews with the the mastermind herself– the only video interview Marjorie has ever given from prison. (Co-director Trey Borzillieri was prison pen pals with Marjorie for a long time, which gave him unfettered access to her and her story.) Really – if this were a round of true crime bingo, it would be a full house.
The first episode serves as a background story for the uninitiated, telling the story of Brian Wells’s death using old footage and first-person accounts from the police crew that were there that day. Many are no doubt already of the events that led to his murder, but this is just the start of a story that is as fascinating, bizarre and terrifying as the event itself.
What’s bad about it?
Eventually Marjorie provides Borzillieri with a quid pro quo in which she agrees to give him information on the pizza bombing in exchange for a meeting with a lawyer. But it can get frustrating to listen to Marjorie. Her mental problems and her pressured speech obviously make her an unreliable source, and often when she makes demands you get the feeling she is making things up on the spot to get the things that she wants, which can stifle the overall story.
The set-up is slightly strange, too. The first half of the four-episode series plays out much like Wild Wild Country; a narrative that is expertly weaved using the stories told by key witnesses, old friends and the authorities that were involved. But around halfway through, Borzillieri starts becoming a part of the story, like he is a character in the narrative. It’s a little puzzling – is he giving us the story silently, like Making A Murderer’s Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, or is he an acknowledged part of the story, like The Jinx’s Andrew Jarecki? In the latter, the narrative is driven by Jarecki’s relationship with Robert Durst, but that’s not the case in Evil Genius – Borzillieri’s relationship with Marjorie isn’t central to the narrative, so this directorial choice makes for confusing watching at times.
Will I like it?
First question that will determine your enjoyment of the series is this: can you handle real-life gore? Because Evil Genius has plenty. As with many recent true crime documentaries, the makers don’t shy away from showing the blood-and-guts of these stories – those who have seen 2015’s The Jinx may remember being shocked by the unexpected police crime photo of a headless torso. So let this be a warning: you will see the exact moment that the bomb attached to Brian Wells’s neck explodes, and it ain’t pretty. But for those that can get over these bits – or have a knack of fast-forwarding through the nitty gritty bits – the mystery and bizarre nature of the story will keep you gripped through all four hours. It’s well worth a watch.
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