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The Staircase

4.3 out of 5 stars 39 customer reviews

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(Aug 30, 2005)
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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

Directed by Academy Award®-winning filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Murder on a Sunday Morning), THE STAIRCASE is like the most suspenseful of page-turners, adding "layers of complexity until one is entirely hooked by its ambiguities and twists and turns." (Chicago Tribune) One of the most highly acclaimed documentaries in recent years, this shocking, real-life thriller follows the high-profile murder trial of North Carolina author Michael Peterson, who was arraigned in 2001 for the murder of his wife after her body is discovered lying in a pool of blood on the stairway of the couple's upscale Durham home. Did Kathleen Peterson fall down the stairs, or was it cold-blooded murder? As the mystery unravels, de Lestrade's cameras are granted unusual access to Peterson's lawyers, home, and immediate family, resulting in a gripping, inside look at a case so shocking, it is sure to leave you gasping for breath.

It's Law & Order come to life as the Sundance Channel's consistently absorbing, often riveting The Staircase chronicles a sensational North Carolina murder case from the crime to the verdict. When Kathleen Peterson was found dead in her Durham, NC mansion in December '01, her husband, novelist Michael Peterson, claimed she had fallen down a narrow staircase. The authorities disagreed, and Peterson was charged with first degree murder. Thereafter, director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and his crew were given almost unrestricted access to the defendant (who remained free on bail) and his legal team, as well as to the district attorney and the prosecution crew, albeit to a lesser extent. There are countless meetings to map out defense strategy, dozens of interviews (including many with Peterson himself; he's not an especially sympathetic character), scenes of pre-trial home life, excerpts from Court TV coverage, and so on. The filmmakers follow the prosecution investigators to Texas, where we see a body exhumed; there's even a trip to Germany to look into a previous death in which Peterson may or may not have been involved.

The result is both exhaustive and exhausting; indeed, it's not until the end of the fourth of the series' eight episodes (each is about 45 minutes long) that the actual trial begins. By then, various revelations about Peterson, ranging from surprising to unsavory to downright sordid, have proved once again that truth really is stranger than fiction. In fact, while the four-month trial is interesting, it doesn't reveal much that we don't already know. Unlike most so-called "reality" programming, The Staircase is the genuine article. That means that it lacks the constant throb of big, dramatic scenes provided by your average TV cop-courtroom show, especially as the series is well over six hours long. Still, although one might easily skip to Episode 8 to learn the outcome, there's more than enough suspense to justify watching every minute of it, and regardless of one's expectations, the announcement of the verdict is a jolting moment. Only two key elements remain unexplained: What went on in the jury room during deliberations? And did Peterson do it, or not? Only he knows, and he ain't talkin'. --Sam Graham

Special Features

  • Eight episodes on two discs
  • Step by Step: The Making of The Staircase
  • Filmmaker insights
  • Filmmaker biographies
  • Limited edition illustrated booklet
  • Michael Peterson follow-up interview
  • Never-before-seen family interviews

Product Details

  • Actors: Michael Peterson
  • Directors: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
  • Format: Box set, Closed-captioned, Color, NTSC
  • Language: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo)
  • Subtitles: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Number of discs: 2
  • Rated:
    Not Rated
  • DVD Release Date: August 30, 2005
  • Run Time: 384 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B000A1INIK
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #149,332 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "The Staircase" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: DVD
As someone who's been intrigued since childhood by true crime stories and forensics, I was transfixed by this magnificently crafted documentary when it premiered some years ago on the Sundance Channel. The sinuous way that the narrative unfolds, how starkly the characters on all sides come to reveal themselves, the mystery of what actually happened to Kathleen Peterson, the tragedy of three families torn asunder over two decades, and all of it framed by truly haunting original music...I often found myself gasping in amazement and appreciation. What a rare opportunity to be a fly on the wall, an insider regarding this extraordinary and deeply disturbing story! I remember starting out with a strong feeling of sympathy for the poor husband, Michael Peterson, and identification with the twin tragedies of losing a loved one and being unjustly accused.

Nonetheless, even though the film was clearly sympathetic to the defense - chapter titles like `Prosecution Trickery' and `A Weak Case' leave no doubt - and granted much more time to their arguments and concerns, a gut feeling began to emerge: neither Michael Peterson nor his story added up. How on earth could a fall down the stairs cause those injuries, or result in that much blood? And if it was an accident, why did he take off his shoes? Try to wipe the walls clean? Lie to 911 about Kathleen breathing when she had clearly been dead for some time? Lie to the EMTs about being in the house just prior to the fall and saying it must have happened when he just went out to the pool for a few minutes? Change his story for the detectives when he realized the evidence told a different tale?
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Format: DVD
I watched the Peterson trial on Court TV in 2003, heard all the witnesses, and was convinced of Peterson's guilt. I rented this DVD the other day and watched all 6 hours compulsively. The inside look at Peterson, his defense team, and their strategy sessions was fascinating. But one huge problem: the filmmaker was so entranced by the defense case that he left out majorly important evidentiary facts. As another reviewer on this site indicated, the filmmaker left out the very evidence that the jury used to convict Peterson. Broken wineglass, his bloody footprint on her back, red neurons in her brain (indicating she'd been bleeding to death and unconscious for over 2 hours), ruptured hyaline cartilage in her throat (characteristic of attempted strangulation; not possible from a fall), blood spatter on the inner, wrong-side-out leg of his shorts, evidence that he tried to clean up the scene, and much more. Too bad for Peterson that there were 3 nurses and one clinical researcher on the jury. They weren't fooled by Henry Lee's assertion that 'there was too much blood for a beating'! Such an absurd statement.
Interestingly, in one of the DVD's 'extra' features, the filmmaker complains about how unfair the American justice system is! Well, I'm complaining about how unfair this film is! I give it 4 stars because it was well done and I couldn't stop watching. But don't be taken in by this piece of propaganda. The real evidence against Peterson was overwhelming.
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Format: DVD
In December 2001, novelist Michael Peterson's wife, Kathleen, died. Peterson said that he found her at the bottom of a staircase in their North Carolina home. Eventually, prosecutors charged Peterson with her murder.

The Staircase covers familiar territory in the age of O.J., Robert Blake, and Phil Spector - the celebrity on trial. The murder charge shatters Peterson's life and causes his family to choose sides. The charges expose unflattering and embarrassing facts about Peterson.

The filmmakers have amazing access to Peterson. They film him at home and ask Peterson intimate questions. You feel like a voyeur while watching a man under almost-unbearable pressure. But you cannot stop watching. You watch because Peterson might do or say something that reveals whether he is a murderer.

The Staircase is pro-defense. Peterson's attorneys are intelligent, principled, and logical. The prosecutors and judge are bumbling, myopic, and possibly corrupt. One does wonder whether important aspects of the story are missing here.

I was very surprised at the Amazon reviewers who said that this film is boring. I watched with my wife and it held our attention for the full six hours. (We watched over several nights). By the end, we both were riveted to the screen.

Was justice done? I don't know. Based on what I have read at Amazon, I need to learn some more about the case. I recommend The Staircase to anyone who is interested in justice in the United States.
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Format: DVD
The Staircase (Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, 2004)

When I can sit staring into space for a half an hour after watching a documentary stunned at the outcome, it's a good documentary. When I can do it when I already knew the outcome, we go from good to exceptional pretty fast.

Now, before I go anywhere with this: since it seems to be a bone of contention among those who debate the merits of this documentary, whether Michael Peterson is guilty or not is not the thrust of this documentary. Nor was it the thrust of the trial. Trials are not about guilt or innocence-- they are about the creation and destruction of reasonable doubt. A number of the combatants (and there really is no other word to describe them) who have flung words back and forth about this film have either forgotten this, or never knew it in the first place.

Lestrade, on the other hand, doesn't seem to care one way or the other. This is an outrageous larger-than-life cast of characters, none of whom seems in the least concerned with the fact that they're all involved in a murder trial. It's not quite as off-the-wall, character-wise, as Gates of Heaven, but it's up there.
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