*TRIGGER WARNING: The episode The Last of the Von Erichs (and thus, this review) contain discussion of suicide and mental illness, please use caution before viewing this episode*
Starring: Dutch Mantell (Narrator), James E Cornette, David Manning, Dave Meltzer, Kevin Von Erich
Producer: Ed Hatton
While I was growing up as a kid, wrestling was one of the staples in my regular television viewing. While most of my friends were saying their prayers and eating their vitamins, I was watching The Four Horseman attack Dusty Rhodes in the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly. In addition to old school Crockett promotion wrestling, I would watch WCCW shows on ESPN in the afternoons. At the time, I had no idea that the shows were made up of weeks, months, or sometimes years old footage; I just knew it was wrestling.
One of the staples of the old WCCW shows were the Von Erichs. As universally popular as wrestlers like Hulk Hogan, Dusty Rhodes, and the Road Warriors were, the Von Erichs were Beatles-level popular within Texas. Their father Fritz Von Erich had wrestled before them and had taken over the Texas territory some years earlier, knowing he would be able to make money off of pushing his rockstar sons to the top. So when Dark Side of the Ring slated the fourth episode to be about the Von Erich family, I remembered what tragedies the family had endured, and I was looking forward to what secrets might be revealed.
Instead of just focusing on the deaths and tragedies that have plagued the family, Dark Side of the Ring decided to focus on the last surviving member, Kevin Von Erich. We first see Kevin out in the woods at his home in Hawaii. He made the move to get away from wrestling and the fame that had haunted him within Texas. While, like other episodes, a variety of talking heads fill in the information of the family’s story, the raw emotion comes from Kevin himself. With each of the deaths, he shares his personal experiences, from being a toddler knowing his older brother had drowned, to feeling the hole in his brother’s head moments after he shot himself, to frantically trying to reach someone at his father’s farm before his brother Kerry’s death. Unlike anything that we have seen in any of the previous epsidoes, we witness the emotion overtake Kevin several times as he calls for breaks and apologizes for how hard it is for him to talk about each death.
The Last of the Von Erichs has a lot of ground to cover in the 46 minutes that it’s limited to. While none of the deaths are covered in depth, the effects and the controversies behind some are. With the eldest son Jack, who passed away as a child, the focus is devoted to Fritz and wife Doris. Across the board, the talking heads mention how Fritz never really recovered from losing Jack. It’s not to say that the subsequent deaths became any easier, but for him, it seemed as if Jack was the one who he blamed himself the most for, and accordingly punished himself the most for. Much like the loss of their sons were not easy for Doris, according to Kevin, the death of David while on a wrestling tour in Japan had the biggest impact. While there are rumors as to the true cause of David’s death, it’s the deaths of the other brothers who cannot be denied. Mike, Chris, and Kerry, all while battling personal demons, took their lives through various means — including pills and self-inflicted gunshots.
While none of the commentators take that final step and blame Fritz for the deaths of his sons, his old-school attitude and grueling expectations are suspect. David was sick just days before he took his trip to Japan, and it was Fritz’s attitude of never missing a commitment that may have played a hand in David not cancelling the trip. It is the death of Kerry where the secrets that the family kept are most questioned. Before leaving to join the WWF, Kerry had been in a motorcycle accident which lead to the amputation of his foot. For the longest time, only those within the family knew that Kerry was wrestling with a prosthetic foot. Although for years he was able to hide the injury, it was during his time within the WWF that the injuries and age started to catch up with him. It is Jim Cornette who brings up that point: perhaps letting the public know about the injury could have led to a storyline of him overcoming injuries and being able to still perform at a top level. Would it have been enough to stop his spiral? While it is impossible to predict, it is a question that one has to consider.
While the episode is filled with death and the grief that often follows survivors, the episode ends on a more hopeful note. The focus at the end is once again on Kevin. He talks about how he spends as much time as he can exploring the woods and the trees near his home. He talks about his two sons and his family and how they have saved his life. He beams with pride talking about his last match, teaming up with his two sons. In a striking moment, despite all of his tragedies, Kevin Von Erich still considers himself one of the luckiest people on Earth. It is an inspiring message that hopefully people can take away from what is otherwise a story of loss and tragedy.