REVIEW: "NIGHT STALKER: THE HUNT FOR A SERIAL KILLER"
From June of 1984 to August of 1985, a violent maniac named Richard Ramirez terrorized the residents of Los Angeles County, and later the San Francisco Bay Area. The seeming randomness of his crimes -- Ramirez picked a diverse variety of victims, and utilized different attack patterns and weapons depending on the scenario and his mood -- made him particularly elusive. He was ultimately convicted of 13 counts of murder, 5 counts of attempted murder, 11 counts of sexual assault, and 14 counts of burglary for his crimes, and received 19 consecutive death sentences. Ramirez died in prison from lymphoma in 2013.
To call the new four-part Netflix docuseries about Ramirez's mid-'80s crime spree, "Night Stalker," a procedural might actually be an understatement. Brief asides provide some light context on the mid-'80s LA, but otherwise, the show is entirely taken up with the personal accounts of Los Angeles Sheriff's detectives Frank Salerno and Gil Carrillo, who brought Ramirez to justice following a months-long investigation. We follow just about every twist and turn in their pursuit, from the discovery of a trademark footprint left by the killer's rare Avia sneaker, to the crushing disappointment of just missing him when he at a dental appointment in Chinatown.
If you're a true crime or mystery fan, it's an interesting story, and one that's compellingly told in a fast-paced style. By 1985, when the investigations into the Night Stalker slayings began in earnest, Salerno already had experience hunting serial killers; he had previously captured Kenneth Alessio Bianchi and Angelo Buono Jr., two cousins who in the late 1970s committed the Hillside Strangler murders. Carrillo, Salerno's hand-picked new partner, was much younger, and totally green when it came to high-profile murder investigations. Nonetheless, it was Carrillo who first deduced that the "Night Stalker" crimes were all connected, despite their unconventional inconsistencies. Even a screenwriter could hardly come up with a more compelling "underdog" scenario.
Sadly, the show has nothing much to add to our understanding of crime and justice, other than this linear narrative. We get, as I said, a few quick, largely generic sequences about Los Angeles at the time: the stark divide between rich and poor, how the glamorous public image of "Tinseltown" covered for the seedy underbelly of the neighborhoods in which Ramirez stalked his victims, and so forth. There are a few extraordinarily dull sequences featuring audio recordings of Ramirez himself, discussing his motivations, in which he offers the most tired serial killer boilerplate imaginable. Ultimately, there's nothing much to the series other than the details of the investigation itself.
"Night Stalker" also has a tendency toward salaciousness that I found a bit unseemly, especially considering the particularly cruel and brutal nature of the killings. I'm not really sure we need SO MANY slo-mo close-ups of bloody hammers and knives, or handguns being cocked and fired, and I'm QUITE sure we don't need the repeated focus on photos and even computer-animated recreations of the grisly murder scenes. I'm not sure the show genuinely glamorizes Ramirez as some have argued, but it definitely doesn't need to sell us so hard on the idea that he was a bad man doing terrible things. We get it.
Title: "Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer"
Where to Watch: Netflix
Episodes: 4 (1 season)
Running time: 40-45 minutes each