Review: Night Stalker Is a Cathartic but Structurally Rote True Crime Story

The series misses out on the chance to make a more memorable study of an unforgettable crime spree.

Night Stalker
Photo: Netflix

Netflix’s Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, a four-part series about Richard Ramirez, the sadistic serial rapist and murderer who terrorized the citizens of Los Angeles and San Francisco in the mid-1980s, is dramatically satisfying but structurally rote. Director Tiller Russell glosses the story over with more cinematic panache than you might see on 48 Hours, all straight from the Southland-noir template, including eerie tracking shots of a full moon behind dark palm trees and Michael Mann-ish overhead views of nighttime highways. But despite a story filled with big-hearted good guys, a depraved villain, and an edge-of-your-seat finale, the series feels overly pat and formulaic.

Night Stalker is first and foremost the story of a manhunt. As such, it’s centered on the case’s lead detectives, with supporting detail provided by relatives of the victims, survivors, and reporters who covered the story. Given the particularly short, bloody, and investigation-complicating multivalent nature of Ramirez’s killing spree, just running down the case’s details provides more than enough compelling material for a high-drama chase narrative.

The Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department detectives who put the Ramirez case together were a screenwriter’s dream for buddy-movie dynamics. Frank Salerno was the taciturn and grizzled veteran who, after working as primary investigator on the Hillside Strangler case in the late 1970s, had become something of a legend in the department and among the reporters who followed him and who speak of him in reverent terms here. “Oh shit, here we go again” is his terse take on what he was thinking after it becomes clear that the Ramirez murders are linked. Salerno’s partner, Gil Carrillo, a Mexican-American from East Los Angeles with a strong street rep as a patrol cop, was a freshly minted detective with a more joking and affable manner who in any narrative version of this story would simply be called a “rookie.” While both men provide smart, taut rundowns of the Ramirez killings, their recollections are also unusually emotive, detailing the unique toll that this sort of case took on them.

The first of the Ramirez murders that came to Salerno and Carrillo’s attention took place on the night of March 17, 1985, when he attacked two young women inside their apartment. After firing from close range at Maria Hernandez’s face, the bullet struck her raised hand and the keys she was holding, allowing her to escape, after which he fatally shot her roommate, Dayle Okazaki, in the forehead. Ramirez killed several other people over the following days while engaging in a parallel spree in which he drove around the city abducting, sexually assaulting, and releasing children as young as six years old. Although there were few commonalities in his murders beyond home invasions and his .22 caliber pistol, Carrillo ultimately found the linkages between Ramirez’s killings and leveraged Salerno’s status to put a task force together.

The middle stretch of Night Stalker runs down the manhunt with a methodical precision, touching on the panic that grips L.A., the media frenzy surrounding Ramirez’s killing spree, and more mundane yet critical details like how a turf battle between the Sherriff’s Department and the L.A.P.D. hampered the investigation into the case. While the material is riveting, by hewing so specifically to Salerno and Carrillo’s perspective, the series misses the opportunity to firmly place Ramirez in the context of his surroundings or pay more than perfunctory attention to the ways he differed from other serial killers known at that time.

Russell bookends Night Stalker with glimpses of what could have made for a more memorable work. In the first episode, a montage contrasts two images of L.A. circa 1985: its Reagan-era optimism, all sunshine and surfing, and its more sinister side, a place that provides anonymity in numbers and acts as a kind of catch basin for drifting psychopaths. The concluding episode then nods toward the unusual aspects that made Ramirez stand out, even in a city that has had more than its share of deranged loners. But both of these potentially rich lines of inquiry are pushed to the side in favor of the procedural narrative.

By taking a close-in viewpoint via the cops, reporters, and relatives or survivors, the series’s makers never achieve the kind of broader take the visual style hints at. As for its treatment of Ramirez, the series is also disappointingly standard-issue. There’s a good argument for not turning Ramirez into the kind of glamorous villain that had groupies sending him naked pictures and ogling him during the trial. But except for a curiously brief mention of an abusive childhood and an almost rhetorical question about the nature of evil, Night Stalker dispenses with any deeper study of Ramirez. By doing so, it also misses out on the chance to make a more memorable study of an unforgettable series of crimes.

 Network: Netflix

Chris Barsanti

Chris Barsanti has written for the Chicago Tribune, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Publishers Weekly, and other publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and Online Film Critics Society.

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