Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer begins with a portrait of LA in the 80s. The interviewees tell us they were “proud of the city”, “crime dropped like a rock”, that they felt safe – then we hear “LA was a façade”. This true crime documentary about the capture of serial killer Richard Ramirez follows a similar structure to most – over four episodes the story covers the beginning of the case until the culprit is caught, with interviews from survivors, families of victims and experts. However, where Night Stalker differs slightly is the intense focus on the investigatory team.
Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno are the real main characters as we learn of their beginnings as a partnership, through to the personal issues the case caused with their families, to their immense relief at having the murderer behind bars. Relatively little attention is given to Ramirez, who was dubbed the “Night Stalker” by the press, with his name not being mentioned until the very end of episode three. But even in episode four, which details his incarceration, the focus remains on the task force and families of the victims or the media circus that occurred around the case.
Like many such documentaries, sensationalism is rife. Night Stalker is littered with disturbing and indulgent montages, flashes of blood and weapons, as well as quite graphic reconstructions of the crimes themselves. This combined with some rather tangential eye witness accounts from people who were neither victims nor contributed to the capture – one such from a librarian – helps contribute to the atmosphere of fear that the documentary cultivates, creating the sense that you could come across a vicious murderer anywhere.
The graphic reconstructions and showing images from the actual crime scenes are, in my opinion, disrespectful to the victims who shouldn’t have their mutilated bodies broadcast. However, I appreciate the effort to forefront the victims as episode three begins with a list of their names.
Night Stalker seems to hint at painting a complex and interesting portrait of Ramirez, but quickly the classic “pure evil” narrative takes over, which feeds in to the themes of Satanism that surrounded the case. Accounts of seeing evil in his eyes are aplenty and at one point we even hear of how Carrillo believed Ramirez was going to start levitating. It’s a predictable line of narrative, aimed at sending a shiver down the spine of an extremely Christian nation.
Episode four includes what I found to be a bizarre account of how Ramirez was captured by civilians, which, don’t get me wrong, is an interesting story but again this sequence felt disjointed. The compilation of vox pops and eye-witness accounts compiled from archive news footage was interesting and exciting, transporting us back to the atmosphere of that day. However, the segment quickly dissolves into a championing of ordinary people who “saved the day” – which is very out of tune with anything that came before, and is more than a little romanticised.
Despite my qualms, Night Stalker does mostly what you’d want a true crime documentary to do and you have to expect sensationalism. The focus on the police and media was interesting and the technical elements were very well done. I take the most issue with the Satanism narrative – if we believe that everyone who does bad things has something other-worldly about them, we can ignore that these things were done by a human being not so different from ourselves. It’s reductive.
Crime, Documentary | USA, 2021 | 18 | Limited Series| 13th January 2021 | Netflix |Dir.James Carroll, Tiler Russell | Gil Carrillo, Frank Salerno, Tony Valdez