Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer is a “terrifying watch”
Serial killers fascinate us. Fact. Type those words into the search field, on Netflix in particular, and you’ll get dozens of results, from documentaries to scripted series and movies. The topic shows no sign of abating (simple supply and demand), and the latest addition to the platform is Night Stalker: The Hunt For A Serial Killer, which tells the story of Richard Ramirez, who terrorised Los Angeles in the summer of 1985.
The four-part docuseries tracks the staggering number of murders and assaults through the recounting of events by the two lead detectives on the case, Frank Salerno and Gil Carrillo – one a “rock star” cop, who had previously cracked another notorious case, that of the Hillside Strangler; the other a “rookie” recently promoted to homicide, who idolised his partner.
As counterpoint, KNBC journalist Laurel Erikson and producer Paul Skolnick add their side of the story, from beginning to end, and how they chased the leads. There are also interviews with survivors and family members of the victims.
It’s harrowing – and heartbreaking – stuff.
From a production side, it’s a bit confusing. There are arty clips of, for example, a bloody hammer falling to the ground in slow motion, and then the laziness of repeated stock footage of Salerno and Carrillo. A warning: there are a number of actual crime scene photos that are gruesome in the extreme. Some viewers have found this unpalatable, but I believe they serve to illustrate just how sick and twisted this killer was.
Carrillo and Salerno’s segments are filmed in darkened bars, stiff amber drinks at hand, loaded pauses, and silent and moody stares into the distance. These shots may seem to play into a bit of a stereotype but the frustration in their recollections is palpable.
Dubbed “The Night Stalker” by the media (also the less catchy “Walk-In Killer” and “The Valley Intruder”), Ramirez left barely any clues, other than a distinctive footprint from a shoe of which only one pair had ever been sold in LA.
He vomited and masturbated at the scene of one of his crimes, and raped several of his victims. “What about DNA?”, you yell at the screen. Nope, because the first time that was used in a case was a year later, 1986. It was only later that police were able to link Ramirez to an earlier murder in 1984.
That the detectives linked Ramirez’s crimes at all is a testament to their investigative skills and intuition. This UNSUB (if you’ve ever watched an episode of Criminal Minds) was all over the place. He had no pattern, he had no victimology. He raped, murdered, molested and assaulted with impunity. He used guns, knives, blunt instruments, handcuffs, and in one case, thumb cuffs.
For three episodes, all we see of this mysterious killer (in line with the unravelling of the case) are police sketches. Not only were the artists absolutely terrible, but when Ramirez’s face is finally revealed, it looks nothing at all like those renditions. It’s one of the ways we can see how far police work has come in the intervening decades.
The final episode covers Ramirez’s arrest and trial, which took several years. Seeing his face for the first time has the required impact, as you search his features for some clue as to what drove him to do the horrendous things he did, with no remorse whatsoever.
Until you know the state of the inside of his mouth, and his bodily stench, which one interviewee likened to that of a goat, he was, on the surface – yes, I’m going to say this – strikingly handsome, with arched eyebrows and sculpted cheekbones. It’s chilling, disturbing and sickening to relate this to his actions, as you see him lounging casually in the courtroom, wearing sunglasses, occasionally glancing almost seductively over his shoulder at the camera, a small smile playing on his lips.
“Whether you know a lot or a little about the heinous crimes of Richard Ramirez, Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer is a terrifying watch.” – Mashable
There are women who take the fascination with serial killers to the next level, wooing and courting them with nude photographs and gushing letters. Ramirez did, in fact, get married while in prison, and was engaged to another woman when he died of cancer in 2013 after more than 20 years on Death Row, robbing the justice system of his multiple death penalties.
“Whether you know a lot or a little about the heinous crimes of Richard Ramirez, Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer is a terrifying watch,” says Mashable, calling it “an intensely atmospheric understanding of what made the notorious home intruder so captivating.”