Night Stalker: The Hunt For a Serial Killer: Limited Series-Review
Just a few weeks after the release of The Ripper and its exploration of one of the UK's most infamous serial killer cases, Netflix brings us another true crime documentary, this time centred around one of the most terrifying series of murders from the United States.
There's clearly an audience for this sort of material, and in fairness when true crime documentaries are done well they have a darkly irresistible ability to ensnare an audience. The success of Making a Murderer a few years ago was clearly no fluke, although that series did take a nuanced and intelligent approach to its documentation.
While The Ripper came in for some justifiable criticism from the family members of the victims that were interviewed, it was hard not to be drawn into its exploration of the case, not to mention its anger at the level of institutional sexism and misogyny that not only came from the killer in question but also from the police investigation.
With a similar four-part structure that details the LAPD investigation and testimony from family members. The final episode explores the cause of the terror itself that not only left a high number of victims in his wake but also terrorised Los Angeles County. It's clear that Netflix has found a formula to this style of documentary.
It doesn't necessarily mean it's a formula capable of delivering anything good all the time.
This being a story that took part in the 1980s, means that the series is delivered with a slickly garish title card. There's synthesiser on the soundtrack, the killer's recorded comments displayed in purple font, not to mention some stylised filmmaking featuring CGI enhanced reenactments. There is a repeated visual of a blood-stained hammer falling in slow motion, as well as somewhat disturbing use of actual crime scene photos.
It outlines the ugliness of the violence and Richard Ramirez's actions, as well as how his selection of victims across all races, genders and age groups meant that California was very much terrorized beyond belief for nearly a year. For all the problems that the series has in its inability to capture a delicate sense of tone, credit where credit is due to director Tiller Russell for capturing, similarly to The Ripper, the sense of terror that enveloped an entire county as the victim count kept getting higher.
That element of the series is actually well-handled and comes with copious amounts of stock and news footage that captures the sense of terror that took hold with the public. In fact, it's perhaps the best element of the entire endeavour.
With access to the two lead investigators in charge of the case, as well as the San Francisco detectives who got caught up in the investigation when Ramirez targeted victims there, we get major access to the investigation in near forensic detail. The toll that the case took on the mental health of the lead detectives, particularly that of Gil Carillo, is also another potent example of the documentary grasping as some brilliant themes that are ripe for further exploration. But it then gets lost in a sea of stylishly done reconstructions that border more on horror movie territory.
There are times when the aesthetic is putting one in mind of something approaching a Nicolas Winding Refn film, particularly his LA-set ultra-violent crime thriller Drive. Ryan Gosling kicking heads to a pulp isn't exactly what should be coming to the mind when watching emotional testimony from loved ones talking about how their family members were killed in distressing circumstances; make no mistake, some of the content here is distressing.
With its 18 rating, the actions of Ramirez is portrayed as a real-life horror movie that takes in his ability to break into houses and inflict violence that is beyond comprehension, not only on adults but also on children in details that are amongst the most distressing of the series. The story and the content is heavy going, but it distils everything down to an approach that feels like too much style over substance.
The use of CGI and stylised recreations feel more at home on a CSI episode than in a documentary that's trying to take a tactful and tasteful approach to what amounts to one of the most disturbing true crime stories to be documented. It never loses sight of the monster that Ramirez was and the final episode's exploration of his trial and the monster himself never glamorizes him, despite the attention of 'groupies' that made their way to his trial and who sent various letters and pictures too, which probably could fuel an entire documentary in itself.
In the end, this latest addition to Netflix's growing roster of true crime documentaries is not one of its finest. Night Stalker just wants to plunge itself too much into the despair and violence of its story, or at least that's what comes across throughout its four hour running time, and as such you'll probably need to desperately take a shower when it's over.