True Crime Docuseries Review: Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer

 Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer is a Netflix docuseries that follows the crimes of Richard Ramirez.  Already portrayed in some feature films, this is a story that seems improbable even in the realm of fiction.  Over the course of a few months, Ramirez terrorized the Los Angeles area with his brutal acts.  Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer tells the story of the impact and the efforts by police to capture him.

This is a situation where the real-life material is chilling and captivating, which makes some of the stylistic choices by directors James Carroll and Tiller Russell awkward and confusing.  While pretty much ever serial killer based docuseries illustrates how these predators have certain types of victims and methods of murder, Ramirez's crimes were completely random and involved many methods of killing and assaulting his victims.

In some cases, he struck multiple times in one night.  In the beginning, he used a .22 gun before using blunt objects, manual strangulation, ligature strangulation, and other means.  There was no one area of Los Angeles that he preyed on.  There was complete chaos and lack of pattern to what he did, making him different from every other serial killer.  He also abducted children, who he abused before setting them free.

Because he was so random, the police had a difficult time believing some of these crimes were done by the same person.  It took the discovery of shoe prints to match his murders with the kidnapping of children, as police couldn't fathom how a single person would commit such differing crimes.

All of this is entirely chilling, and left me feeling unnerved with an idea that such evil and its lack of continuity could mean that even the sleepiest of communities could face such horrible crimes.  This is a story that rises above all others in terms of terror and intrigue, which makes it very unfortunate that the directors leaned into sensationalizing the docuseries.

One of the worst issues with Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer is that there are moments that really try and dig into creating drama.  Extended sequences with no talking, showing things like a rat liking its lips, dragging on for far too long and becoming almost silly in their composition.  

While Carroll and Russell may have believed they were ramping up the tension at these points, they effectively acted as deflating choices that separated the audience from the inbuilt captivation of the material.  Each time they did this, it felt like the story was one pause, having the same effect as a commercial break by suddenly suspending the tale and removing any momentum that had been created.

The most fascinating aspect of Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer are the in-depth interviews with Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno, the two detectives looking to capture the killer before more people die.  We learn how they came to work together as partners, and it is all quite interesting.  Even more fascinating is that Salerno worked on the case of The Hillside Strangler, putting him in the path of two grisly perpetrators.

Carrillo and Salerno are enthralling talking heads.  We see not only their professional approach to the case, but also their drive and dedication to put the crime spree to an end.  We hear more from Carrillo, and through that perspective understand the personal impact and pain that can go along with having to deal with a person as evil as Ramirez.  His words and the emotion shown are with great impact.

A number of the other interviewees bring the bigger picture together, from victims to other people in law enforcement to news reports.  The lineup and what they share really create a multidimensional image of how much Ramirez impacted society.  

All of this could have made the perfect docuseries.  Not only was the material stranger than fiction, but all of the pieces were in place to properly inform the viewer.  And yet, Carroll and Russell decide to take us into the territory that so often haunts true crime material, the over sensationalization of the final product.  The impact they intended was lost, and all that was accomplished was distracting from the story and bringing an elevated product down to the level of even the most generic docuseries.

Even with my issues, Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer is easy to recommend. My reasons for doing so are that the crime is unlike anything I've ever seen depicted and feels like a real glimpse into just how wrong humanity can go, as well as the quality of the interviews.  Sadly, some of the intentional stylistic decisions make the overall product feel lesser than the story it is telling.

Rating - 3 out of 4 stars