Entertainment

Netflix's Serial Killer Docuseries 'Night Stalker' Is Another True-Crime Nightmare

The crimes of Richard Ramirez get the Netflix treatment in this four-part docuseries that focuses on the cops more than the killer.

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Richard Ramirez in 'Night Stalker' | Netflix
Richard Ramirez in 'Night Stalker' | Netflix

Though the number of serial murders committed in the United States have declined over the last three decades, the country's pop-culture obsession with these grisly crimes has only deepened. Scrolling through Netflix, you'd think serial killers were still terrorizing the public and generating headlines with the same intensity they were in the '70s and '80s. In addition to producing two seasons of the David Fincher's FBI profiler drama Mindhunter, which picked the brains of killers like Ed Kemper and Charles Manson, Netflix has buttressed its growing true-crime library with shows about figures like Ted Bundy and the Yorkshire Ripper. Night Stalker, a four-part account of the hunt for Richard Ramirez that debuted on the service this week, fits right into this streaming mood board of dread. 

From the opening, a jaunty montage of sunny Los Angeles set to Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days," the docuseries attempts to frame Ramirez's brutal killings in a way that turns the spotlight away from the killer himself. Occasionally, Ramirez's ramblings will appear on screen in garish light purple text, evoking the heavy-metal-tinged "Satanic Panic" of the '80s, but these creepy interjections are kept to a minimum. Instead, director Tiller Russell, who helmed last year's Amazon-produced DEA docuseries The Last Cartel, emphasizes the struggles of the detectives investigating the case, the media frenzy around the events, and the haunting stories of the victims. It's a largely admirable decision that can make for frustrating viewing.

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LA Sheriff Homicide Detective Gil Carrillo in 'Night Stalker' | Netflix

Given the nature of the crimes, the violence described in Night Stalker is sickening. From June 1984 to August 1985, when he was captured by police, Ramirez, a 25-year-old with a fondness for AC/DC hats and Avia sneakers, killed at least 13 people in a crime spree that still defies easy categorization. He targeted the young and the old, men and women, and the range of his brutal methods made his behavior difficult to predict. The two cops assigned to work the case, Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno, initially struggle to identify a pattern and then find themselves overwhelmed by the frequency of the killings. 

Though Night Stalker contains a number of talking-head interviews, Carrillo and Salerno quickly emerge as the stars of the series, which folds them into a familiar odd couple dynamic straight out of True Detective. Salerno, who worked Los Angeles's Hillside Strangler case in the '70s, is the grizzled older veteran and a rock star within the department. Carrillo, a cuddly screen presence as an older man, is the young rookie looking to make a name for himself with a theory that connects the recent slayings to a string of sexual assaults. While there's a degree of self-mythologizing going on here, the series does an effective job of detailing the tedium of police work and the emotional strain of working such a demanding high-profile case.

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Reporter Laurel Erikson in 'Night Stalker' | Netflix

Still, the filmmakers can't resist the inherent lurid pull of the material. Some of the aesthetic choices, like the jarring cuts to grisly crime scene photos or the slow-motion reenactments of a bloody hammer falling to the ground, are too slick and derivative. Similarly, observations about how L.A. has a "dark side" don't exactly land like lines of hard-boiled James Ellroy prose.

The tricky tonal balance between more straightforward journalism and stylish pulp comes with the territory. By keeping a tight focus on the tick-tock narrative, Night Stalker avoids making too many broad claims about the significance of the Ramirez crimes but it can also feel thematically scattered, particularly in the middle two episodes. 

There's a fascinating undercurrent to the series about the way cases like this become political and cultural footballs. The internal turf wars between police departments in different cities, the managing of unsurprisingly delicate detective egos, and the interplay between scoop-chasing television reporters and the authorities all get mentioned and teased out at different points. In one of the most startling moments towards the end, Salerno discusses how Ramirez knew he worked the Strangler case and considered himself a "student" of other killers, suggesting a type of fan-driven feedback loop. But even at four-episodes, the show feels limited in its scope, content with rehashing old war stories instead of digging for more complicated truths. 

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.