This could have been a respectful test of the effects of immeasurable terror. Instead, it is opposed to tackling and a deafening tone.
I was nine years old in the summer of 1985, and it was very hot in San Diego – the kind of oppressive dry heat where you don’t sweat because it evaporates immediately. I was very seated with my parents due to suffocation in the heat around the dining table at my neighbor’s house. All doors and windows were left open – air conditioning was then a rarity in San Diego – and my parents were barricading the food to look out of the window or stand in the doorway. My father disgusted, staring outside, my mother bowed her head around him, so as to take a look even at night.
My father did not look calm. This was because the former college basketball player – who was six and a half feet tall and more than 250 pounds – was worried about the night stalker. Our house had all the lights, and the blinds and curtains were open for a clear line of sight. He kept staring in the courtyard to see if anyone was inside the house, when we reached the house we were ambush with us.
Between March and August 1985, Richard Ramirez killed 12 people in California, mainly in the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles, a campaign of slaughter and torture that included multiple sexual assaults and child abductions. This is beyond true crime; It’s true horror. Netflix’s “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer” is a four-part documentary that follows the work of two detectives from the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department as they track down Ramirez. The police’s cataloging work is done by Det. Sgt. Frank Salerno and Det. Lt. Gil Carrillo is a cathartic tale, a compelling examination of intuition, dog evidence tracing, fate, and experience that is always at risk of being thwarted by inter-police politics.
Where the series goes badly, the aggressively horrifying situation is in the packaging of very concrete interviews with police, journalists, survivors, and families. Real crime-scene photographs are used throughout the series, a choice that is deeply disturbing but necessary to portray animalistic terror. (As wild as your imagination is, it won’t be enough.)
What is not required, of course, is the re-enforcement of crimes supported by director Tiller Russell’s Chassi B-film grade visuals. We do not need to see a drop of blood in slow motion as it falls to the ground. We do not need to see a blood-covered hammer alongside it. (This shot repeats many times.) We don’t need to see scenes of ominous animals roaming in the dark – it’s not symbolism, it’s tvedry, scar-tactic filler. We don’t need Ramirez’s recorded words in Hot Pink at nighttime Los Angeles traffic scenes. This is not a Patrick Nagle exhibition.
In the last episode, when Ramirez is identified as a suspect, his name and picture are published throughout the media. Getting back on a greyhound bus from Arizona, Ramirez soon realizes that he is in real risk of being caught and begins a frantic chase through East Los Angeles, with all lanes – in all directions – including 5 freeways . The story of this final, desperate bid for freedom is an interlude, God help me, a scene of a Pac-Man chase and a ghost eating. (This is the 80s, get it?)
This is purely, literally tone-deaf, and is a problem throughout the series. You won’t be cute when you use an actual picture of a blood-soaked bed of a 16-year-old girl who was almost beaten with a tire iron.
My father was watching the news on August 30, 1985 – the day after his birthday – and told me when I entered the room that he caught the Night Stalker. “How did the police find him?” I asked
“A herd of people from a locality recognized him, and …” he began, and I remember that my father had a long time to figure out how to prepare for what actually happened to 9-year-old Ramirez What happened to me, “… pretty sure he wasn’t going away.
As the documentary suggests, once Ramirez was identified through his run through East Los Angeles, an obstinate neighborhood pose defeated him in submission. A patrol car came out of sheer chance and the officer seated Ramirez in the back seat before killing the crowd. Ramirez eventually received 19 death sentences for his crimes and was sent to San Quentin; She died of a lymphoma in prison in 2013.
The case of the Knight Stalker still resonates with me and others who lived during that time, but the places he terrorized in the San Gabriel Valley until now have returned to their ideal. Sierra Madre where the good ice cream store is located. We got our Christmas tree from a place in Monrovia. A bakery in Glassell Park has the best pastries in Los Angeles. We buy our camping gear for our son’s annual school trip at Joshua Tree in Arcadia.
There is a story to tell about life in suburban Los Angeles, where the Night Stalker proved that the veneer of baucholic normality is so thin, so tough. It can be a sunny place for shady people to steal the Somerset Maugham line.
But it is a story that requires subtlety, a desire to delve into the inhuman and inhuman between the seemingly mundane, and how day-to-day unease can unfold. Maybe one day that story will be found. It is not that.
“Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer” is now streaming via Netflix.