“Nightstalker,” which deals with the story of serial killer and professed Satanist Richard Ramirez, is more complex than the violent exploitation pic it initially seems; despite its brutal violence, it’s not out to titillate. But the attempt is more admirable than the execution, with helmer Chris Fisher’s overstylized direction and fragmented screenplay never letting up long enough to involve the audience. It’s a flashy calling-card movie that, after 20 minutes or so, becomes bothersome. Like its predecessors, explicit pic has definite cult/midnight movie potential, but will find its largest audience as a rental and cable item.
Fisher looks at Ramirez from two perspectives. First, he wants to immerse the audience in the world of Ramirez (played by Bret Roberts), who terrorized Los Angeles (and, at one point, San Francisco) with a 1984-1985 killing spree that claimed the lives of 19 confirmed victims. (Ramirez is on death row at San Quentin.) Second viewpoint is that of Gabriella Martinez (Roselyn Sanchez), a young and beautiful rookie detective in the LAPD, unexpectedly assigned to the task force investigating the killings that will eventually be attributed to Ramirez. Before it’s over, Ramirez and Martinez will be pitted in a “Silence of the Lambs” style cat-and-mouse game.
With Ramirez, pic adopts a sped-up camera style and rapid-fire cutting, all set to the thrashing beat of an incessant death-metal soundtrack. It’s the filmmaking equivalent of an epileptic fit, the sort of ramped-up, in-your-face “technique” that permits no escape and virtually defines attention-deficit aesthetics. True, the real Ramirez was an epileptic, obsessed with the music of AC/DC and convinced he was Satan’s chosen disciple. But it doesn’t take much imagination to create a movie that stylistically adopts those same characteristics and then repeats them ad infinitum.
Conceit prevents the audience from understanding Ramirez as anything other than some inhuman killing machine, which is a disappointment for a film that, in other ways, wants to subvert our expectations of the serial-killer genre. Fisher even goes so far, in a few scenes, as to have a demon appear to Ramirez as he goes about his murders — the kind of synchronicity between a movie’s text and subtext that deadens a film.
The segments of the film dealing with Martinez are more conventionally staged, but Fisher seems somewhat bored by them, and his efforts to build her odyssey into a larger study of corruption and discrimination in the LAPD lack insight. Sanchez offers an appealing performance, though just about everyone around her hams it up (particularly the ordinarily reliable Danny Trejo, who also co-produced, in the role of Martinez’s former partner).
Eliot Rockett’s Super 16mm cinematography offers some striking glimpses of L.A. by night, whenever a shot is held long enough to actually appreciate it.