Richard Ramirez’s spree of terror through the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Areas in 1984 and 1985 made for a psyche-shredding media fixation: The so-called “Night Stalker’s” rapaciousness — targeting people seemingly at random and with an appetite for violence that set him apart even among the history of psychopaths — provided insatiable fodder for television reports, a side effect that both burnished Ramirez’s legend and increased the effects of his reign of terror. Over and above his grievous crimes, Ramirez was creating an atmosphere of fear and mistrust that overlay an unhappy period for California.
This, at least, is the case made by “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer,” a four-episode documentary series on Netflix. As an analysis of social madness, “Night Stalker,” directed by Tiller Russell, makes some interesting points; those, though, tend to be studded within a project that gives itself away to mania more frequently. Clogged with high-gloss but somewhat ludicrous footage, “Night Stalker” knows it’s about the deaths of innocents only inasmuch as that makes for a riveting story, but it lacks the seriousness of purpose to tell its story well.
In the main, the story follows Gil Carillo and Frank Salerno, the investigators tracking Ramirez; they’re interviewed in the present day with every cliché about P.I.’s in the unfeeling city in evidence: forebodingly-darkly-lit interviews, a re-enacted shot of a lonesome cop car accelerating down a lonely street, lit by streetlights. That the latter shot is handsome means about as much as does the impressive grossness of re-enacted shots of knives penetrating flesh, emerging coated in juicily crimson blood.
It can be boring to constantly write about true crime as lacking the deeply-thought-through intentionality to match its grave subject matter — in part because it happens so frequently. While Ramirez’s victims, including a kidnap victim he let go as well as families of the slain, get the chance to speak, here, the show’s pleasurable embrace of violence seems, in its effort to attract, tonally repulsive. Series like HBO’s “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” with its careful construction and deliberate pace, tend to be exceptions: More frequent are shows like this one, that tend to revel in the glamour and thrill of pretty gruesome real-life events.
Consider, say, a Los Angeles news reporter speaking to camera in the final episode and musing about “what it would be like to be attacked by him, to have him on top, to have him with a gun at your throat, knife” with a sort of kitschy fascination at her own revulsion. Why did this make the cut? We know by this point that Ramirez was dangerous. Or the fact that the first episode, for instance, ends with Carillo restaging his epiphany that the crimes were linked, saying “We got us a serial killer” — followed by amped-up rock music kicking in and the show’s title in pink graffiti font. It’s not that the thrill of the chase isn’t a real human emotion, however worthy; “Night Stalker,” though, tends to tip its hand in moments like these to reveal that the hunt for a serial murderer is, in its own sick way, kind of fun.
All of which suffocates that which, in the series, surfaces interesting warnings about precisely the sort of thing the show is doing. A sequence about Dianne Feinstein, then the mayor of San Francisco, giving away details of the investigation on television and thus scotching much of the detectives’ progress, makes a suggestive case for the power of TV news to warp perspective even at the highest levels. Then, though, Feinstein could be argued to be educating the public; now, “Night Stalker” seeks to re-create a climate of nasty fear for no ultimate higher purpose than four hours of thrills and chills.