REVIEW: Netflix’s ‘Night Stalker’ Gets Bogged Down by its Sensationalist Framing

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Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer Poster

True Crime is a tricky genre for documentaries. At best, they can be empathetic vessels to empower survivors and return agency to victims. At worst, they can become copaganda or put genuinely terrible people on pedestals to be regarded with almost celebrity status. Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, directed by Tiller Russell, the latest true crime limited docuseries to hit Netflix, falls more towards the latter. While the series itself doesn’t focus much on Richard Ramirez, the editing choices and framing of the many crimes done by him frequently felt more like a B-grade thriller movie than a documentary series.

Los Angeles, California, in the 80’s, is briefly described in the opening episode of Night Stalker. It is depicted as both a rising paradise where people flock to become anyone they want to be, but also having a darker side that attracts more dangerous people. The case itself came shortly after the arrest of Kenneth Alessio Bianchi and Angelo Buono Jr., known by the media and populace as The Hillside Stranglers. The series may be about the investigation to discover and catch Richard Ramirez, but it is predominantly the story of the two investigators on the case. Gil Carrillo was a young detective new to the Homicide Bureau with the LA County Sheriff. Carrillo’s story is likely the most compelling part of the documentary.

Gil Carrillo was a police officer with childhood ties to an early survivor of the case, and often the investigation hit close to home. Carrillo was the first to put together that the murders and child abductions were committed by the same person, but he was laughed off by higher-ups. The series shows how multiple cases a night, as well as media attention, often created anxiety and fear that he and partner Frank Salerno’s families were at risk. Salerno was also under increased media attention due to being key in solving The Hillside Strangler case. The Homicide Bureau at the time was known as “The Bulldogs” due to how many cases they closed. Salerno asked Carrillo to be his new partner, as he was one of the few who took Carrillo’s theories seriously, and they became the prominent investigators on the case.

While the perspective isn’t unwelcome, it dominates Night Stalker. Since the focus is on the perspective of the investigation, there is little attention given to the victims. Because Ramirez’s victims were across the board in terms of identity and location, and seemingly picked at random, they didn’t provide much in terms of tracking him down. However, as a result, there is an almost lack of empathy (unintentionally of course) by the Night Stalker series towards them. Their names and sometimes a photo are briefly flashed across the screen, oftentimes after gruesome crime photos are shown and interviews refer to them solely as “male” or “female victim.” The child molestation cases are referred to by investigators as the “kiddie cases.” It is not in regards to their severity, rather the age of the victims, but still leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth. Almost the entire identity of these people is that of a victim of Ramirez.

Now, there are interviews given to some survivors or victims’ relatives, but a majority of those interviews focus on the discoveries of the horrific crime scenes. It is painful to have to watch people describe in detail the desecration of their loved ones, and not be given time to know anything else about them beyond a brief eulogy and photograph. Due to the nature of the investigation, and the fact that Night Stalker is a limited series of only four episodes, perhaps some of this couldn’t be helped, but the editing and framing of the rest of the show rub salt in the wound.

Night Stalker tries to be a manhunt thriller. The music and editing will often cut to slow motion “reenactments” of weapons dripping with blood. There are even moments with sound effects and quick editing cuts that almost seem to function as jump scares for the viewer. An editing decision in the first episode significantly stuck with this reviewer for the wrong reasons: it has been confirmed that the cases are linked and Carrillo declares to the camera he was proven right and that they have themselves a serial killer. His statement itself isn’t wrong, but then the show cuts to the end of the episode, with the title Night Stalker in purple neon across the screen and upbeat eighties’ music playing.

This choice gives off a grossly victorious vibe, as though “the chase is on.” This isn’t a fictional film. This is a real criminal case where real people were killed, and even the investigators’ families suffered. The whole series even has a count of how many days have passed, with the sound effect of a clock ticking, to increase tension in viewers. All of the framing and editing choices take away any empathy that is trying to be shown to those harmed by Ramirez, and further ensconces his identity of the Night Stalker as that of a terrifying legend.

Richard Ramirez is not a legend. Night Stalker would have done well to focus more on that. It is clear it didn’t want to create too much empathy for him, only briefly giving a voice-over about his childhood abuse growing up at the beginning of the final episode. Yet, the series also has Ramirez’s own disturbing words from an interview almost narrate parts of the series, with his words showing on the screen in purple neon text. Night Stalker’s framing choices put it at odds with itself. Since almost no focus is placed on Ramirez himself, or the “why,” he becomes that of an evil under-the-bed rather than a human. His horrid crimes are larger than life, rather than partly enabled by bungled investigation moments. Night Stalker doesn’t give much attention to the media being at odds with Carrillo and Salerno, at one point extorting interviews out of them in exchange for not releasing information that would jeopardize the investigation. It is stated, but not interrogated, even though the reporter herself (Laurel Erickson) is being interviewed in the series.

Another stated, but hardly focused on element in Night Stalker, is the fact that multiple moments in the investigation were hindered by different police departments trying to win glory, rather than work together to solve the case. Journalist Zoey Tur aptly described it as a “pissing contest.” This isn’t interrogated, it is just laid bare on the table. Ramirez’s name wasn’t even discovered by investigators through standard means. Inspector Frank Falzon with the San Francisco Police Department describes on camera how he threw Ramirez’s friend into the backseat of his police car, threatening to beat him up until he gave him a name. (This reviewer is not defending Ramirez’s friend, who was likely aware of the horrible crimes and refusing to turn him in. He also allegedly taunted Falzon. However, the documentary almost frames this moment that was essentially a breach of conduct as a valiant, gritty scene where the investigator does what he needs to get the job done. In this case, maybe it was for the best, but that is a dangerous precedent to platform on screens and not dissect.) Ramirez himself was caught by civilians, and identified by six-year-old Anastasia Hronas. Not enough attention was given to their stories in this reviewer’s opinion.

Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer on Netflix doesn’t give much if any, explanation to viewers on the “why?” or “how?” regarding one of the most horrific serial murderers. Instead, the editing and overall framing lead the series to function more as a manhunt thriller. Sensationalizing brutal imagery and jump scare style cuts take away from its identity as a documentary and cheapen the genuine moments focusing on the stories of investigators Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno. Unfortunately, instead of dissection taking power away from Ramirez. It is overly sensationalized and just feels as if it is there to capitalize on the popularity of Netflix’s true crime documentaries.

Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer is streaming now on Netflix.

 

Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer
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    Rating - 4/10
4/10

TL;DR

Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer on Netflix doesn’t give much if any, explanation to viewers on the “why?” or “how?” regarding one of the most horrific serial murderers. Instead, the editing and overall framing lead the series to function more as a manhunt thriller. Sensationalizing brutal imagery and jump scare style cuts take away from its identity as a documentary and cheapen the genuine moments focusing on the stories of investigators Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno. Unfortunately, instead of dissection taking power away from Ramirez. It is overly sensationalized and just feels as if it is there to capitalize on the popularity of Netflix’s true crime documentaries.