Netflix’s new limited docuseries “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer” uncovers how two Los Angeles detectives, Gil Carillo and Frank Salerno, captured the notorious “night stalker” (Richard Ramirez) in the summer of 1985. The series dives into the events that led to Ramirez’s capture and offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives forever upended by his actions. “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer” puts the focus largely on Ramirez’s victims and the events preceding his capture but offers little background information about one of the most notorious serial killers in American history who broke into houses, raped and murdered between 13 and 15 victims including men, women and children.
Even though there is not much context behind Ramirez’s life in the documentary, that does not stop the series from devolving into cliche platitudes about innate good versus evil. For example, when he is caught, one of the women at the courthouse claims she saw the pure evil in Ramirez’s eyes immediately. The detectives assigned to his case often make similar claims about knowing just by being in his presence that this man was capable of such heinous acts. The series ends on this note with one of the detectives pontificating about his divine role in the fight against evil like Ramirez.
This drives the story into more sensational territory and does nothing to explain why these crimes happened. True crime, especially when the subject is a serial killer, is best when it strikes a balance between the crimes themselves and the context in which they happened, because serial killers are nothing if not a social phenomenon. But “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer” doesn’t even attempt to integrate these perspectives, largely ignoring context altogether. Virtually no time is spent on Ramirez’s motives, childhood or the general circumstances that made him who he was and helped him evade capture for so long.
It’s not like this information doesn’t exist. Ramirez gave interviews in 1991, 1993 and 1996 which are only used partially in the final minutes of the series. Nor is any effort made to educate the viewers about Los Angeles nor the broader culture of the 1980s, which would have explained why so many victims kept their doors unlocked or why Ramirez’s Satanism was such a focus in the media.
That being said, “Night Stalker” at least avoids the fate of the far too many docuseries these days that focus so heavily on the killers themselves that they border on sympathizing with them (“I Am a Killer” comes to mind). Perhaps the show’s creators feared this outcome and axed any real deep-dive into the life of the killer (although given the abhorrent nature of his crimes, one can’t imagine what could possibly elicit sympathy for such a monster). The series does an excellent job depicting the heinous crimes carried out by Ramirez and asks absolutely no sympathy for him. While this docuseries doesn’t even attempt to delve into Ramirez’s life or motives, it does spend more time than most of its counterparts on the lives of the victims and those left in the wake of Ramirez’s crimes decades after they happened.
One interesting phenomenon that the docuseries focuses on is the fangirls who idolized Ramirez and treated him like a celebrity, sending him love letters (one of whom actually ends up marrying the convicted killer). But rather than explaining this phenomenon, many of the series’ contributors simply balk at this behavior. Actually, the docuseries almost insults the viewer in this way, hammering the gory horror of The Night Stalker’s crimes into the viewer’s mind for fear that they may otherwise end up like one of his ridiculous fans. There are certain points in the series where the details of the crimes border on gory gratuitousness. Does a viewer really need to see every single angle of a crime scene and its recreation to understand the horror of the crime? “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer” seems to think so.
The series offers some interesting information about the crimes committed by the killer who terrorized Los Angeles from April 1984 to August 1985 and does much to reveal the real pain and suffering left in the wake of these crimes decades on. However, the series is often one-dimensional and would have been far more fulfilling had it focused on the social and personal factors that created this monster rather than relying on a cliched narrative about pure evil to explain Ramirez’s motivations.