Netflix’s four-part documentary about the investigation into the Night Stalker murders follows legendary homicide detectives Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno.
To be a fan of true crime TV is to wonder why (or possibly how) anybody is still living in California after the ’70s and ’80s.
From the never-ending run of programming built around the Manson murders to HBO’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, with its chronicle of the Golden State Killer, to Netflix’s new four-parter Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, there’s an impression that decades passed during which the entire state was in a sleepless limbo, balancing glamour by day and terror by night, existing on fumes laced with cocaine and smog. And that’s all without a definitive new documentary examination of the Zodiac Killer or the Hillside Strangler, both projects that I can only assume are mere moments away.
The grip that the Night Stalker still has on the collective consciousness of Los Angeles can be seen in how Richard Ramirez has snuck into multiple seasons of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, and it’s a relief to be able to quickly dispatch with what I assume will be the first two questions asked by potential viewers: Tiller Russell’s series does not particularly sensationalize Ramirez or his horrifying crimes, and with episodes each running less than 50 minutes, Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer is much less padded than many of the recent prestige true crime docs. It has some annoying and inadvertently hilarious aesthetic choices, but in the balance, I admired its storytelling approach.
Russell’s most recent background has been as writer and producer on several of Dick Wolf’s Chicago-set dramas, and thus it follows that Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer plays more as a police procedural than anything more tawdry. The twin interviews that anchor the series are with Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno, legendary homicide detectives with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and two of the key figures responsible for bringing the Night Stalker to justice.
Carrillo was an East L.A. kid, a young punk detective with ambitious ideas, while Salerno was already a local investigative legend, the man credited with making the key connections in the Hillside Stranger case. They’re like an odd couple partnership from a TV show or a movie, and that’s definitely how Russell treats them, right down to Carrillo’s domestic subplot with a loving wife who worries about his increased drinking and has to take the children to a secluded location to protect them when the heat rises. The cliché goes that fact is stranger than fiction, but over and over again, Russell leans into some mighty familiar genre tropes.
Given that Carrillo and Salerno are our focal heroes, why are the former partners never in the same room talking together? There are shots of them driving together — there’s at least a chance that this, like so much of the new footage in the documentary, was digitally augmented — so why not place them in some proximity so that we can see them bouncing memories off of each other, bickering over credit or whatever it is that happens when you get them both in a room?
The tendency in stories like this is to get hung up on the gruesomeness of the crime and lose track of the boring guys in ill-fitting suits kneeling on the edge of the blood spatter. Russell isn’t immune to the salaciousness of Ramirez’s crimes, and how could he be? The Night Stalker was the most atypical of serial perps, without a consistent weapon or victim type or reliable geographic preference, which Russell illustrates by tracking the various crimes almost day-by-day through 1985 across a computer-generated map of Los Angeles. The Night Stalker was five or 10 monsters at once, and Russell resists the allure of psychoanalyzing him. The fourth episode starts with hints of Ramirez’s troubled background and just when you worry things are about to get reductively Freudian, it’s back to the actual case.
The documentary lives in the construction of the case and the criminal profile — details like an Aviva shoe print or discarded bullet casings or bizarre dental records — and there’s a methodical progression that Russell adheres to that I admired. Simply by following Carrillo and Salerno and following the clues, there’s a natural momentum, complete with jurisdictional blunders, ill-fated political maneuvering and other obstructions that stymie the detectives in the pursuit of their man. This too ends up being reductive, prioritizing the hero detective story over effectively capturing the part the Los Angeles community played in the climax of the case. The community isn’t invisible here, mind you, and in lieu of interviews that try to make you understand Ramirez, there are long segments on several of the victims and survivors and families, giving them their voices instead of fixating on Ramirez.
Because the case was a nationwide sensation, a number of Los Angeles reporters and news producers play key roles here; the series looks at the twisted relationship between journalist, law enforcement and criminal in a way that occasionally calls to mind David Fincher’s Zodiac, which is my highest praise for this kind of story. The prevalence of the media also means that Russell has a lot of footage to work with.
The choices when it comes to re-enactments are less consistent. Owing to the time period and genre, Michael Mann is the clear inspiration for the title font, the soundtrack and a lot of the nighttime and freeway photography, the number of drone or computer-aided shots that take us from a moving car up to the glittering Los Angeles skyline. The re-enactments are mostly actor-free — other than a single first-person shooter-style reproduction of a cop’s paranoid search for an intruder in his house — allowing the camera to move fluidly through spaces that otherwise could only be seen in photographs.
I can understand all of that. I’m less able to understand the role that animals and pets play in the recreations of the crime scenes. There’s one slo-mo shot of a cat — mentioned nowhere in the story — leaping for no particular reason that made me giggle and an extreme close-up of a rat licking its lips that made me laugh out loud. These were far from my main reactions while watching Night Stalker, but there’s a limit to how much unintended mirth I can tolerate when the topic at hand is murder.
Bad choices like this aren’t quite rare enough, but mostly Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer flows well. The crimes are disturbing. The police work is intriguing. The interviews cover a lot of ground and bring some emotion into the story. Four episodes and I never looked at my watch, and occasionally I felt like I could have watched more.
Premieres Wednesday, January 13, on Netflix.