quick documentary review: Netflix’s Night Stalker

I am a very normal human, so I spent most of yesterday afternoon watching Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, Netflix’s recent-ish documentary on Richard Ramirez. My partner deliberately left the room for the majority of the show, but ha ha joke’s on him we live in a one-bed in a quarantine and he couldn’t escape my recap.

I’m fun at parties.

If you’re blessedly unfamiliar with Ramirez, he was a rapist, murderer, and supposed Satanist who terrorized Los Angeles (and, to a lesser extent, San Francisco) in 1985. There was no rhyme or reason to his victims; most sexually-motivated serial killers have a “type,” but Ramirez was indiscriminate, raping children (boys and girls), young women, and mature women across ethnic and racial backgrounds. His killings were even more randomized. He was a truly horrible human being, and be forewarned that this documentary goes into detail and includes many crime scene photos.

For only being four episodes, I feel like there’s a lot to dissect in Night Stalker for people who simply enjoy dissecting documentaries. It’s good, overall. I enjoyed it, if “enjoy” is the right word for this genre of media. But there are complications.

Structurally, the narrative follows the two LA County Sheriff’s Office detectives assigned to the case, Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno, as they realize that the disparate crimes across the county are related. (Carrillo is presented as the bright young hotshot, whose initial diagnosis that this is a serial killer is laughed out of the room; Salerno is the grizzled cop superstar, the detective who apprehended the Hillside Strangler(s) in the 70s. It’s made for Hollywood, honestly.) Throughout the documentary, we only know as much as the police knew at any given point. We learn Ramirez’s name and see his photo at the same point in the story the police did. It’s good drama.

I like this structure. In similar documentaries, we often follow the killer, trying to understand them, or follow the killer in tandem with the team trying to track them down. We are usually presented with the murders and then see police looking for clues that will lead to a foregone conclusion. (I’m thinking specifically about Manson family documentaries, which usually skip from the murders to apprehension very quickly, glossing over the 4 months of confusion and panic and police work. We the audience know Manson did it, so it’s only natural the police will figure it out.) The filmmakers here did a great job retaining a sense of mystery, encouraging us to feel the same horror the victims did, the same horror the whole city did as this mysterious murderer stalked LA. The victim statements are expertly integrated.

However, I felt at times like I was watching an apology piece for Carrillo and Salerno. Here are all the things we did, they seem to say, all the pieces of evidence we were tracking down, here’s how close we were—and here is how the system fucked us over. Whether it was LAPD vs. Sheriff’s office jurisdictional infighting that prevented evidence from being processed in a timely fashion, or budgetary restrictions that pulled officers from a sting the day before Ramirez returned to that location, or San Francisco Mayor Diane Feinstein’s ill-timed press conference that gave away valuable evidence—according to the detectives, they were doing great work and were victims of circumstance. They could have caught Ramirez so much earlier if, if, if. But the documentary misses an opportunity and doesn’t really press them, just letting this narrative unfold. Maybe it’s all true, but it’s hard to trust a one-sided narrative that seems to have an agenda.

The documentary also doesn’t press on a really troubling piece of police brutality that a San Francisco officer describes. When they got as far as knowing that the Night Stalker was a man named Rick, the SFPD went to talk to one of Rick’s friends to try to get his full name. When this witness was in the police car, the officer hit him, supposedly lightly. He then pulled back and told the witness he’d hit him so hard he’d rip him apart from “his head to his ass” (paraphrasing) and the man immediately folds. This is presented as if it is supposed to be a high moment—yeah, we’ve got him! We got a name! Success! But like… a white cop threatened violence against a Hispanic man in his custody and I don’t really find that to be uplifting? And the documentary just glides on by.

Finally, while I learned a lot about the investigation (which is great! I loved that tactic!) I don’t quite feel like I learned enough about Ramirez. It quickly became clear that the documentary was going to follow the classic Sherlock Holmes novel structure of 1) investigation, 2) identify/catch the killer, 3) flashback to the killer’s history, 4) denouement/trial if applicable. It mostly stayed on that track, but 3) flashback was not robust enough to really tell me much about Ramirez. For example, how did he get into Satanism? Did he actually believe it? This was the heyday of the Satanic Panic, but the documentary doesn’t really explore him within that context. I absolutely appreciated the narrative structure and minimizing the focus on Ramirez, but we needed just a bit more than we got.

Overall, the documentary just felt very slightly out of balance. I would have loved a non-police expert to weigh in on what police procedure was like in the 80s, how normal it was for that much evidence to have been messed up. I would have loved to hear from an actual mental health expert, instead of just tapes of Ramirez talking about whether a killer like him was born or made.

But I did really enjoy this documentary, in a horrified kind of way, and I’m nitpicking about documentarian choices. (Meeee?) It’s good, and tells a jaw-dropping story from an unusual perspective, and I definitely recommend it.