The opening minutes of Night Stalker: the Hunt for a Serial Killer, a new Netflix True Crime miniseries, focus not on the titular killer, whose real name is Richard Ramirez, but on the town he terrorized in the 1980s: Los Angeles, sun-kissed but long marked by a macabre series of black crime both real (the Black Dahlia, the Manson murders) and fictional (the works of Raymond Chandler, a whole genre of films). From its title font to its dark and ominous covers of synth hits, Night Stalker evokes the mid-1980s – a period of rapid growth for Los Angeles’ national profile, particularly after the 1984 Olympics, and, in 1985, a summer of dizzying heat and a wave of fear following an eruption of brutal home invasions.
Night Stalker incorporates many staples of the real crime genre – extended slow-motion edits, click-and-click passing through crime scene photos, seedy bar aesthetic – for the story of a serial killer with a unusual indiscretion. From June 1984 until his arrest in August 1985, Ramirez, then 25 years old and portrayed in anxious media coverage by an ominous police sketch of a light, tanned man with a block of dark curls and large eyes. ‘worryingly intense, killed at least 13 people in a wave of violence the scope of which would cover at least three separate episodes of Law & Order. The victims – some brutally murdered, others still called for help – ranged from six to 82 years old. There was no consistent target of gender, age, race or class; guns for the murder ranged from attempted strangulation with a telephone cord to gunshot at point blank range. Sometimes the killer would leave satanic messages or symbols, other times he would stop to eat a fruit from the fridge.
The only thing in common seemed to be an unlocked door or window, and as the beatings escalated – some the same night, or two days apart – Los Angeles residents zipped their homes up to 100 ° F, bought window bars or adopted large dogs. The fear of the boogeyman Night Stalker’s “unknown, nameless, faceless kind of haunting nature” “has gripped the city,” Tiller Russell, the series’ director, told The Guardian.
Russell, a real crime series veteran interested in Law & Order style pursuit from his days as a local police reporter, made Night Stalker history 30 years later thanks to memories of Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno, the two Los Angeles police detectives. who followed the crimes for five heartbreaking months in 1985 and who largely serve as the show’s double narrators. Russell first met Carrillo through a coworker at an “old-school Los Angeles” steakhouse bar and was “absolutely fascinated by the precision and specificity of his memories,” he recalls. Carrillo, in his 30s at the time of the murders, remembered the exact times and dates, what a victim was wearing, the address of the crime scene.
The clinical tenacity of Carrillo’s recollection of the case prompted Russell to question, he said, “the human history of this – what impact does it have on the people who have it.” lived? ” For cops, surviving victims and family members, he asked, “What is the toll of the human soul?”
Night Stalker is therefore four episodes of real crime in which the violent offender happily withdraws to the offended. The series plays out chronologically, assault by assault, granular clue by clue, rather than psychologically, depending on the chilling memories of Los Angeles residents or any interest in what motivated Ramirez, who remains an almost anonymous figure until the episode. final. The timeline takes pit stops along the way to check the toll of the relentless pursuit of the case on Carrillo and Salerno, who have spent minimal sleep and justified fear that Ramirez, after media coverage of the investigation, targets their families. Russell also amasses humanizing memories of the family members of some of the victims who have long been understated, in press coverage, in the most gruesome details of their deaths. (Ramirez, sentenced to death for 13 murders, among other crimes, died of cancer in San Quentin State Prison in 2013, aged 53).
The lens away from Ramirez was a deliberate attempt, Russell said, to avoid the “very strange and surreal afterlife” of the Night Stalker story in which Ramirez became, for a small group, a sort of satanic sex symbol. Witness statements at the time converged on two anonymous but searing facts about the Night Stalker: his strong, disgusting body odor and his mouthful of missing or rotten teeth (a failed bite operation to catch Ramirez involved a dental office). But in the photos, Ramirez is tall and lean, with prominent cheekbones and a rock star flop of dark hair; he was known to wear a Members Only jacket and rock band hats. In other words, as evidenced by the strange phenomenon of men on death row receiving a plethora of marriage proposals: a figure ripe for an overhaul of exploitation by some as a scorching and lost icon of darkness.
“It was really important for me not to fall prey to what I felt was false mythology,” Tiller said of the phenomenon. “This guy isn’t the Jim Morrison of serial killers. There is nothing cool about it. In Night Stalker, Russell combined the memories of the detectives with the testimonies of family members “not to deliberately fall prey to the exploitative or sensationalistic nature of the Ramirez myth, by immersing you in the stories of those people whose lives have changed. been overwhelmingly, dramatically and irrevocably affected by Ramirez. “
Still, the corrective focus on law enforcement, which serves in Night Stalker, as in most crimes, shows both real and fictional, as the protagonists of the story, has its own limits. Namely, the persistent centering of the police in American detective stories and the assumption, on television, that the cops are always the main characters – a trope which, inadvertently or not, works to clean up police work and to normalize the police as the good by default, even when America’s gruesome racist police record and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this summer indicate otherwise.
When asked about any discomfort with Night Stalker’s police-centric storytelling – Carrillo and Salerno’s unmistakable tenacity and accomplishments aside – Russell agreed that, in general, “we’re not just facing a police crisis, but to some sort of outright police failure a moment of cultural calculation when it’s like, this has to change now, today, and forever.
“Telling a story based on law enforcement becomes an interesting question,” he said. “At the same time, we are telling the story of something that is 35 years old and that is very specific to that. So I think it’s important to understand the lens through which to view the story.
“The way we approached these things just doesn’t work anymore. It’s time for something new, ”he added later, specifically noting the deaths of black men at the hands of the police. “But at the same time, there are brave people doing an incredibly difficult and impossible job, and you need law and order and the police. So these are the questions of our time that we all grapple with.
Whether it’s tracing the police investigation, replaying the many local television interviews with the man in the street, or reliving the feverish summer in cuts to family members and small players in the eventual arrest of Ramirez. , Night Stalker takes aim at a Los Angeles painting. , 1985, rather than a serial killer mystery. The story “has become that tapestry of Los Angeles, and a portrait of place and time,” said Russell, the series on “the carnival of the people … whose lives were affected.”