What I’m Watching: Night Stalker

Night Stalker: Hunt For a Serial is a Netflix docuseries about the case of the Los Angeles ‘Night Stalker’. The popularity of serial killer podcasts and documentaries shows no signs of stopping and rightly or wrongly, despite already knowing roughly the grim history of Richard Ramirez’s crimes, I was keen to watch the series.

It opens by setting the scene of Los Angeles as it leaves the 70s behind to embark on a cool and exciting new decade. Immediately I felt it let itself down with slowed down images of splashing drops of blood and a gore soaked hammer as the narrator and words of the various talking heads got the documentary underway.

It doesn’t stop there for me; the former police officers who worked on the Night Stalker case talk at times like they’re on the after dinner circuit. You can tell straight away that this programme is all about them, not the victims.

The first crime featured doesn’t tell you anything other than the victim’s name and age. I know that Richard Ramirez had many victims and it would take a long time to go into any detail, but having watched the Peter Sutcliffe docuseries on Netflix I know how sensitively it can be done. That’s not what happens on ‘Night Stalker’. There’s photos of crime scenes, stains on bed sheets where victims were raped or murdered, spatters of blood on furniture, shots of victims’ bodies with just the eyes obscured as if that lends them any dignity.

Episode one culminates with a Knight Rider-esque 80s outro at the end of the episode, and the whole series is littered with audio tape footage of Ramirez interviews. Can’t say it sits easy with me.

There’s some interesting information about the investigation that was worth watching the four parter for – the shoe print clues, the Night Stalker’s disgusting teeth, and witness testimonies – but on the whole the programme lurched from topic to topic: the two lead detectives and their personal stories, the casework itself, press interference, survivors and victims’ families cropping up throughout. It seems detective Carillo’s wife and late father got as much spotlight – if not more – as the families of women bludgeoned to death by Ramirez.

The likeable detective talks about being scared at home, being frustrated at work, celebrating with family, missing his dad, his wife’s safety concerns, his lack of sleep, his cousin’s wedding… all interspersed now and then with his high school year book or police academy photos. If they were going to make a show about him they should have made it about him. I’m not blaming him or any of the people featured who were involved with the investigation. I’m sure the Night Stalker case was a defining point in their careers, of their lives even. But how they have come to be able to talk about it over the years is at odds with how the impartial viewer might feel about the hideous things that Ramirez did to his victims – some of whom might just be learning about it for the first time.

All along in the series, there’s no need for the pointless foray into the detectives’ back stories, no need to sensationalise the crimes and the crime scenes. The facts speak for themselves and don’t need any frills for television.

In part four of Night Stalker, focussing on Ramirez’s arrest and trial, I began to think the series had at last redeemed itself. But that didn’t last long.

There were quips from interviewing officers and journalists which I felt trivialised the weight of Ramirez’s capture (“after working for it so long… I was getting my hair done when he was arrested!” and “I thought I hope he doesn’t start levitating and scare the bejesus out of me”).

The mention of the women who exposed their breasts and sent explicit letters and photographs to the dangerous prisoner alongside descriptions of him as ‘slender’, ‘cool’ and choosing pictures of him looking chisel-cheeked and bare chested, as well as behaving like some kind of celebrity in the court room. This didn’t seem enough like an objective commentary on this bad taste adoration (which the most entry-level bit of pop psychology could tell you is a known condition); it felt like it was adding to it. The man was a violent rapist and killer. A child rapist. You can’t throw in a half baked reference to the cult of celebrity and deluded fan girls so late in the programme and not critique it.

Perhaps after watching Night Stalker so soon after watching The Ripper, in which the viewer is invited perhaps for the first time to put Sutcliffe’s victims first, you can see an uncomfortable contrast. Sutcliffe was at large only a few years before Ramirez and yet the societal and police views of women and femininity in Britain, which did so much damage, played a huge part in The Ripper. While Sutcliffe himself was responsible for the murders, we get some insight into how these women were let down in life and death.

Although Ramirez’s scattergun approach to his varied victims and crimes didn’t follow a pattern anything like Sutcliffe, that’s not what I’m trying to compare; it’s about whether American police are or can ever be capable of critical reflection or being modest, and perhaps whether it was a cop out on behalf of the programme makers to make the police the stars of the show when there was no need.

In Night Stalker, we see a huge American style celebration of the cops as the heroes. Almost as if the whole affair was solely between them and the bad guy, and the real lives who were snuffed out or torn apart forever were collateral in their police chase. I dread to think what the victims’ families made of it.

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