“Night Stalker” starts with a montage that sets the tone for Los Angeles in the 1980s, painting it as one of the most vibrant and growing communities in the world, but noting that it also had a growing dark side that wasn’t getting the same kind of press. The star of the docuseries is Detective Gil Carrillo, who was basically an unexperienced kid when he led the investigation into the Night Stalker crimes with the legendary Frank Salerno, also an eloquent interview here. The best elements of “Night Stalker” humanize both Carrillo and Salerno, two men who focused every element of their intellect and energy on this case, so much so that Carrillo’s family had to go into hiding for their own safety. These men couldn’t sleep until the Night Stalker was caught, and how they dissected patterns, evidence, and ultimately got to Ramirez makes for riveting television.
It’s everywhere else that “Night Stalker” comes up a little short. The shots of dripping blood and stabbing knives that lead into interview segments with survivors seem exploitative more than tone-setting or illuminating. Yes, it’s important to not soften the hideousness of Ramirez’s crimes, and “Night Stalker” absolutely details his depravity in a way we haven’t really seen before, but it’s another one of those series that’s too overly reliant on clichéd “true crime evil” stock footage like shiny knives and ominous shots of windows and backyards. It doesn’t add to the human stories in “Night Stalker” to frame them like nightmares seen on dozens of other shows on Investigation Discovery or “Dateline NBC.”
And yet the real people at the center of “Night Stalker” push through the weaknesses of the production to make an impact. Survivors tell stories that will haunt your nightmares. Reporters speak interestingly about chasing the case, and there’s a whole documentary to be made about how journalism impacts major serial killer investigations in terms of released information and what’s held back in the name of justice. But it’s Carrillo and Salerno who are the beating heart of this series, one that, despite its flaws, successfully takes a story of evil from Los Angeles in the mid-‘80s and reframes it as a story of undeniably good men.
Now available on Netflix.