When I first learned that a movie was being made called “The Night Stalker,” I wondered if it was based on a book I had read several years earlier. The book I am referring to, which shares the same title as the movie, was written by, journalist and bestselling author, Philip Carlo, and was published by the Kensington Publishing Corporation in 1997. Due to its critical praise, and the way readers touted it throughout the years as one of the best works of true crime ever written, I eventually checked out a copy from the library.
Upon completion, I found myself agreeing with those who had lauded the amount of research and detail oriented work that went into Carlo’s, well over, five hundred page book. A non-fiction work that deals with the life and crimes of serial killer Richard Ramirez, who, due to the heinous nature of his crimes, created an atmosphere of unrelenting fear in Southern California during the year 1985. Furthermore, I admired Carlo’s writing style. He was able to take material that could have easily come across as if it were written as an academic textbook for use in a criminology class, and instead he imbues it with creative descriptions and sharp-wit, as well as an ability to make even the most factual of information seem interesting in the larger context of his work.
“The Night Stalker” film, written and directed by Megan Griffiths (Eden), bases itself on parts of Carlo’s book, but doesn’t do the non-fiction piece justice. There was no way, the under two hour movie, which originally premiered on June 4, 2016, at the Seattle International Film Festival, could have hoped to have achieved that result. There simply wasn’t enough time, during the film, which comprises the crime and thriller genres, to cover everything that Carlo spent three years of his life researching. What the viewer does get, is a passable movie, which is primarily bolstered by its two leads, especially Golden Globe nominee, Lou Diamond Phillips (Stand and Deliver). He gives a commendable performance, portraying the remorseless murderer, rapist, and avowed Satanist, Richard Ramirez. Philips conveys a needed sense of dread in order for his character to be effective, but not once during the film’s 89 minute runtime, did he allow his portrayal of Ramirez to dissolve into a one-dimensional representation of an evil man.
The film centers on the character of Kit, a fictional, defense attorney, played by Bellamy Young (Scandal). She has recently traveled to California, after convincing her employer, Jed (Louis Herthum), that she might be able to get a confession that will help grant a stay of execution in the case of Texas Death Row inmate Harrison Johnson (Hawthorne James). Johnson falls into the category of wrong place, wrong time, when his actions during a bar fight lead to the death of a politician’s son; even though eyewitnesses state it was self-defense on Johnson’s part, the authorities go digging into his past, and connect him to a cold case. Johnson’s life hinges on a confession of guilt, that would need to be offered up by Richard Ramirez, whose own time left, despite his legal appeals, is no certainty, due to his battling B-cell lymphoma.
Kit, who has had a macabre fascination with Ramirez since her teenage years, and has watched and read everything about him, thinks that he is the person who murdered a mother and child in an El Paso hotel that he had worked in thirty years earlier. Kit feels that way because the method used to carry out the killings is too eerily similar for her to pass up the possibility that the crime was perpetrated by Ramirez. Jed arranges time for Kit to talk with Ramirez at San Quentin State Prison, where he has been held on Death Row since 1989 for multiple crimes of murder, attempted murder, sexual assault and burglary.
Scenes featuring a teenage version of Kit (Chelle Sherrill) living in Los Angeles during the time of the Night Stalker attacks, showcases to the viewer, the young girl’s obsession with the killer. She is making a scrap book of newspaper clippings about The Night Stalker, and alienating her friends by wanting to talk about nothing other than his latest exploits. Kit learns that The Night Stalker targets beige houses, and purposely leaves the window to her bedroom open. If that weren’t bad enough, she walks the streets alone at night. On one particular outing, she heads to a dance club, which is empty of patrons. When she asks the bouncer why no one is inside, he replies that everybody is too scared to be out while the Night Stalker is on the loose. The bouncer at least has the common sense to bring Kit inside, and make her wait with him, until the cab he has called for her arrives.
While I mentioned earlier, that the film does not concentrate on Ramirez’s life as a whole, it does offer clues as to why he grew up to embrace a lifestyle of such unmitigated evil. One person, that was shown in flashback sequences as having had tremendous influence over Richard was his older cousin, Mike (Eddie Martinez). While overseas, fighting in the Vietnam War, Mike takes photographs of those he has killed, as well as pictures of women who he took prisoner, and forced to perform sexual acts on him before killing them. In addition to other untoward behavior, during another flashback, a younger version of Richard (Andrew Ruiz), watches as Mike pulls out a gun and kills his wife for insulting him. (As an aside, Mike Ramirez was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and was confined at the Texas State Mental Hospital for four years.)
Will Richard Ramirez confess to the motel killing from years earlier? Does he have it in him to do the right thing, and help spare an innocent man’s life? What will the verbal exchanges between Kit and Ramirez be like? After obsessing over him from afar for so many years, will she play into his mental games or, knowing so much about him, does she see right through any type of facade he constructs to deceive her? If Ramirez does agree to help save Johnson’s life, what will he expect in return from Kit? All of those questions and more will be answered by film’s end.
As I stated earlier, the film as a whole was decent. I didn’t sit down to watch it thinking I was going to see something that was worthy of accolades and considerations come award season. With that being said, I think Lou Diamond Phillips did an excellent job conveying menace without being over-the-top, and Bellamy Young had enough to do with her character, that she also didn’t succumb to giving a one-note performance. The acting, for that matter, by the entire cast was well done, and I wasn’t at anytime while watching the film, bored with it. I just would have preferred if it had been turned into a two part miniseries, or something similar to, the ten part, limited series, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” which never once failed to hold my interest.