The Night Stalker
Lou Diamond Phillips, Bellamy Young, Eddie Martinez
Some people flirt with danger. Others throw open the door and cook it a gourmet dinner. The Night Stalker, the new crime-drama from director Megan Griffiths, is a cold-hearted examination of evil’s intoxicating allure. Lou Diamond Phillips is mesmerizing as Richard Ramirez; the notorious serial killer who terrorized Los Angeles during a 1985 summer heatwave. Ultimately, Griffiths message remains too murky for The Night Stalker to truly shine, but it’s still a decidedly creepy look at the evil men do and the women who are drawn to it.
For Richard Ramirez (Phillips), evil was never a choice. “I think Satan was always inside me,” the death row inmate confides to a beautiful female lawyer named Kit (Bellamy Young). The devil had a little help, too. Ramirez’s only role model as a child was his cousin Mike (Eddie Martinez); a man so bereft of morality he thought nothing of sharing grisly “trophy” photos from his tours in Vietnam. Writer-director Griffiths (Lucky Them, Eden) builds a persuasive case that Ramirez was a natural-born killer, enabled by the monstrosities around him. From the beginning, death was the only human currency that brought him any pleasure.
Flashback to 1985, as a 15-year-old Kit grows increasingly fascinated by Ramirez’s rampage through the surrounding neighborhoods. She wonders if he will ever peer through her open window on a hot summer’s night, or pass her on the sidewalk as she fusses innocently with her mini-skirt. When she isn’t busy fending off the advances of her mother’s lecherous boyfriend, she assembles a scrapbook of Ramirez’s news clippings. For Kit, a young girl desperately searching for acceptance, Ramirez represents a twisted entrée into an exciting new world. She studies him, learns his tendencies, and fantasizes about their inevitable meeting.
And then he did the unthinkable… he got caught!
Twenty-eight years later, in 2013, a trembling Kit finally meets the object of her adolescent obsession. “When you got caught, it was like something went missing,” she admits. Even weakened by years of incarceration and advanced lymphoma, Ramirez laps up her vulnerability like a hedonistic feline. In fact, writer-director Megan Griffiths’s masterstroke is keeping Ramirez adversarial toward Kit. There’s no respect forged or understanding reached. He’s irredeemable; an animalistic killer who preys on the weakest of the herd (most of his victims were over 60-years-old). Each time Kit visits him in San Quentin, Ramirez lasciviously sucks her scent into his lungs, only to crush her with a glib dismissal, “You smell like hotel soap.” Indeed, the only thing standing between Kit and unspeakable violation is the 20-pound chain tethering Ramirez to the floor.
Loosely based on the exhaustive true-crime novel by Philip Carlo, Griffiths’s script uses an intricate web of flashbacks to anchor the jailhouse meetings between Ramirez and Kit. This allows us to eavesdrop on Ramirez’s first tentative steps into crime. While these acts of depravity are horrifying, they also feel strangely detached from the emotional core of the story. This clinical approach to the violence makes Ramirez terrifying, but not particularly interesting. Phillips’s stellar performance overcomes this flaw in the script, as he disappears completely into the madness. When he whispers to Kit, “You have no idea what I would do to you,” his creepiness practically seeps through the screen.
The Night Stalker’s meager plotline serves only to bring these two disconnected spirits together. Kit is sent on a fool’s errand; exonerate her wrongly convicted client by coaxing a confession out of Ramirez. If she fails, her client will be executed. If she succeeds, it means selling her soul to the devil. The scenes between Kit and Ramirez crackle with energy, as the cunning predator demands a quid pro quo for each tasty morsel he lays in the trap. Ramirez’s lack of humanity makes him a ruthless interrogator; pushing Kit further and further into her damaged psyche.
Unfortunately, Griffiths chooses the most superficial routes to connect Kit’s impressionable childhood with her dysfunctional adulthood. Kit’s youthful obsession with Ramirez fosters a queasy commingling of sex and power. Whether she’s working as a dominatrix at a fetish club or “accidentally” undressing in front of an open window, the adult Kit still wields her sexuality like a reckless adolescent. Does this tendency toward wantonness mean that she and Ramirez are kindred spirits? This fascinating and complex question should have been the thematic crux of The Night Stalker. Instead, Kit becomes a simplistic surrogate for all those girls who can’t resist chasing ‘bad boys.’
Aesthetically, however, The Night Stalker gets everything right. Griffiths bathes her color palette in grit, dispatching Ramirez and Kit to prowl the seedy working-class streets. The heat and humidity contribute to the palpable sense of desperation. Kit dances alone in a desolate discotheque as her neighbors cower at home behind locked doors. An effectively icy synth soundtrack does little to quench the heat. Griffiths expertly uses atmosphere and visuals to create a hellish summer from which Ramirez and Kit will never escape.
Any discussion of The Night Stalker must begin and end with praise for Lou Diamond Phillips. It’s tempting to compare Phillips’s Ramirez to the gold standard of cinematic psychopaths, Hannibal Lecter. Both men take great delight in psychologically torturing anyone foolish enough to enter their domain.
Griffiths places a huge burden on Phillips to inject tension and drama into what is an otherwise thin and dispassionate story. Though Phillips’ triumphant performance makes The Night Stalker worth watching, it barely scratches the surface of Richard Ramirez’s infectious evil.