Nightstalker is a Catholic parable wrapped in horror aesthetics
By Thomas M. Sipos
Serial killer Richard Ramirez (aka "the Night Stalker") terrorized the Los Angeles area from 1984 until his arrest a year later. He was sentenced to death in 1989, and died of natural causes in 2013 while on Death Row. Documentaries aside, four films have so far been made about Ramirez. Nightstalker (2002) is the second.
"True crime" fans complain that Nightstalker veers far from facts. That's true. But this film is not about the facts of any particular case, but about the underlying moral order that gives rise to a Richard Ramirez.
Nightstalker is history told as horror film. Indeed, as a religious parable.
We see Ramirez's (Bret Roberts) killings through his own eyes. As he stalks and murders his victims, an albino Satan (Joseph McKelheer), with a blood-stained mouth, flashes and flickers about him.
Writer/director Chris Fisher makes heavy use of such jump cuts. He also borrows a technique first used in the supernatural horror film, Jacob's Ladder: the rapidly shaking head, which has become a cinematic clich for evil and/or possession (e.g., Lost Souls). Fisher's Satan often rapidly shakes his head. As do a surprisingly large number of "normal" people throughout the film.
(I wonder if Fisher's albino Satan inspired the albino Satan in The Passion of the Christ?)
Why is Satan flickering about Ramirez? The real Ramirez was a Satanist and drug user. The one in the film believes Satan is ordering him to kill. ("I did it for you!" he exclaims.) And like his master, Ramirez also flashes and flickers about the rooms as he kills his victims. Are we seeing murders through the eyes of an insane drug addict? Or is Satan real?
Fisher's cinematic tricks don't work for a "true crime" film. But they go far in establishing the right mood for Nightstalker. Los Angeles in 1985 is saturated by Evil.
Ramirez's nemesis is LAPD Detective Gabriella Martinez (Rosalyn Sanchez). She's a devout Catholic who cares for her ailing mother in East L.A. She prays fervently every night before a crucifix, the camera hovering in extreme closeups about her quivering lips and tightly clutched rosary.
She is a fortress of Faith surrounded by encroaching evil. Her black police lieutenant boss (Evan Parker) sexually harasses her. When he does so, his head, briefly, shakes rapidly. He too is possessed by Evil. Sanchez's Latino partner (Danny Trejo) snorts coke in the squad car, his head shaking rapidly. Martinez's white partner (Derek Hamilton) turns vigilante, his head shaking rapidly.
The Evil is everywhere, corrupting even the police and pervading all races.
All three cops behave in a mostly decent (if roughshod) manner throughout the film. None of their indiscretions are followed up plotwise. Rather, the Evil just lurks there, manifesting on occasion, but always beneath the surface of those Martinez might trust.
The Evil lurks in women too. A gal reporter (Brandi Emma) convinces Martinez to give her a confidential police sketch of Ramirez, then breaks her word and exposes Martinez as her source. Martinez hoped that the newspaper publishing the sketch would save lives. But the reporter didn't care about saving lives, only making a name for herself. Exposing Martinez as the source saved no one, but made the story juicier.
The reporter also snorts coke, her head shaking rapidly.
Martinez has other troubles. Her elderly mother is senile, a burden on Martinez, who's turned down better job offers to stay in East L.A. and care for her mom. The mother claims that Satan visited her. Was it Ramirez, or Satan, or her dementia? These problems are additional crosses for Martinez to bear, emphasizing Satan's assaults upon her faith and character.
Nightstalker is set in 1985, and TV sets throughout the film carry newscasts of crises in the Middle East, the poison plant leakage in Bhopal, India (which actually occurred in 1984), our deals with Iraq, and the Ramirez killings. Evil pervades not only Los Angeles but the world.
No, this is not a "true crime" film. Displaying the aesthetic style of a horror film, Nightstalker is about a devoutly Catholic woman seeking divine help in her fight against Evil. Detective Martinez is the moral core of a darkening universe as Evil encroaches on her from all directions.
I can see why "true crime" fans were disappointed. I don't think horror fans, or even the religiously inclined, will be upset.
Thomas M. Sipos writes satirical novels and film criticism. His website is CommunistVampires.com.