Netflix’s ‘Night Stalker’- A Chilling New Docuseries You Won’t Want To Miss


Netflix’s newest 4-part docuseries, Night Stalker: The Hunt For a Serial Killer, which comes out tomorrow, examines one of the most infamous serial killers of this century, Richard Ramirez. Known as the Night Stalker, Ramirez left communities panicked and authorities baffled. He committed a patternless killing spree through Los Angeles during the sweltering summer heatwave of 1985.

Director Tiller Russell wanted to ensure this series heavily focused on the detectives who hunted Ramirez and the victims and survivors of his attacks. He also took time to try and understand why Ramirez garnered a cult-like following of mostly women once he was imprisoned. The story focuses on how this case changed the energy of the city and its people and how some of the scars endure. Through archival footage and intimate interviews, viewers follow the investigation into a harrowing series of murders and sexual assaults that included victims ages six to 82, of various races, socio-economic backgrounds and neighborhoods.

Newcomer Detective Gil Carrillo teamed up with legendary homicide Detective Frank Salerno to discover whether one man was behind all of crimes that were terrorizing several communities. Their honest and vulnerable discussion of the obstacles they faced during their search shifts the focus from Ramirez and onto those who worked to bring justice to his victims.

I spoke to Russell about his inspirations in creating the look and feel of this riveting docu-series. We also spoke about America’s obsession with serial killers and what he hopes viewers will take away from this series.

Risa Sarachan: I thought this docuseries did a great job at not falling into the trap of making victims feel like props. Instead, it felt like a tribute to the strength of the victims and their families. How did you ensure that would be the case?

Tiller Russell: It was a very conscious decision early on. This particular story has had this weird and surreal kind of almost circus-like aftermath. After Ramirez was apprehended and brought to trial, there were groupies, and Ramirez kind of became this satanic sex symbol in this crazy fashion. So, very early on, even before we ever shot a frame of this, we made a very conscious decision – we do not want to do anything that falls prey to perpetuating some kind of a myth – lionizing or making a hero of this guy or glamorizing him in any way.

One of the essential ways of doing so was to tell the real human impact and stories of what it was like for the survivors, for the victims, for the family members who lost loved ones and to give them a platform in which they could bring their loved ones or their own stories to light. Because what happens is it’s often times incredibly dehumanizing to the victims who just become statistics to the crime team. For us, what was so striking about it and I think why it was such a terrifying summer for people was that there was this palpable sense of anyone could be next. When you were at your most vulnerable, in your bed, asleep at night, that’s when he would strike. And so, to show the range of those victims and what the toll on them was, it was really important to us to give people the opportunity to author their own stories and reclaim them – either the lives of their loved ones or what had happened to them.

It was incredibly powerful in the case of Anastasia Hronas, who was abducted as a child, molested and miraculously released. [While] sitting there in the interview with her, there was this fundamental cognitive dissonance in that, as she was recounting the specificity and the details of what was in the room and what it looked like and smelled like – it was so harrowing and heartbreaking is like, you know, tears in my eyes, having to look away. And then, at the same time, she was so strong, and so self-possessed and so refused to be defined by that moment and what had happened to her, that it also made me proud to be in the room with her, just as a testament to the human spirit. That was a very emotional and powerful moment for me as a filmmaker, and as an opportunity to share those conflicting emotions with an audience. You want it to be a complex experience, and it certainly was.

Sarachan: That speaks to your work as a filmmaker, that she and other interview subjects trusted you enough to share their traumatic experiences.

Russell: It’s really, I find, a lot of the job. People are entrusting you with what are oftentimes the most precious memories and moments of their lives. And so, it needs to be in a situation and in the scenario where they realize that it’s going to be treated with love and respect, and in a nuanced way. In a weird way, I often think a lot of the job is what happens long before the cameras roll. It’s that building of trust. The same is true even for the homicide cops, you know, where Gil Carrillo would suddenly talk about being brought to tears in his interactions with Anastasia.

Or even at the end of the series, I asked him about God and his prayers, and he goes through, and he finishes by saying, [that] after praying for his loved ones, he also prays for Richard Ramirez. It took my breath away and left me conflicted and thoughtful, I guess. And as soon as I heard him say those words, I didn’t know how to react to it. But I was like, that’s the end of the movie.

Sarachan: There was also the intimacy of the interviews that shared the personal stories about what Carrillo’s family was going through during the case. Bringing in what Carrillo and Salerno were going through personally added a lot to the story.

Russell: You know, at the end of the day, it’s about the human experience, right? And who we are at our most vulnerable and emotional. The willingness of Gil and his wife, Pearl, in talking about what it was like raising the kids -you never see that side of the story – you know? How hard must it be to carry, because those guys are going into the darkest pits of humanity, and then you come back out, and then you’re at your kid’s little league game or you’re not at your kid’s little league game, because you’re at a murder scene, and what does that do to a marriage? I was moved and related to it, and I wanted to capture that.

Sarachan: When you drive around parts of California, people still have bars on the windows. What other overall lasting effect do you think this case had on communities?

Russell: Everybody who was alive and in LA that summer has an incredibly vivid and specific recollection of it and how this case touches their lives in some way or another. And I think that even though it may seem shocking to say, I think that it was a kind of a final loss of innocence of the city. There were still a lot of people that didn’t lock their doors, and that summer was sweltering. So, if you didn’t have AC, you had the window open. But then suddenly, you couldn’t leave the window open when the Night Stalker’s out there, and so people are in these little sweat boxes. Obviously, you had had cases like this – Frank Salerno covered Manson once upon a time at Spahn ranch and worked the Hillside Strangler murders in the 70s. But I think in some fundamental way, it was kind of like a final sort of peeling away of the last vestiges of innocence. And I think it definitely left a kind of a psychic as well as a literal emotional scar on the city and in the culture.

Sarachan: As you mentioned earlier, Ramirez gained a cult following. Why do you think some people were so drawn to him? Why do you think so many of us have such a fascination with serial killers?

Russell: I ended up putting those questions – because I don’t have the answers to them – I ended up putting those questions to all of the interview subjects. Why did this happen? And in the case of Ramirez, it was many women who were falling in love with him or treating him as a sex symbol. So, whenever I was doing these interviews with men and women, but particularly with the women, it was always kind of awkward for me to ask. I felt embarrassed, kind of asking, and I could tell they felt awkward answering the question because nobody had, and you can imagine, the sort of shocking and diverse range of responses to that question. What was that fascination? I don’t know. I think part of it is there is a fascination bordering on obsession with celebrity in this country. And regardless of how you get there, once you’re famous, you are an object of desire. So there’s a component there.

I think another component is that he was very striking looking in his physical appearance and essentially photographed well, for lack of a better way to put it. And he was playing to the cameras.

And then to your larger question, I asked myself this, too, because, in some sense, we’re all complicit in it. Right? Why are we still talking about this 35 years later? Why are you still writing about it? Why am I still making a film about it? What is it that we as a culture find so fascinating about a serial killer and the depredation that one man can unleash on a city or the world? I don’t know. I don’t have the answers, but hopefully, the film at least provokes the, you know, the series provokes the questions.

Sarachan: The series really made me reconsider the role of the press in cases like this, because obviously, they control so much of the narrative. In the end, do you feel that they hindered or helped the detectives in this situation?

Russell: It was another one of the things that drew me to the story. I was used to be a crime reporter for the newspaper when I was first getting started. And so I felt kind of a kinship and appreciation and fascination for it. And yet, it was this very complex relationship depending upon whose perspective you think about it from. If you’re the public, you have the right to know that there’s a serial killer and what he’s doing and how and to whom and when. That is a fundamental right to know that the public has. If you’re a reporter, your job is to get the scoop, to get the information that nobody else has, and to put it out there. And yet, if you’re a cop and that scoop can jeopardize the investigation, it’s to protect it at any cost. And then sometimes they’re using the press, right? Where it’s like when we wanna put out certain information, then it’s useful. And so that, conflicting to competing interests, and conflicts between them were the things that were so fascinating for me. And again, it also speaks to your larger question of here we are still, perpetuating that in some way or another by recounting the story. We are processing it by telling it and consuming it and thinking about it and watching it. Everybody is a spoke in the wheel, and everyone’s got their own perspective, and so that was another fascinating element to me and then the killer is watching that coverage and changing behavior based on it.

Sarachan: And the killer, in this case, was so studied. He was so excited to be in the same jail cell as the Hillside Strangler.

Russell: Yeah, he was both a student of serial killers and at the same time, they were deliberately playing that card. “Hey, we’re locking you up in the cell of the Hillside Strangler.” And so again, it’s the hall-of-mirrors-like nature of it and the cat and mouse of it. It’s fascinating how that happens.

Sarachan: Were there certain films that you turned to when you thought about the look that you wanted for this piece?

Russell: We saw it fitting into a lineage of these LA noir crime stories. And that’s as early as, like, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler literarily through James Ellroy and whatever else. And so, in a way, casting the locations that were evocative of this bygone LA – 1985 LA doesn’t exist anymore, a lot of it was torn down – so, we very carefully selected locales that either hadn’t changed, or showed that bygone LA. So, the selection of those locations was, you know, I jokingly say everything is casting, but it really is. You’re casting who is telling the story, where they’re telling it, how they’re telling it, what the visual look is. So, if it’s not a particular film that the look is drawn from, the idea is to give it visual consistency, where the archival and the things that are drawn from the historical record inform the original photography, inform the fact that it’s all shot at night so that it has this kind of nocturnal field and all of its fields of one piece.

Sarachan: What do you hope that viewers take away from this series?

Russell: It was a riveting, horrifying and unexpectedly moving journey for me crafting the story with my amazing group of partners and collaborators. And I hope that the journey is as moving and gripping and at times unexpected for viewers as it was for me making it. As a filmmaker, it’s about a body of work. You want people who find this compelling to come along and engage with the other work – the previous work and work to come – and [to] come back for more stories.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Night Stalker: The Hunt For A Serial Killer is available globally on Netflix on January 13th.



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