"In the summer of 1985 a serial killer terrorized Los Angeles. They called him the Nightstalker. This is his story." - Nightstalker Tagline
"Ummm....no. It's not." - Head Cheeze-Factually Obsessed Critic
Chris Fisher's Nightstalker made a lot of noise at 2002's Sundance Film Festival, and was praised for its somewhat stylish and gritty depiction of the "Midnight Stalker" murders in the greater Los Angeles area circa 1985. Carrying over a lot of the visual elements employed in his previous film, Taboo, Fisher infuses this true-crime drama with a bit of slick music video panache', lots of incoherent death metal, and an obvious commitment to his vision of who and what the Night Stalker was.
A missing persons call leads a pair of police officers to the home of a couple who'd fallen victim to a home invasion. Officer's Martinez (Sanchez) and Luis (Trejo) discover the mutilated remains of the victims, as well as the scrawled satanic symbols that would become the killer's trademark. When Martinez is later offered a spot on the homicide department's investigative team, she realizes it's more of a public relations ploy than recognition of her abilities, but also realizes that she can use her skills to help capture this killer before he strikes again. Meanwhile, in a seedy hotel, we are introduced to the Night Stalker (the film never refers to him as Richard Ramirez, not even in the end credits)-a crack addict whose seemingly haunted by a demon that demands he carry out these murders. As the body count grows, so does the level of dissent in Los Angeles, whose citizens protest the police department's methods in the investigation. Martinez also begins to truly understand that her politically motivated assignment is so much window dressing, and takes the investigation into her own hands.
Nightstalker is based on a true story, but has its feet firmly planted in realms of fiction. Most of the film centers on the fictitious Detective Martinez and her faith, family, and struggles against the male dominated world of the Los Angeles police department.
It makes for a good story, but would have been far more effective if:
A) Martinez actually did anything to help lead to the Nightstalker's capture.
B) This film were not based on true events.
Martinez is simply a peripheral character throughout the entire film. She doesn't have the stomach to even enter a crime-scene, nor does she offer anything more than an occasional (and painfully obvious) profiling of the suspect. None of her insight ever leads to anything, rendering the character little more than a rogue element that somehow factors into the film's lazily executed finale.
Bret Roberts is chillingly convincing as the Nightstalker, helped by an uncanny resemblence to the real Richard Ramirez, but the majority of his screen time is spent adrift in a sea of kinetic editing, blaringly loud music, and extreme close-ups that I assume are representative of the character's "evil" nature, but the nausea inducing effect wears out its welcome after the first half-dozen times it's employed. Fisher uses the same effect (picture the rapidly shaking head in Jacob's Ladder for reference) to show evil intent in several other characters, but to a lesser (and comparatively more effective) degree.
The thing that really boggles the mind about this film is how little it adheres to the facts surrounding the case upon which it's based. I understand that this is a dramatazation, but even the most casual adaptations of true stories owe it to their audience to at least be marginally authentic. Fisher paints Ramirez as a demonically possessed crackhead, although the real Ramirez was simply a pothead who was fond of satanic-themed heavy metal music. In the film, his targets are mostly young Latinos in East L.A. (a plot point that helps set up the Martinez character's token assignment to the case), but in reality the majority of his victims were elderly, mostly Caucasian and Asian, and spread out between San Francisco and southern California. The film also lets Ramirez off with 14 murders when the real killer claimed over 20 lives. I hate to nitpick things like this, but I hate it more when a film makes it so easy to do so.
While all of the above may lead one to believe that I didn't enjoy this film, sorry if it appears that way; I actually sort of did. I'd have enjoyed it much more had the film adhered to the fascinating story it's based on, but Fisher's film is still reasonably entertaining until it falls into the trappings of standard cop-hunts-killer drama and limps off the screen with a laughably convenient ending. Still, the performances of Sanchez, Roberts, and Trejo, as well as definite signs of genre flair on the part of Fisher, keep the film from caving in on itself completely.
The DVD from Columbia/Tri-Star features a solid widescreen transfer that handles the dark and gritty look of the film well. It's a touch grainy, but that seems to be part of the look Fisher was going for. The 5.1 Dolby track is heavy on the bass, but clear and distortion free. The disc also features a commentary track with Fisher, deleted scenes, and trailers for this film and other Columbia/Tri-Star releases.
Nightstalker is a moderately entertaining film, but probably would have been better served had they simply written out the Ramirez quotient and replaced him with a fictitious villain. Fisher is currently working in the same territory with a film "based" on the Hillside Strangler. Here's to hoping that, this time around, he gets his facts straight.