Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | January 12th, 2021
Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer (Tiller Russell, 2021) 2½ out of 4 stars.
In 1985, residents of the greater Los Angeles area found themselves under attack by a psychopath soon dubbed the “Night Stalker.” It turns out he had been active long before detectives first linked the apparently random murders, sexual assaults and kidnappings into a pattern of sorts; that realization only fueled hysteria, as one can imagine. What made it especially difficult to track the man down was the broad range of types of crimes he committed. Usually a serial killer has a specific modus operandi that allows investigators to recognize his calling card. Not so here. In the new Netflix series Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, director Tiller Russell (Operation Odessa) expertly walks us through the gruesome facts of the murders and how the perpetrator was eventually caught.
Unfortunately, though Russell’s storytelling skills are as sharp as ever, the series format does not serve the narrative all that well. There’s not quite enough material here to warrant four approximately 45-minute episodes; it would be better to have but one 90-minute movie. With the decision to go for length, Russell and company end up relying on far too much on filler and drawn-out sequences, bringing in copious background information on both the lead detectives and the killer’s victims that certainly sometimes add intriguing details but all too often bog down the narrative flow. The heavy-handed musical score does not help, either.
Leaving that significant criticism aside, what remains is still quite watchable, thanks in no small part to now-retired detectives Gil Carillo and Frank Salerno, who worked the case. They make for highly engaging subjects, assisted by a bevy of fine additional interviewees, among them journalists, witnesses and more. Step by step, little by little, they walk us through what happened, as they experienced it, and how they were able to winnow down their initial broad, desperate search to just one prime suspect. Russell even brings the former partners back together, throwing their present-day selves into an unmarked car so they can patrol the streets once more as a team, for effect.
Indeed, beyond the one-too-many forced evocative close-ups on eyes and other inserts and cutaways, Russell often holds our interest with compelling recreations intercut with macabre archival footage (warning: this series is not for the faint of heart). When his mise-en-scène works, it makes the past come alive; when it doesn’t, the worst that happens is that we wish he’d just move on. Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer may go on a bit long, but it still ultimately bags its prey.