Director: Megan Griffiths
Writer: Megan Griffiths, Phillip Carlo
Producer: Alisa Tager, Matthew R. Brady
Stars: Lou Diamond Phillips, Bellamy Young, Louis Herthum, Mark Kelly, Linas Phillips, Elester Latham, Eddie Martinez, Chelle Sherrill, Benjamin Barrett, Kimberly Jurgen, Andrew Ruiz
An attorney desperate to exonerate a Death Row inmate must get convicted serial killer Richard Ramirez to confess to the crime.
Lifetime’s 2016 crime drama “The Night Stalker” is not a time tunnel biopic of serial killer Richard Ramirez or his 1980s terror spree. Set in 2013, it’s a fictional “Silence of the Lambs”-style story about a seated standoff of quid pro quo between an imprisoned Ramirez and determined attorney Kit.
What brings Kit to San Quentin for four days of intense interviews with the infamous murderer? This “for the benefit of the audience” dialogue from Kit’s boss telling her things she already knows sorts it out:
“You came to us with this theory on Ramirez. You convinced us, we flew you out there to get a confession that you assured us you could get … We got an innocent man about to die here in Texas.”
The “innocent man” in question is Harrison Johnson, a wrong place, wrong time drifter on Death Row for brutally butchering two guests at an El Paso motel thirty years earlier. The curious thing about the crime is that the murder m.o. matches that of the notorious Night Stalker, who happened to be an employee of that Texas motel at the very same time.
Clocks are ticking on Johnson’s impending execution as well as on Ramirez’s losing battle against lymphoma. Kit has less than a week to get on the convicted killer’s good side if she is to pull out an admission of guilt for a crime no one else knows he committed. To gain that trust, Kit has to play Clarice Starling to Ramirez’s Hannibal Lecter as the two go head-to-head in a secret-exchanging game of psychological chess.
Kit is a complex woman. Writer/director Megan Griffiths’ film, partly inspired by Phillip Carlo’s same-named true crime book, has a habit of revealing those many layers primarily through wardrobe and contrived scenes of character establishment.
We know Kit is tough since her introductory scene features furious work on a heavy bag in a boxing gym as Kit prepares for her figurative fight against Ramirez. Kit’s prison visit outfit of black skirt and leather jacket says cool and classy concurrently. She even wears trendy glasses when she reads so we see her studious intellectual side, as well.
Kit can also be sexy. We learn this when the camera, filling in for a man outside she intends to tease, catches her undressing from behind through a motel window. On cue, Kit adds a naughty over the shoulder peek backward just as her bra unclasps, too.
Wait, there’s more. Knee deep in research, Kit takes time out for a call from her mother, who is struggling with senility. Kit’s shoulder-slumped sigh of sadness suggests family matters have always been troubling, but her clear compassion indicates this is someone who cares about people, no matter the burden.
These aren’t exactly subtle cinema tactics for presenting a personality. Once all on-the-nose bases are covered, it’s on to brass tacks of matching Kit’s mind against a murderer’s.
Most of “The Night Stalker” stays square on the present-day staredown of intimate revelations over the course of several sessions in San Quentin. Occasionally, the film flashes back to Kit as a teenager in 1985, fostering an early fascination for Ramirez when he was still an unidentified murderer and rapist holding Los Angeles hostage with fear. Coupled with an uncomfortable situation at home, Kit’s obsession sees her sexuality developing in unusual ways that continue influencing questionable choices throughout adulthood.
Scattered scenes also show brief bits of Ramirez’s life as a boy, teen, and young adult slowly succumbing to inescapable influences of evil. Director Griffiths parallels two unfortunate paths destined to converge, with one overcoming obstacles while the other is subverted by sociopathic fantasies.
These timeline bounces can be clumsy, sometimes edited into unnatural sequences that jar the rhythm. Themes laid underneath end up shouting for attention against a style whose tendency is to smother scenery in reduced energy when focus diverts from the core confrontation between Kit and Ramirez.
“The Night Stalker” loads up on several Lifetime Network hallmarks including incestuous rape, drunken hotel hookups, and domestic violence. When it seems like the story has little hope of getting over mundane movie-of-the-week humps, a corner is turned where melodrama morphs from soap opera to sobering. As the film hits a stronger stride later down the line, the only remaining reminder that “The Night Stalker” is a Lifetime movie is onscreen text advertising “Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?” as coming up next.
The second half redeems potboiler plotting of the first half by digging deeper into Ramirez’s psyche and, by extension, Lou Diamond Phillips’ perfect embodiment of that personality. Not only is Phillips’ performance on point here, the script steps up by providing pontificating monologues where the method to Ramirez’s madness makes some scary sense from a skewed point of view. He isn’t a Manson-esque movie villain madman. He has to do some of that you-know-who nonsense like detecting the scent of hotel soap on Kit’s skin. But there is a complicated characterization aching to break out, and Phillips pushes it as far as the confines of the movie permit.
It’s questionable how much insight into Richard Ramirez one can gain from “The Night Stalker.” The movie certainly isn’t an informative treatise on his history, nor does it intend to be. The correct reason to watch “The Night Stalker” is to see LDP grab the reins of his role and gallop off to the races, which he does in fashion that fans should find intensely engaging and alternately electrifying as required.
That is not to discount Bellamy Young as Kit. It’s not that her acting cannot match Phillips’. Young is simply on the losing end of which of them has the meatier material to run with.
Chords struck early on present the film as formulaic and flat, though lost ground is regained once the faceoff hits its peak. Seeing one actor and one actress verbally combat each other from chairs isn’t going to bring the excitement expected of a serial killer drama. It bears repeating that “The Night Stalker” is not that kind of movie. The kind that it is has disparate tones resulting in a mixed review, though fiery moments can make the character study captivating.
Review Score: 65