'The Night Stalker': SIFF Review

The Night Stalker Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Seattle International Film Festival

The Night Stalker Still - Publicity - H 2016

A psychologically sensitive look at a killer and his legacy.

Lou Diamond Phillips plays the man who terrorized L.A. and San Francisco with horrific mid-'80s crimes.

Inventing a Hannibal-meets-Clarisse-style series of conversations through which to explore the psychological impact of real-life crimes, Megan Griffiths' The Night Stalker casts Lou Diamond Phillips as Richard Ramirez, the rapist/killer who terrorized California in the mid-'80s. Bellamy Young (Scandal) plays Kit, a fictional lawyer tasked with interviewing the prisoner as he sat on death row. While both actors have spent most of their recent years on the small screen, this tense but unsensational drama deserves better than the Lifetime premiere it gets this week; though unshowy, it is more affecting than many of the low-budget crime pics that make their way into theaters.

Kit is a lawyer working for a different imprisoned man, one about to be executed in Texas for killings she believes Ramirez committed. Her lifelong obsession with Night Stalker lore makes her confident she can get Ramirez to confess to crimes that haven't yet been pinned on him, thus earning her client a stay or pardon. (Multiple real-life killers have been called "The Night Stalker," as have fictional villains; Ramirez proves cold-blooded enough to claim sole possession of the name.)

But playing the felon, the intense Phillips is no easy nut to crack. Though Ramirez acknowledges his Satanism as calmly if it were a political affiliation ("Satan is a stabilizing force in my life"), he is cagey about admitting to murders while he's still appealing those he's convicted of. Given to inappropriate sexual comments directed toward the woman visiting him, he insists on some level of emotional intimacy as the interviews progress. His eventual "You're real with me, I'm real with you" offer sounds a lot like "Quid pro quo, Clarisse." But Griffiths doesn't intend to make this a Silence of the Lambs-style thriller; she just wants another angle from which to probe the way Kit, who was a teenager in the neighborhood of Ramirez's killings as they were happening, was deeply changed by them.

Griffiths shows the small ways in which the adult Kit invites danger into her sex life, but just enough so that we know Ramirez is onto something when he calls her "another groupie." The film doesn't aim to make us complicit in Kit's conflicted desires, or to make them its main subject; it just wants to show how this killer changed the lives of countless women he never met.

The Night Stalker does that job ably while simultaneously exploring the man's biography, in interview/flashback sequences informed by Philip Carlo's biography. Like Kit, Ramirez had his sexual needs shaped by early exposure to evil. But neither the movie nor its heroine ever confuse understanding his past with excusing what he became.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival
Distributor: Lifetime
Production company: MRB Productions
: Lou Diamond Phillips, Bellamy Young, Chelle Sherrill, Benjamin Barrett
Director-screenwriter: Megan Griffiths
Producers: Alisa Tager, Matthew Brady
Director of photography: Quyen Tran
Production designer: Conner McKinley
Costume designer: Rebecca luke
Editor: Celia Beasley
Composer: St Kilda
Casting director: Amey Rene

Not rated, 88 minutes