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Columbia/Tri-Star // R // August 5, 2003
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by J. Doyle Wallis | posted August 3, 2003 | E-mail the Author
I'm not quite sure how it happened. Maybe it was nostalgia. Maybe it was just the sputtering US horror scene trying something else, but the serial killer bio picture has become a recent trend with indie efforts like Dahmer and Ed Gein. Just last week I noticed Gacy on the Blockbuster new release isle. Seems like such a trend should have started with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer back in 86', but no, we're getting it now. Nightstalker (2002) is loosely about mid-80's serial killer Richard Ramirez, aka. the Nightstalker. Very loosely and in various uninspired ways.

Being one of those criminology geeks who read good books about true crime- that is, no tabloid or journalist paperbacks- Ramirez is, for me, a fairly uninteresting subject. In many major books about serial murderers, Ramirez wont even be mentioned or will only merit a couple of offhand sentences. When you get into his psyche and actions, he is a bit of a dud. Sure, he got some publicity thanks to his frequency of killing and playing up the mid 80's "satanic" paranoia, but when you look at the basic facts and get into his mindset, he isn't all that compelling. Low IQ, dropout, junkie, heavy metal guy with a satanic fetish, bad home life, early childhood trauma. Since he left so many survivors, it is even fair to say his crimes were first and foremost a burglary/rape rather than a perverse need to kill.

I'd like to say those are the reasons why this film actually doesn't bother personalizing Ramirez, but instead the case is that writer/director Chris Fisher decided to make him this unhuman, demon-possessed killer who is barely glimpsed and rarely talks. We just see Ramirez drive around smoking crack, breaking into peoples houses, attacking the occupants, and it is all edited and shot like it is the new Tool video debuting on Headbangers Ball. Instead of getting a Ramirez with an acne scarred, ashen face, and a mouthful of rotting teeth like the real man, we get some guy who looks like the Calvin Klein model version or Ramirez doing that shaking, blurred head Jacob's Ladder effect while speed metal plays and some bald demon-guy mealy mouths commands from Satan to the crack smoking burglar. And of course, he is even further glamorized by the fact that, in the film, all of the sexual victims shown are fairly young attractive women, completely ignoring the fact that Ramirez's rape victims were often the frail and elderly.

The fictionalizing gets even worse with our central character, rookie Hispanic Detective Gabriella Martinez (Roselyn Sanchez, Rush Hour 2, Basic). We get perfunctory glimpses into her Catholic home life with a dementia-ridden mother and watch her deal with her superior detectives, who doubt her insights and even make sexist advances on her. Arguably the most interesting thing about the real Nightstalker case was its public attention and the fact that it was public awareness that caught the guy. Instead this film takes the uninspired Hollywood cop formula, making Ramirez go after Martinez, killing her old partner, getting into her house, killing a reporter she leaked info too, all leading to a humdrum face-to-face finale where she catches him. Truth is, Ramirez was caught by the public because he was ID'd by several victims he left alive. After unsuccessfully trying to steal a car, he raised the attention of an entire neighborhood who had seen his mug all over the papers and news, and he desperately scampered away, was pummeled with a pipe, and held down by the residents until police arrived.

Now, I guess to try and hint to its veil of fiction, in the film Ramirez is only referred to as "The NightStalker." It is perfectly fine to take dramatic license, but at least try to capture what may have been interesting about the subject you are fictionalizing. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer certainly did that. It played extremely loose with the facts, but its subject of outsider degenerates conveyed what was most interesting about the relationship between Henry Lee Lucas and his partner in malice Otis. Nightstalker doesn't manage to capture Ramirez at all and instead dives into cop film formula, cliched rapid editing excess, and a tawdry, ridiculous "possessed by evil" killer. The facts and portrayal are so loose, they should have had the decency to title it something else and not make so may allusions to the actual Nightstalker case, because it does an injustice to the truth and especially the victims and their families.

The DVD: Columbia Tristar

Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. The films low budget is pretty apparent. At first I thought the subdued lighting was an intentional dark look to enhance the mood, which it is for the Nightstalker scenes. However, even the daytime and interior office shots are poorly lit, and with so many badly cast shadows over the actors faces, it becomes obvious that the lighting is a result of poor photography.

Being so recently made, one figures this is about as good as the picture is likely to get, so I'll be kind. All the faults I find in terms of bad contrast, sharpness, or murky color are really due to the films low budget shooting and nothing to do with the transfer. No edge enhancement, artifacts, or pixellation.

Sound: Dolby 2.0 Stereo English or French, and Dolby Digital 5.1 English language options with optional English, French, or Spanish subtitles. Oddly, it isn't the music track or dialogue that gains the most presence. The dialogue is often hampered by ill recording. Even though it is death metal, like the dialogue, the music track is pretty much in the background or never pushed too much into the forefront. What is most prevalent is the ambient noise and fx tracks, which include some backwards masking for the demon-guy and spooky flutters of audio.

In comparing the two English tracks, I found that the separation on the 5.1 track afforded some more leeway, making the dialogue stand out more. Whereas in the same scene with the 2.0 stereo track, the voices would be a bit more overwhelmed and a bit more lost in the music and fx noise.

Extras: Chapter Selectons--- Trailers for Nightstalker, Double Vision, Spider, and Identity.--- Deleted Scenes: "At the Bar" (3:11) and "Berry on the Vine" (2:07). I'll just say, you can tell why they were deleted because they aren't terribly interesting.--- Commentary by director/writer Chris Fisher, editor Dan Pagett, and cinematographer Elliot Rockett. Not being a fan of the film they turned out, I wasn't the ideal person to listen to their comments. Still, they had a few indie, low budget, on the fringe anecdotes that are pretty good.

Conclusion: A creatively anemic fictionalized film that failed to impress me either as a film fan or a crime fanatic. If you have any care for the true psychosis of a killer, and not the over-glorifying satanic leanings this film offers, then this is not for you. Yes, he scrawled (and continues to on death row) satanic stuff, but really for him it was no different than any pimply-faced headbanger kid scratching a pentagram into his high school notebook back in the 80's. It isn't what made him what he was. Considering the low budget nature of the material, the transfer is good enough to warrant me to suggest "rent it" to those who are interested. But, in my heart of hearts I gotta' say "skip it."

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