Chris Fisher’s debut feature “Nightstalker” is a very worthy addition to the recent low-budget sub-genre of true-life serial killer films. As successful as many of these titles (including “Ed Gein,” Ted Bundy, Dahmer and “Gacy”) have proven, not one has really delivered the goods on a purely visceral fright level. The relentlessly intense “Nightstalker” pulls it off with a vengeance.
Writer-director Fisher isn’t after the agonized character case studies of “Ed Gein” or Dahmer, or the black-comic tone of Matthew Bright’s deeply demented Ted Bundy. Fisher’s take on the early-’80s case of demonic sicko Richard Ramirez rockets forward as if powered by a blast of uncut crystal meth. There’s no pensive moping by the lead killer, not to mention the runaway flashback scenes like those found in “Ed Gein” and Dahmer. “Nightstalker” is more of a heavy metal-powered ride, a cringingly effective slasher flick that just happens to be inspired by a real case.
The term “inspired by” is used advisedly. While the abovementioned films all featured the title killer as their “protagonist” – and stuck reasonably close to the factual details of their respective cases – here Ramirez is more of a Jason or Freddy figure; a purely murderous monster. Played by Bret Roberts, who looks disconcertingly like the real Ramirez, this Nightstalker is not really a character himself, but rather a bogeyman, ricocheting around the late-night streets of L.A., rocking out to lightning-speed death metal and snorting masses of meth. In classic slasher fashion, Ramirez rides alone (well, technically Satan is his co-pilot) like a black-clad wraith, seeking a new victim seemingly every night, a lunatic on the prowl. (The name “Night Stalker” is actually a misnomer perpetrated by some non-metallic reporter; the AC/DC tune which supposedly “drove” Ramirez is in fact called “Night Prowler.” Curious listeners are referred to 1979’s classic album Highway to Hell.)
However, “Nightstalker” more than compensates for its low budget (the film was shot on Super 16MM, in 15 days, for about $400,000!) and intentional lack of factual accuracy by being downright damn scary. From the very opening credits, and the first assaultive images of Ramirez flipping out behind the wheel like, well, a man possessed, Fisher pulls no punches. The atmosphere is always thick with impeding doom, and Fisher is able to paint L.A. in the early ‘80s as the most horrifying, hellish city on earth (and not just because of all the Big Hair). Roberts, with next to no dialogue, obviates the need for flashbacks or explanations as to how this particular individual got to be this way. Ramirez is really more of an image than a character, but what a creepy image: sallow skin, stringy hair, bloodshot eyes that see only one thing before them: violent death. He’s just a free man who likes meth and loves The Cloven-Hoofed Lord of the Underworld, and has a pressing need to make others – attractive young women, mainly – share in this love. Truly everything you could ask for in a crank-addicted Satanic ritual serial murderer.
With such an imposing villain to contend with, the film’s two (fictional) protagonists are well fleshed-out and played with conviction. Grizzled real-life gang vet Danny Trejo (best known for Robert Rodriguez’ “Spy Kids” flicks) plays, most amusingly, a cop – though his Frank Luis is one of the corrupt, coke-snorting variety. He still fights the good fight, though, alongside Roselyn Sanchez (who showed promise in such unpromising fare as Rush Hour 2 and Basic). Her Gabriella Martinez is incredibly picante, of course, but Sanchez gives a touching performance, making a convincingly driven young cop, particularly where her family relationships are concerned, and her attempts to manage the strain the infamous case puts on her personal life.
“Nightstalker” is currently enjoying a run on the festival circuit before its video release (by Columbia TriStar). Watch it with the lights low – and the doors locked tight.