The ‘Night Stalker’ and the best of true-crime cinema

The strange saga of Richard Ramirez, the serial killer known as the “Night Stalker,” who died Friday, had all the earmarks of a grungy low-budget thriller come to life. With his random, sensationalistic crimes, his startling capture by an angry mob and his notorious legion of admirers, Ramirez’s rampage of death and mayhem was a disturbing tale seemingly tailor-made for Hollywood.

There had already been a lineage of slasher and serial killer movies, from “Psycho” to “Halloween” and beyond, by the time Ramirez entered the popular consciousness in the mid-1980s. His use of pentagrams and avowed Satan worship also fit in squarely with the “Satanic Panic” of the era.

Ramirez, who was ultimately convicted of killing 13 people, has remained a tantalizing target for Hollywood through the years. Though Johnny Depp was once reported to be interested in starring in a “Night Stalker” project, that was an adaptation of the television series that predated and was unrelated to Ramirez. A few years ago, reports surfaced that James Franco would star in and even direct a version of the Ramirez story, based on the Philip Carlo book “The Night Stalker.”


The movie that perhaps best captured the mood of the times and the anxiety created by Ramirez’s crimes was the 1986 Sylvester Stallone vehicle “Cobra.” An example par excellence of the 1980s action cinema of producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus at its dopiest and therefore best, the film features Stallone playing Marion Cobretti, known as Cobra, a hard-charging L.A. cop who finds himself squaring off against an evil cult led by a man known as the Night Slasher.

As the cult terrorizes the city from its underground lair, the gang sets their sights on a model played by Brigitte Nielson. The film’s ever-quotable tagline was “You’re the disease, and I’m the cure.”

“Cobra” also featured Andrew Robinson as a liberal, rights-minded police official, something of a twist for the actor who played the killer in the original “Dirty Harry” -- itself loosely based on the Zodiac serial killer.

There have of course been many other films tied to true-crime tales, including 1967’s “In Cold Blood,” based on Truman Capote’s telling of the Clutter family murders in Kansas. There has also been a wide appropriation in movies of the crimes of killer Ed Gein, from “Psycho” to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to “The Silence of the Lambs.”

The 1983 Charles Bronson film “10 to Midnight” drew from the murders committed by Richard Speck (also referenced in a Season 5 episode of TV’s “Mad Men”). Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 feature directing debut, “Targets,” was based on the University of Texas shootings of Charles Whitman.


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