In his best performances, Lou Diamond Phillips conveys a
low-simmering anger just below the surface. His winning smile conceals contempt
that his eyes give away. As early rock-and-roller Ritchie Valens in “La Bamba”
(1987), the role that propelled him to brief stardom but an enduring career, he
channels this inner resentment into an aggressive performance of Lieber and
Stoller’s “Framed.” “I knew I was a victim/of someone's evil plan/When a
stool-pigeon walked in and says, 'That's your man!'" he snarls while
banging out nasty bar chords on a cheap guitar as a barroom brawl breaks out. “I was framed/Framed, I was blamed.”
Phillips’ latest turn in “The Night Stalker” has him
playing Richard Ramirez long after the serial killer’s mid-1980s reign of
terror where he crept into suburban homes and raped and killed the inhabitants,
often leaving behind pentagrams drawn in blood or lipstick. Playing a
once-imposing figure now declawed by cancer and confined to San Quentin’s death
row, Phillips turns his signature hostility on himself by banging his head on
his cell door until blood runs down his face in the movie’s opening scene.
“The Night Stalker” is coming to us on Lifetime on Sunday June 12 at 9 p.m., and will no doubt capitalize on the current appetite for true crime drummed up by the success of “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” While “The Night Stalker’s” budget doesn’t afford it the slickness of “American Crime Story,” the movie still strives for a multi-layered approach to its criminal history during its 89 minute runtime.
Bellamy Young (ABC’s “Scandal”), plays Kit, a lawyer sent to
San Quentin to find out if Ramirez murdered some Japanese vacationers at a
hotel he used to work at during his younger days in El Paso, before he became
California’s very real boogieman. She represents a man facing lethal injection
for the crimes with only a few days left to get a stay-of-execution. While this
plot device is historical fiction, it does have some basis in fact. In 2009, DNA
testing tied Ramirez to the previously unsolved 1984 rape and murder of nine-year-old Mei Leung in San Francisco. Ramirez is known to have committed 14
murders, and suspected of several more. Ramirez died from B-cell lymphoma in
In the film, as Kit attempts to delve deeper into Ramirez’s
twisted psyche, she has to confront what fascinates her about the lithesome
figure. Writer/director Megan Griffiths (“The Off Hours,” “Lucky Them”) goes
the “Silence of the Lambs” route here, but takes a detour through “Tightrope”
(1984), the psychological thriller with Clint Eastwood as a detective who discovers
he shares some of the same kinks with the killer he’s stalking. When Ramirez and
Kit aren’t verbally sparring, their pasts are told through intertwining flashbacks dripping with sweat and despair.
Phillips, with that ability to radiate anger, is not just
convincing but scary-as-hell as Ramirez even though he spends most of “The
Night Stalker” chained to a desk and coughing up a lung. If anything, this can
be too much of a good thing however, as Phillips overwhelms Young in their
exchanges even more than he should. When Phillips rages about embracing evil and
gold being "the metal of Christianity," Young is too often shown
staring blankly in return, making me appreciate what Jodie Foster brought to
her confrontations with Anthony Hopkins in "Silence of the Lambs."
In the flashback sequences, Chelle Sherrill as a teenage Kit
reveals the secrets that her older self is keeping, but Ramirez already knows. While
Andrew Ruiz and Benjamin Barrett are both solid as a younger Ramirez, you’re still
thankful when Phillips reestablishes his presence through voiceover narration.
It’s Phillips' brooding intensity that draws you into the film, and will have
you locking your back windows when it's over.
It’s hard not to see “La Bamba” and “The Night Stalker” as
bookends to Phillips’ career. Both Valens and Ramirez were Los Angeles County
Chicanos who went by Anglicized names. Ricardo Valenzuela became Ritchie Valens
because that’s what a Latino had to do to make it big in show biz back in the whitebread '50s. Ricardo Leyva Muñoz Ramírez went by Richard, and was even called Ritchie
by his friends.
In both films, Phillips plays outcasts in Los Angeles’
suburban sprawl who achieve their own kind of stardom. In “La Bamba,” the same
high school kids who didn’t even notice Valens earlier in the movie, clamor for
his autograph after seeing him on “American Bandstand.” With his long hair and
professed Santanism, Ramirez takes on the trappings of a rock star of a later
era, even mesmerizing his own flock of prison house groupies who mob the San
Quentin waiting area for their moment with him.
“Most come once to
see what it’s like to be so close to evil,” Ramirez tells Kit with visible
disgust. “They’re hobbyists.”
Valens died when he was barely 18 in the same 1959 plane
crash that also took the lives of Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, a tragedy
that caps off “La Bamba” with scenes of San Fernando High School kids crying
their eyes out and Esai Morales running up a hill yelling, “Ritchie!” A quarter
century later, Ramirez terrorized that same San Fernando Valley where Valens
hailed from. Ramirez was originally known as “The Valley Intruder” before he
killed in San Francisco and was re-christened the Night Stalker by the
muckrakers at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner.
Valens died tragically. Ramirez’s death came as a relief. By
playing both men, Phillips brings his career to a full circle, drawn in blood.