The final installment of the Fear Street trilogy from Netflix had some weaknesses, but it was an overall satisfying conclusion to the story. In a sense, it was like two movies in one. As Deena restores the skeleton of the witch, Sarah Fier, she finds herself transported back in time to the colonial community of Union, where she experiences the final days of Sarah Fier’s life through her own eyes. We discover that the history everyone had taken for granted throughout the previous two installments is not the reality of what happened during those fateful days in 1666. Sarah and Hannah Miller–much like Deena and Sam in 1994–are lovers in a time when it was most certainly less socially acceptable than it is today. Jealous men of the village spurned in their advances, use this forbidden love as justification for cries of witchcraft and devilry. It just so happens that there is witchcraft afoot, but Sarah and Hannah are, of course, innocent. There was a satisfying moment in the story when Sarah determines that she will bring the devil down on the citizens of Union in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Already condemned for practicing witchcraft, she feels there’s nothing to lose. Instead, she discovers the truth of who is behind the apparent curse afflicting the village before she is captured and hanged by the overzealous Union residents. It’s this discovery that brings us back to the present of 1994–and the latter half of the movie. Deena, Josh, and Ziggy–along with the custodian, Martin–craft a desperate plan to bring down the real witch and end the curse that’s afflicted Shadyside for more than 300 years…hopefully, saving Sam in the process.
Where the first installment of the Fear Street trilogy paid homage to the pivotal slasher flicks of the 1990s, Fear Street: 1978 devotes itself to crafting a tale reminiscent of classic films like Friday the 13th, The Burning, and Sleepaway Camp. Desperate to save Sam’s life–and perhaps her soul–Deena and Josh turn to one of the only survivors of the massacre at Camp Nightwing, hoping to discover any clues that might assist them. To discover what–if anything–can be done, they experience the tale of that horrible July as shared by the traumatized sister of one of the victims. The filmmakers did an excellent job of capturing the summer camp slasher aesthetic throughout this installment of the Fear Street series. It felt both authentic and immersive. I was impressed. We discover more of the mythology associated with the witch and the curse afflicting Shadyside, and there is some fantastic creepiness in the caves beneath the camp itself. Young campers and camp staff are slaughtered left and right, and there’s no skimping on the violence except where the killing of some of the younger children is concerned. I don’t know if I can claim to be disappointed by that, as it was sort of expected that Netflix wouldn’t go the whole hog on slaughtering children. It sets the stage nicely for the final installment of the trilogy, and I certainly can’t pretend I wasn’t immediately interested in seeing Fear Street: 1666 and discovering just how this tale will end.
Loosely based on the young adult horror books written by R. L. Stine during the 1990s, the first installment of the Fear Street adaptation achieves a good deal of success in capturing elements of Stine’s writing while gearing the production for an audience now well into adulthood. Though likely to draw a new audience unfamiliar with the source material, this movie was produced to appeal to those who might have grown up reading Stine’s books for younger readers and young adults. While the Fear Street books were more violent and gory than a lot of Stine’s writing geared toward a younger audience, this movie amplifies that element quite nicely. A killer is on the loose in Shadyside, but this isn’t the first time. In a town with a history of mysterious plagues of madness and murder, can Deena and her brother Josh hope to discover the secret behind these horrors before they–and all of their friends–are slain? On the surface, it’s a color-by-number slasher flick complete with Shadyside High School students as fodder, but more backstory and mythology is forming the substrate than is typical in slasher fare. With an obvious fondness for the slasher flicks of the 1990s, one can’t help but see ample homage to such borderline classics as Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Urban Legend. Fear Street: 1994 goes beyond the superficial slasher characteristics, however, and incorporates a tale of witchcraft, and a town cursed for centuries into the narrative, setting the stage for the subsequent two volumes of the series. The deaths are often fantastic, brutal, and gory–I doubt anyone will look at an industrial bread-slicer the same way again–and the story flows nicely at a fast pace, balancing suspense and jump scares as well as one could hope for. The characters don’t consist solely of two-dimensional ciphers, as has become the meme for these types of movies, but they almost couldn’t be if the series is expected to span three movies. I found them largely likable and sympathetic.
After disappointing documentaries focused on Richard Ramirez and the Elisa Lam disappearance at the Cecil Hotel, I was hesitant to sit down for another Netflix true-crime documentary. I’m pleased to say The Ripper more than makes up for the frustration of those other two recent documentary series from the streaming service. Gone is the transparent, painful hero-worship of the police involved in the investigation I found so agonizing to sit through during the Ramirez documentary. Similarly missing is the fixation on incompetent, repeatedly detrimental “contributions” from amateur sleuths in the Cecil Hotel documentary. What we’re left with is a straightforward documentary about the crimes of Peter Sutcliffe, the appropriately named Yorkshire Ripper, and the difficulties plaguing those attempting to investigate the crimes (difficulties often produced or amplified by the investigators involved). The most interesting aspect of this documentary is that it showcases just how awful the people leading the investigation were at their jobs. The Yorkshire Ripper title applied to the unknown killer seemed to have intensified a series of biases held by these men, nudging them down dead ends and imaginary lines of inquiry. In the minds of those in charge, this man was simply another prostitute killer like the Whitechapel ripper of a century before…even though there was little to no evidence supporting numerous early victims being associated with prostitution at all…beyond the assertions of the investigators speaking to the press. Latent and widespread misogyny, refusal to look beyond anything that fit a pet theory, and fixation on letters and tapes supplied by someone wasting their time directly and unambiguously led to more murders being committed by Sutcliffe than he would have successfully committed if they’d simply worked with the facts they had in front of them rather than distorting their perception of the facts to fit the preconceived notion of who the killer was and why he was committing these terrible atrocities. It’s fascinating to see this investigation from the outside, in retrospect, because there’s no reason the case couldn’t have been closed years earlier than it ultimately was. Sutcliffe had been interviewed by investigators a total of nine times during the investigation and one of the cops involved was concerned at just how well Sutcliffe matched a sketch of the assailant from one of the attempted murders. Instead, his superiors ignored his report because there was a single-minded fixation on a certain accent the killer was expected to speak with. Where the Ramirez documentary spent so much time praising the superstar detectives involved in bringing The Night Stalker to justice, The Ripper spends a lot of time following the case only to finally display just how botched and bungled the investigation was when they finally had their man in custody. It was a matter of a good cop acting on a hunch–a cop who was not associated with the investigation–that brought Sutcliffe to justice. This one is worth watching. It delves into the lifestyles and living conditions of post-industrial England and the underlying conditions that made it not only possible but perhaps even easy, for Sutcliffe to perpetrate the crimes he committed. Similarly, it provides a fantastic argument against linkage-blindness and confirmation bias in these sorts of investigations.
With the title being what it is, I should have expected more of a focus on the investigations that led to the ultimate arrest and conviction of Richard Ramirez. They say it right there in the title, “The Hunt for a Serial Killer.” It was still disappointing to see what the documentary turned out to be.
Ramirez is one of the more fascinating characters from the annals of American serial killers, so it stood to reason they might have spent a bit more time focusing on who Ramirez was and what he did. Instead, I ended up sitting through three hours of police hero worship. Strangely, I would have preferred if it had been three hours of that bizarre hero worship that some people devote to serial killers…it would have been far more interesting, at the very least…also a touch more disturbing.
Some elements of the investigation were interesting enough, but certainly not sufficiently captivating to keep me from wanting to stop wasting my time at various points. The crime scene photos were largely things I’d been familiar with from various books and other documentaries over the years, as were many of the first-hand accounts from surviving victims and those who were close to the victims who were not so lucky. There wasn’t much by way of new material being covered with respect to Ramirez himself or the things he did.
There was one point in this circle jerk of police aggrandizement when a detective admits to punching a known acquaintance of Ramirez in the face, being mocked for the weakness of the blow, and when the officer threatens to punch the individual again he cowers and gives up what he knows. I don’t believe that account from the officer. I suspect what really happened is far more sinister and far less in accordance with proper behavior of police officers. My assumption is that the detective withdrew his sidearm and threatened to shoot Ramirez’s acquaintance after learning that he–as Robert De Niro in Raging Bull might have put it–throws a punch like he takes it up the ass and that his machismo and badge simply weren’t enough to get his way. That is, of course, just my impression of the segment in question. I could be wrong, but the story told by the detective simply wasn’t internally consistent and didn’t ring true at all.
The one thing I can say about Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer is that it does reaffirm my contempt for Dianne Feinstein. How she handled things as Mayor of San Francisco was short-sighted and counterproductive. Her actions may have directly led to Ramirez avoiding capture long enough to ruin more lives. How she continued being voted for after that boggles my mind.
I can’t say that I’d ever be able to recommend this documentary to anyone. It’s tedious, sometimes mind-numbingly boring, and nowhere near as shocking or graphic as I was led to believe. It’s heavy handed in its overwhelmingly favorable depiction of law enforcement and largely neglects to tread any new ground.