For some, he was an unfeeling monster, an embodiment of evil. For others — those who miraculously survived his attacks — he became a symbol of their resilience in the face of fear. From June 1984 until August 1985, Richard Ramirez slipped into Los Angeles and San Francisco homes in the dead of night. He burgled most of the homes he invaded, then killed the people he found inside.
His victims ranged in age from 6 to 82. Many of them were sexually assaulted, others were shot, strangled with telephone cords, beaten with tire irons or hacked with machetes. He told some that he worshiped Satan, and sometimes drew pentagrams on the walls or on the bodies of those he murdered.
As the crime spree peaked, different news outlets started calling him a multitude of names, including The Valley Intruder and The Walk-in Killer, but the name that stuck was The Night Stalker.
Confronting a Stalker
Until December 2019, Chris Walldorf didn’t know much about one of America’s most notorious serial killers.
“I’m not necessarily a serial killer guy by any means,” Walldorf says. But in the past year, he’s become all-too-familiar with Ramirez, a drifter and career criminal who carried out a one-man reign of terror, a remorseless sadist who was convicted of 13 counts or murder, five counts of attempted murder and 11 counts of sexual assault.
In March, Walldorf, a 45-year-old filmmaker from Charlotte, returned home from a six-month stint in Los Angeles, then completed another four months of work remotely as lead editor of the upcoming Netflix documentary series Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer.
The four-part docuseries, which premieres on Jan. 13, tells the story of The Night Stalker from the perspective of the two Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detectives who hunted him down. It also includes interviews from the handful of victims who survived his murderous onslaught.
The project was spearheaded by director Tiller Russell, who told People Magazine the series draws upon a tradition of hazy sun-dappled Southern California noir that stretches from Raymond Chandler’s detective novels of the 1930s to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood.
“Weirdly, the definitive telling of this iconic Los Angeles story has never been told,” Russell said.
Though Walldorf had not focused on serial killers prior to coming onboard with Russell, the film editor’s interests often stray into deep, dark waters.
Walldorf is also a professional musician. He’s played drums, synthesizers and samplers alongside keyboardist Lindsey Ryan in a series of moody, lush and eerie Charlotte bands, including Sea of Cortez, Sam the Lion and their current outfit Moa. With the premiere of Night Stalker slated for mid-January, Moa released their debut album on Dec. 3 with a virtual Queen City Streams concert filmed at Neighborhood Theatre. The timing is no accident.
With one foot in the music world and the other foot in the editing world, Walldorf has been able to bring his talent for one discipline to bear on the other. As a musician working on a soundtrack, he’s able to grasp the editor’s needs regarding music. As an editor, he can communicate with composers more easily.
This dual facility for music and cutting, and the kind of connections people make when working in the pressure cooker of film production, dovetailed into an unexpected opportunity for Moa, as the band landed a song on the Night Stalker soundtrack.
But that convergence of fortuitous timing, hard work and compositional skill was still months in the future when Walldorf first learned about the project.
While attending North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, Walldorf befriended fellow student Adam Stone. The Charlotte-based Stone has since gone on to become an in-demand cinematographer (Mud, Loving, Wild Wild Country). A few years back, Stone was developing a project with Tiller Russell. They needed an editor to cut together a sizzle reel to raise money for their show, and Stone recommended Walldorf. Although the project never got off the ground, Russell loved Walldorf’s work, and he never forgot the editor.
“[Russell] called me August 15, ,” Walldorf remembers. “He said ‘I’ve got a Netflix documentary series. Can you be out in L.A. in two weeks and start on it?’” Although he’s wasn’t thrilled to say goodbye to his wife and children for several months, Walldorf jumped at the chance. He was making good money in North Carolina editing commercials, but he was also burning out on the commercial grind and itching for a creative challenge. Night Stalker represented his biggest job to date.
“It was perfect timing in a lot of ways,” Walldorf says. “[I made a] conscious decision to expand my horizons and get out of the commercial world a little bit. I was ready to do something else with my life.”
Often when an editor joins a production, most if not all of the footage has been shot. This was not quite the case with Night Stalker. Some footage was in the can, Walldorf says, and another editor had started post-production over a year ago. But Russell was shooting two other projects concurrently. So, while Russell turned his attention to his other projects, Night Stalker was put on hold for almost a year.
“I was coming in as they were picking it up again,” Walldorf offers. Not much had been done with the footage. Walldorf starting laying out some of the interviews that had been shot, cutting the “talking heads” together to begin charting the story’s flow.
Then series cinematographer Nicola Marsh (20 Feet From Stardom)went back out to shoot new scenes.
“She shot stylistic reenactments,” Walldorf says. “[The camera crew] tried to make them as poetic as possible, less on-the-nose, [with] more of an abstract feeling.”
The plan was to place the series’ audience in the moment as the story unfolded.
The summer of 1985 in Los Angeles was scorching, but in an era before air conditioners were commonplace, homeowners locked their windows at night and tried to sleep in the stultifying heat. Porch lights were kept on to ward off the dark. Cars moving slowly through neighborhoods were eyed with suspicion, and everywhere people felt the tangible electricity of fear.
It was very important to the crew that the reenactments would not be the stilted and cheesy variety seen on most true-crime dramas. There was an on-set mantra, Waldorf remembers, against anything that was too on-the-nose.
“We wanted to convey a sense of dread, so you’re not just listening to the cops say, ‘We found this and we found that,’” Walldorf offers.
Walldorf points out that the main interviewees are homicide detectives who have seen it all. They can appear detached from the horror of the situation. It was a different story for Walldorf.
As he cut together real-life crime-scene photos for the project’s visuals, he learned he was anything but numb to the terror and tragedy of the Night Stalker. He was doing his job, helping to dramatize the story the filmmakers’ story, but he was also looking at remains that had once been somebody’s mother, husband or child.
Throughout 1985, the unidentified killer seemed to strike at random in communities scattered all over L.A. County, and in August took a short trip to San Francisco where he murdered a couple in their 60s. As the death count mounted past a dozen, there still seemed to be little pattern to the slayings. In the early hours of the morning, he often targeted houses close to freeways, slipping through windows or forcing open patio doors, but one victim was shot behind the wheel of her car in broad daylight when Ramirez decided to steal her vehicle.
During Walldorf’s editing stint he began to experience periods when he would imagine Ramirez lurking in the corners of his L.A. apartment, even though he knew that The Night Stalker has been dead for seven years.
“I imagined what it would be like to make eye contact with him in this strange Lynchian dream way,” Walldorf says. “Since he was dead, it seemed to make it even scarier.”
Eventually, Walldorf’s unbidden creepy reveries went away. “I think the more I learned about him, the less powerful he became in my mind.”
Under the Skin
During post-production on movies, editors are often in touch with the film’s composers, trading notes on sound cues and timing. Walldorf hit it off with the composers on The Night Stalker, brothers Brooke and Will Blair (Green Room, Edge of Winter) because he spoke their language.
“Being a musician, I could give them direct and specific feedback,” Walldorf says. He recalls being in the Blairs’ position, when people would give him strange non-musical descriptions for what they wanted on a soundtrack. “They [would say], ‘I want it to sound like it was made in a melting ice cap,’ or, ‘This one has a galloping forcefield.’ I had no idea what they were talking about.”
In contrast, Walldorf knew music, and he was even familiar with the audio software the Blairs were using.
“I knew very specifically what was happening, and I could give very specific notes,” he says. “It was efficient.”
Prior to the Blair brothers coming onboard, Walldorf had cut the episodes together over a temp soundtrack, a selection of music from various sources that sets the mood and the tempo of the cut. Walldorf remembers that he used a lot from film scores by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and modern composer Phillip Glass. In terms of period pop, he chose a selection of post-punk and new wave from the 1980s.
One song originated in an earlier era, the mid-1960s London beat scene. British folk pop artist Vashti Bunyan’s delicate airy vocal and wistful performance of her song “I’d like to Walk Around in Your Mind” was a perfect fit for a crucial credit sequence in the Netflix series. It provided misdirection at the beginning of the series finale, a sojourn of sweetness and light before the episode delved into Ramirez’s depredations as the police noose tightened around him.
Russell decided to keep the song in the final cut. There was just one problem – Bunyan refused to license her song for Night Stalker.
“Vashti Bunyan said, ‘I’m not going to let you use the song, the song that I wrote about my first love, in a movie about a serial killer,’” Walldorf remembers. The production offered her more money, and still she refused.
Walldorf started looking for a replacement, a gossamer magical tune that could dovetail into a nightmare and kept coming up empty-handed. He realized the only way he could replace the song was to create something new.
“I said, ‘Hey guys, let me take a crack at this. I’ll attempt it for free, and if you like it, you can pay us.’” He immediately called Ryan, his bandmate and co-creator in Moa.
A musical partnership
Ryan, for one, welcomed the assignment to quickly come up with a brand new song for Night Stalker. She says working on the tune felt good, like being in a band again.
Speaking on the phone from her home in a 110-year-old boarding house she’s restoring with her husband on her flower farm and design studio called Edgemont Garden, Ryan recalls that three years ago, she left her 20-year career as a piano teacher because her head was filled only with the music she was teaching.
“It felt so good. I started writing songs again and having my own music in my head,” Ryan says. “Now I grow flowers for weddings. I spend all day planting and I play in the dirt.”
Nestled in the North Carolina mountains outside of a ghost town called Edgemont, Ryan’s home sounds like a bucolic paradise, far removed from L. A. in the mid-’80s, but Ryan was immediately on the same page as Walldorf and guitarist Driscoll, who also collaborated on the composition.
“Chris just said the feel was ‘happy’ and ‘sweet’ [with a] ’60’s folk beat,” Ryan offers. “At the same time, the words are a little bit creepy — like a lot of love songs can be.”
“Lindsey and I talked about the history of morbidly obsessive love songs,” Walldorf says. Along with Driscoll, Walldorf and Ryan tossed ideas via voice memos and texts. In a day, the song was done. They called it “Under Your Skin.”
The Night Stalker producers accepted it enthusiastically.
“The last line of the song is heard when the title credit comes up,” Walldorf offers. “What is the line again Lindsey?”
“I’ll find a way under your skin,” Ryan replies.
Even though it’s a song for a movie about a serial killer, it’s still the happiest song Moa has ever written, she says, “But it still sounds spooky because we just can’t help ourselves.”
The Night Stalker’s season finale begins with a cold opening, Walldorf explains. Moa’s song starts off at the top, then it fades away as the audience hears a fairly innocuous story about the L.A public library over pretty footage of the city in the 1980s. The scene grows darker as the librarian being interviewed describes her encounter with Ramirez. That’s when the song fades up again, and it has this whole different meaning.
The title Night Stalker comes up and Ryan sweetly sings, “I’ll find a way under your skin.”
In addition to the exposure a song on a hotly anticipated Netflix series will afford Moa, the song has also kicked the band’s butts to get their record in order, says Ryan.
“This record’s been sitting, practically done for a while,” she offers. Landing the song gave the group the motivation necessary to put finishing touches on the album. Once people hear the song on Night Stalker, she hopes they’ll be interested in checking out the album.
If so, they’re in for a dark and luxurious treat. On their first full-length release, Moa weaves a velvety shroud of keyboards, evoking haunted music-box melodies and subterranean rumblings deep beneath the earth’s crust.
Guitars, delicately strummed, turn clangorous as a volcanic eruption on a momenta notice. Ryan’ s sweetly feathered vocals can sound girlish, yet they harbor an ever-present hint of icy malice. Moa’s music is like diving into a bottomless well only to discover you’re floating untethered in a sky full of stars.
Walldorf came home to Charlotte in March during a break in the series’ post-production, only to be told to work from home to complete his job as COVID-19 swept the country. He’s relieved by his producers’ decision. Remote editing is sweeping the industry, Walldorf notes.
He’s already started post-production work on another Netflix series, and he’s doing the gig from his home studio, without the enforced exile from his family.
When The Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez learned that he was sentenced to die in California’s gas chamber, he told reporters, “Big deal. Death always went with the territory. See you in Disneyland.” But Ramirez was denied the notoriety of an execution. He languished, long forgotten by most, on Death Row, until he died in 2013 from complications secondary to B-cell lymphoma.
When asked what he hoped viewers would take away from Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, Russell replied, “The resilience of people. No matter what people went through, they refuse to be defined by the Night Stalker.”
It may be possible, that even from the terror imposed from the darkest recesses of a diseased mind, some good can come.
Become part of the Nerve: Get better connected and become a monthly donor to support our mission and opt-in to our email newsletter. And if you’re looking for the arts in Charlotte, subscribe to the paper for the most in-depth coverage of our local scene.
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.