Monday, August 22, 2016

Retro Review: FEAR CITY (1985)

(US - 1985)

Directed by Abel Ferrara. Written by Nicholas St. John. Cast: Tom Berenger, Billy Dee Williams, Jack Scalia, Melanie Griffith, Rossano Brazzi, Jan Murray, Rae Dawn Chong, Joe Santos, Michael V. Gazzo, Janet Julian, Maria Conchita Alonso, Daniel Faraldo, Ola Ray, Frank Ronzio, Juan Fernandez, Tracy Griffith, Robert Miano, Frank Sivero, Neil Clifford. (R, 95 mins)

Though he established himself as a critically-acclaimed filmmaker during his '90s heyday with KING OF NEW YORK (1990), BAD LIEUTENANT (1992), and THE FUNERAL (1996) among others, the always controversial Abel Ferrara got his start in the NYC exploitation gutter. His first feature film was the 1976 porno 9 LIVES OF A WET PUSSY and he followed that with 1979's scuzzy THE DRILLER KILLER, a self-explanatory splatter film where he also starred in the title role under the name "Jimmy Laine." 1981's low-budget vigilante thriller MS .45, in which a mute garment district seamstress (Zoe Tamerlis) goes full DEATH WISH on NYC scumbags after she's raped twice in the same day, was a hit on the grindhouse and drive-in circuit and even got some accolades from critics. Bronx-born Ferrara's contemporary NYC-set films  of that era are among the grimiest presentations of the city in all of cinema. Like a cinematic Travis Bickle, he's from the streets, he knows them, he's lived them, and he's seen the worst they have to offer. Ferrara's always had a keen ability to bring that sleazy world to vivid life on the big screen like few others.

MS .45 got Ferrara some attention from the big studios, and it makes one wonder exactly what 20th Century Fox expected when they greenlit FEAR CITY, Ferrara's first sizably-budgeted film with actual Hollywood actors. Filmed in the spring and summer of 1983--with BLUE THUNDER, FLASHDANCE, OCTOPUSSY, and LONE WOLF MCQUADE visible on Times Square theater marquees--FEAR CITY was produced by Zupnik-Curtis Enterprises, with a good chunk of the budget and a distribution deal provided by Fox. A combination cop/mob/slasher movie, FEAR CITY deals with the hunt for a serial attacker dubbed "The New York Knifer." He's slashing strippers, most of whom work for the Starlite Talent Agency, run by childhood buddies Nicky Parzeno (Jack Scalia in his first big screen role, fresh off two short-lived TV series with THE DEVLIN CONNECTION and BERRENGER'S) and Matt Rossi (Tom Berenger, who had just been in THE BIG CHILL and EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS). Both are connected to powerful mob boss Carmine (Rossano Brazzi, quite a ways away from THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN and SOUTH PACIFIC), who's the cash behind their business. Matt is a former boxer who walked away from the sport after killing an opponent in the ring. He's also nursing a broken heart after a relationship with ex-junkie dancer Loretta (Melanie Griffith, around the same time she played a porn star in Brian De Palma's BODY DOUBLE) went south. Matt and Nicky's business starts collapsing after the wave of stripper murders, and when the body count starts rising, they're forced to team up with top competitor Goldstein (Borscht Belt legend Jan Murray, dropping F-bombs in what would be his last film appearance) as rival talent agents, club owners, and mobsters all set aside their ongoing beefs to organize their own hunt for the martial-arts madman (played by an uncredited Neil Clifford) who's killing their girls and costing them money. Matt also has to deal with perpetually irritable detective Wheeler (Billy Dee Williams), who doesn't seem to get much work done but has a big chip on his shoulder about Italian-Americans, never missing a chance to hurl slurs like "dago," "guinea," "greaseball," "goombah," and "wop" at Matt, Nicky, and anyone in the immediate vicinity who looks or sounds even remotely Italian.

Shot entirely on location and setting the mood with the theme song "New York Doll" by New York Dolls frontman David Johansen, FEAR CITY effectively captures the grimy filth and the neon sleaze of early 1980s NYC. The story structure in regular Ferrara collaborator Nicholas St. John's script is rather formulaic--of course Matt and Loretta will rekindle their love, and of course the horror of her friends being murdered will send her back to the needle--but the fascinating cast (also featuring Joe Santos, Michael V. Gazzo, Rae Dawn Chong, Maria Conchita Alonso, Ola Ray from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video, and, as Loretta's dealer, a typically reptilian Juan Fernandez, best known to trash movie fans as "that shitbag Duke" in KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS) and various quirks keep things interesting. Ferrara goes off on a bit of a tangent near the end, invoking the kind of recurring Catholic imagery that was so prominent in MS .45 and would be again in later films like BAD LIEUTENANT. The momentum is sidetracked a bit in the late going as Ferrara and St. John explore Matt's tortured soul as everything haunting his conscience comes to a head: the murders he's witnessed as a mob flunky since being a neighborhood shoeshine boy in his youth, killing a man in the ring, Loretta using again, Nicky ending up in a coma after a near-fatal encounter with the Knifer. It all leads to not just a confessional with a sympathetic priest but also a Tom Berenger shadow-boxing/workout montage as he prepares to take out the Knifer himself.  There's another interesting character element in that African-American Wheeler and his Hispanic partner Sanchez (Daniel Faraldo) are far and away the biggest racists in the movie. Its killer (dubbed "The Karate Killer" by FEAR CITY fans even though he's only referred to as "The New York Knifer" in the movie), who attacks with ninja-like precision and often practices his martial arts moves in the nude, could be a close relative of Gene Davis' legendary in-the-buff serial killer in the Charles Bronson classic 10 TO MIDNIGHT.

With its gratuitous nudity and graphic violence, FEAR CITY didn't endear itself to the top brass at Fox. Even after Ferrara trimmed some of the violence and nixed a kissing scene between bisexual Loretta and soon-to-be-victim Leila (Chong), the studio still wasn't happy and refused to release the film. After sitting on it for over a year, Fox finally sold it back to Zupnik-Curtis, who decided to release it independently through their own Maryland-based Chevy Chase Distribution (which may have led some moviegoers to believe Chevy Chase was involved in it) while selling the New York rights to Terry Levine's Aquarius Releasing, an outfit best known for driving a Butchermobile around Manhattan to promote DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D. (the uncut version of FEAR CITY was eventually released on Blu-ray in 2012 by Shout! Factory, but the reinstated shots were lesser-quality standard def). Though it was released in Europe in 1984, FEAR CITY didn't start hitting US theaters until February 1985. Berenger would get an Oscar nomination for the next year's PLATOON and Ferrara went on to direct a couple of MIAMI VICE episodes and the pilot for the acclaimed NBC series CRIME STORY in 1986. He moved on to two mishandled Vestron releases with the warring street gang ROMEO AND JULIET redux CHINA GIRL (1987) and the Elmore Leonard thriller CAT CHASER (1989) before the now-classic KING OF NEW YORK and BAD LIEUTENANT cemented his status as a key figure in the '90s indie explosion.

FEAR CITY opening with little fanfare or print support in Toledo, OH on 4/19/1985

Actual layout of the above shot, demonstrating how much
advertising support FEAR CITY was getting. 

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