Abel Ferrara is, in a lot of ways, the quintessential New York filmmaker. For a director who is Brooklyn born, it was only natural for the city to be an omnipresent character in many of his works, including such classics as Ms. 45 and Bad Lieutenant. If the City is a strong background character in those films, then it is the star of Ferrara’s 1984 film, Fear City. Even better, we’re talking the seamier, pre-Disneyfied era of New York. Fear City features long gone spots like the Gaiety Burlesk as well as adult theatre marquees promoting such X-rated fare as Devil in Miss Jones II and Snow Honeys. The neon-lit sleaze and wonder of it all has never looked better on Blu Ray, thanks to the efforts of Shout Factory.
Locations aside, Fear City is a crime-riddled thriller centering around Matt Rossi (Tom Berenger), a former boxer who got out of the fighting game after accidentally killing his opponent in the ring. Staying in a profession still fringed with underworld connections, Matt, along with his partner Nicky (Jack Scalia), runs the Starlite Agency, which represents a number of exotic dancers. It’s not all glitter and pasties, since right off the bat we get to see Matt and Nicky hassle a club owner for back pay. When not dealing with business, Nicky tries to cheer up his partner, who is still heartsick after breaking up with his girlfriend and their star dancer, Loretta (Melanie Griffith). His angst is further fueled when he discovers that she is having a liaison with fellow dancer, Leila (Rae Dawn Chong.)
However, Matt soon has to put his emotional scars aside, since there’s a killer on the loose who is targeting strippers, a number of whom work for Matt and Nicky. Honey (Ola Ray) is the first victim, who survives but not without having a couple of her fingers cut off for her trouble. It’s only a matter of time before death looms ahead, with the first mortal victim being Leila. Between getting hassled by former vice cop now homicide detective Wheeler (Billy Dee Williams) and trying to rekindle things with Loretta, will Matt be able to reconcile the ghosts of his past and confront a highly dangerous killer?
Fear City is a film that neither wallows or shies away from the seamier side of life. Even better, it is non-judgmental. The women are not murdered because of any loaded sense of puritanical cultural guilt, but more due to the fact that there is a really sick, karate fueled sociopath with some severe repression issues out on the streets. Fear City is a good answer to anyone that makes the blanket assumption that all slasher-thriller type films are fueled by sheer misogyny. (Not bad for a movie ripe with T&A!) Of course, making a movie set in the often sleazy world of exotic dancing without nudity would be a bit like making a film about plumbing with no pipes.
Fear City has garnered a bit of a reputation as a ultra-lurid film and while the very nature of its story features some amount of sordidness, there were films out there that were were way stronger. The key difference, though, would be that a large amount of those more unabashed titles were typically independent from the get go, while Fear City was set up originally to be released by a major studio. In this case, the studio was 20th Century Fox. However, it apparently still proved to be too heady a film for the decades old giant and in the end, it was released by an independent distributor. Despite that, it still suffered some amazingly lame censorship.
Now thanks to this new release, we can finally see the film uncut, for the very first time on the American home video/digital market. Shout Factory have recreated the original cut, utilizing the theatrical print (which is also available on this disc) and an uncut VHS source tape. The most shocking thing about what was cut was the stupidity of any of it being cut in the first place. But then again, censorship rarely, if ever, makes any bloody sense. The raciest footage that was excised includes a kiss between Melanie Griffith and Rae Dawn Chong, which is no more explicit than anything you will see on cable TV. In fact probably less so. On top of that, with it missing, it renders Loretta’s reactions to her lover getting attacked a little less powerful and more over-dramatic. Some of the other footage that has been restored includes extra seconds of the killer exercising, a couple of frames of Loretta’s striptease and some surprising police brutality during Detective Wheeler’s interrogation of Matt. It’s beyond ridiculous that any of this was cut. It is highly doubtful that someone who chooses to see a film about a sociopath who is targeting 42nd St. strippers is going to be overly sensitive to such realities that include two women expressing affection or an officer of the law abusing his power. Audiences being treated like simple children is nothing new though it’s disturbing to think that the trend was still going strong only 30 years ago. Not like censorship has, either. To quote the Jenny Holzer t-shirt, abuse of power comes as no surprise.
Censor gripes aside, Fear City may not be one of Ferrara’s masterpieces but it’s good and features some tight performances, especially from the underrated and occasionally underutilized Tom Berenger. It’s great getting to see Billy Dee Williams, who does a fine job playing such a moralizing, brutal hard-ass. Griffith is fairly good and has never looked better, resembling a less arty version of Tubes chanteuse and Holy Mountain actress Re Styles. Granted, she might be one of the healthiest looking heroin addicts in cinema but as a whole, she’s good. Fear City also has a theme song, “New York Doll” by THE New York Doll, David Johansen and soundtrack composer Joe Delia. The latter’s work goes back to Ferrara’s beginnings, including his first film ever, the adult feature Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy.
At its core, Fear City is a taut thriller but historically, it has become more than that. The era where danger and sleaze bled out on the neon stained pavement on Times Square are long gone, leaving corporate tourism and a sense of loss in its wake. Not that a time period where one could get shanked while trying to watch Snow Honeys or even R-rated fare needs to be romanticized either. But that said, one could argue that the pall of gentrification is even uglier than vice. Ignoring the darker aspects of our humanity is not going to make it go away and if anything, creates a hothouse for dysfunction. The film’s killer is a result of that very attitude.
Abel Ferrara, along with screenwriter Nicholas St. John, have created a film that makes no judgments one way or the other about any of its characters. It is that attitude that perhaps made this film so initially scary to studio execs. Hollywood films ranging from Death Wish to Personal Best featured more violence or sexuality, but the refusal to paint its hero or heroine with a broad brush is more threatening than any breast or blood factor. It might not be one of Ferrara’s best by any means, but it works well and is worthwhile for anyone who appreciates having a film with flawed characters and a peek into a headier time.