Thursday, 24 November 2011



Funny old cove, Abel Ferrara. The director and star of one of the most notorious titles on the Video Nasties list (The Driller Killer), alternating commercial projects with personal, micro-budget, rough-edged films. In truth I'm not a big fan of his more famous films: I've never liked The Driller Killer or Bad Lieutenant, and the arty vampire number The Addiction nearly put me to sleep, but I enjoyed the more commercial King Of New York and Body Snatchers (although in both cases it's a long time since I saw them).

And I liked Fear City a lot: it's a hymn to the neon-soaked world of hookers and strip clubs and porn cinemas of New York's Times Square, while it was still a stinking cesspit of vice and degeneracy and before it was wiped clean and turned into something that GoogleMaps Streetview makes me never want to go anywhere near. (But if I had a Tardis, this is when and where I'd go.) That now-lost urban nightscape is brilliantly brought to life here: part unwavering gaze into hell, part slasher movie in which a mad killer is attacking the strippers provided by the "Starlite Talent Agency" run by former boxer Tom Berenger and old friend Jack Scalia. Who will he target next - Rae Dawn Chong, Maria Conchita (Alonso), or Melanie Griffith, who happens to be Berenger's on-off girlfriend and is trying to kick a drugs habit?

Fear City has a terrific cast - there's also Rossano Brazzi as a mafia boss and Billy Dee Williams as the cop on the case - and a sense of authenticity in its feel for the streets and the clubs, and the lowlifes who live and work there. It's a 42nd Street grindhouse movie set and shot on 42nd Street, and as a document of a bulldozed cultural phenomenon it's fascinating. As a slasher movie, though, it's less successful: the maniac is never identified (the actor isn't even credited) and he's given no reason no carve up strippers beyond being a homicidal maniac. He has no depth, he has no character, he doesn't even have any interaction with the other characters except when he's killing them.

Probably the film's trump is that there's plenty of nudity and violence - far more than on the old video release, which was a TV edit that dropped most of the contentious stuff, and was then cut further by the BBFC before being given an 18. Most if not all of that has been included in the new version, including Melanie Griffith's toplessness, lots of other striptease and lapdance nudity, and the use of chainsticks which the BBFC were perhaps unnecessarily strict on at the time. I've never seen the cut version, but I can only envisage it as a frustrating experience that failed to deliver the grubby goods. This edit is squalid, grimy, sordid and seedy entertainment and probably my favourite of Ferrara's films.

But where is he now? Despite several well-regarded movies on his CV, including King Of New York and the original Bad Lieutenant, Abel Ferrara's later work hasn't had a theatrical release in the UK since 1997's uninteresting The Blackout: the IMDb makes New Rose Hotel (a SF drama with Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe and Asia Argento) and Mary (a religion-themed drama with Matthew Modine, Juliette Binoche and Forest Whitaker) sound fascinating, but no-one appears to want to release them in the UK. Pity.


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