Director: Abel Ferrara Stars: Tom Berenger, Billy Dee Williams, Jack Scalia, Melanie Griffith, Rossano Brazzi, Rae Dawn Chong Writer: Nicholas St. John Country: USA
Matt Rossi (Tom Berenger), a former boxer who once killed an opponent in the ring, works for a talent agency that caters exotic dancers for the many Mafia-controlled strip clubs across New York City. Matt and his partner Nicky (Jack Scalia) are hounded by police detective Al Wheeler (Billy Dee Williams) when a psychopath begins randomly maiming and murdering strippers working for various nightclubs in Manhattan, all in the hope of finding something in which to nail the pair with. All the while, Matt is attempting to reconcile with his former flame, the drug-addicted Loretta (Melanie Griffith), herself a stripper who also happens to be in a lesbian relationship with another stripper, Leila (Rae Dawn Chong). What with being under pressure from his mob boss (Michael V Gazzo) to do something, plus the police who suspect his involvement in the murders, and still racked with guilt over killing a boxing opponent, Matt is forced take matters in to his own hands…
Fear City is a lurid exploitation thriller and early effort from so-called 'maverick' director Abel Ferrara, a filmmaker whom this reviewer is quite the fan of. However, Ferrara can be very hit-or-miss and though this movie has its champions, I found it to be something of a miss and certainly nowhere near the heights reached down the track with his 90's classics, Bad Lieutenant, King Of New York or The Funeral. Even the director's regular scribe, Nicholas St John (who also penned the aforementioned titles) had yet to reach his later maturity, with some rather clunky dialogue and an inconsistent narrative on display here. Ferrara's third feature is a structurally messy noir, wasting too much time on repetitive symbolic subplots – namely, flashbacks to the death of a boxer at the hands of Tom Berenger's character – and only skimming the salacious surface of the lesbian love affair between Griffith's heroin addicted Loretta and Rae Dawn Chong's Leila. Another problem, and it's a big one, is the principal villain. We never hear him except in voiceovers and his visual appearance is laughable, coming off as nothing more than a buff karate kid that happens to be deranged. The character is undeveloped, leaving a gaping hole in the film and taking most of the menace out of it.
The movie is shot mostly at night, with its seedy New York setting now a part of history, but certainly giving things an appropriately grimy look. It's all very early 80's, from clothing to hair and everything else. Performance-wise, a young Tom Berenger is as great as he always is, underplaying very nicely, and Melanie Griffith's role is pretty much a repeat of that seen in Brian De Palma's Body Double, though she puts in a solid turn. Billy Dee Williams chews up everything in sight, overacting mercilessly, but he isn't helped by the dialogue his character is unfortunately saddled with. But it's always great to see veterans like Michael V. Gazzo and Rossano Brazzi (as another mob boss) on screen and it's something of a shame that Brazzi isn't given more scenes.
Ultimately, Fear City was bankrolled by 20th Century Fox due to its lurid violence and graphic sexuality (at least for 1984), and they passed on releasing the movie theatrically to a smaller distributor. A censored version was later released to television and home video.
Fear City is released on Blu-ray in Australia by Shock as part of their Cinema Cult range and it is a port of the recent Shout Factory USA release. We get two cuts of the film, the theatrical version (accessed through the special features section) and the 'uncensored' version. Encoded in AVC on a BD-50, the transfer is generally a fairly good one that captures all the grittiness of the feature. Presented in 1080p at an aspect ratio of 1:66, the 95-minute theatrical version uses a fresh high definition transfer, while the roughly two additional minutes of uncut material are sourced from something akin to VHS. Watching the uncut version, one will notice a huge lapse in quality from the regular film source to the uncut scenes. The theatrical version looks fairly decent, but is uneven, so expect a large amount of grain and noise. Some scenes look very nice, but there is an overall softness to the picture. Colours often look good, especially in the strip club scenes, but there is some black crush in evidence and not a lot of shadow detail. That said, this is about the best the film has ever looked and probably ever will. After all, this is an intentionally grimy looking movie anyway. The uncut scenes are sourced from a vastly inferior standard-definition source that immediately lowers the clarity and resolution from the rest of the film. And to be honest, I don't feel these reinserted moments add much to the movie and are really quite tame by today's standards. Most of them consist of females 'making out', something which Americans obviously had a problem with back in the early 80's.
Audio is 2-channel DTS-HD MA and it's really quite limited, though the bottom end comes off rather well during the cheesy 80's pop songs featured in the soundtrack. Otherwise, everything else is pretty thin and only serves to highlight the film's low budget.
Extras feature the theatrical version of the film, plus the trailer.
I had wanted to see Fear City since its video release back in the mid 80's, but I was rather disappointed when I finally got to it for this review. For me, this would have to be the least notable of Abel Ferrara's pre-King Of New York work. It lacks the kind of thoughtful thematic underpinnings that made the earlier Ms. 45 and the later King Of New York, etc, so good. Still, for Ferrara completists and exploitation fans in general, this is probably a must-have, if not at least a viewing. Shock's Blu-ray is pretty ordinary in the technical department, but in all honesty, I
don't think it could be improved upon.
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Originally born unto this world as Terror Australis.net back in March 2002, Digital Retribution is a proudly Australian website devoted to all things horror, cult, and exploitation that strives to promote Australian films and filmmakers while sharing its questionable taste in ultra-violent smut-laden local and international offerings with the rest of the world.