Moviedrome Redux: ‘Fear City’ (1985)

❉ Nick Clement presents his assessments of cinematic gems and cult oddities. 

Gritty integrity. That’s the promise you get with every single film by maverick auteur Abel Ferrara, the director of Bad Lieutenant, King of New York, The Black Out, Welcome to New York, The Funeral, and so many other brilliant, transgressive pieces of searing indie cinema. I love this man’s work, and while I’ve not seen everything he’s directed, the ones I have seen I’ve really responded to. He feels like Scorsese’s punk younger brother who is doing the really hard drugs and screwing around with the really nasty people. His customarily seedy and sadly neglected 1985 masterwork Fear City might just be one of his greatest and least celebrated efforts, a film that is so much a product of its time that it feels inconceivable that it could ever be made today. It also feels so much like the product of its creators that I could think of no other director’s name to appear in the credits.

The ludicrous yet wildly entertaining plot concocted by frequent Ferrara collaborator Nicholas St. John couldn’t contain any more exploitive elements if it tried: There’s a karate-master serial killer on the loose in Manhattan, targeting the strippers who work at the various joints along Time Square, and it’s up to a down and out former boxer, the perfectly cast Tom Berenger, to figure out who is responsible while trying to protect his main squeeze, who may or may not be the killer’s next intended victim. This is a disreputable film, and right from the extra-sleazy start with the blood-red title credits splashed over a sexed-up montage of women of the night strutting their considerable stuff, you just know you’re stepping into Ferrara’s signature playground of eroticism and violence. I just can’t picture any other filmmaker getting down and dirty like this; Fear City truly feels like the sort of movie that could only have been birthed by a very specific creative duo, and made a very specific time, because NYC doesn’t look like this anymore. Not by a long-shot.

The dark and purposefully smeary cinematography by James Lemmo is absolutely fantastic, capturing NYC in all of its old-school, scuzzy splendor, highlighting shadowy alley ways and ominous street life, with streaks of bold color and flashing neon emanating from downtown. On a visual level alone, the film is a complete triumph, and downright intoxicating in spots. The eclectic supporting cast is impossibly cool, with Billy Dee Williams turning in one of his best performances as a determined detective, Melanie Griffith as Berenger’s ultra-sexy love interest, 80’s icon Rae Dawn Chong, Rossano Brazzi as Berenger’s buddy, Jack Scalia, John Foster, Neil Clifford, and Maria Conchita Alonso. The film was originally bankrolled and produced by 20th Century Fox, who then sold it after becoming concerned by the level of sordid elements. Dirty, raw, and with a constant sense of danger running all throughout, Fear City is a walk on the wild side for fans of this type of extreme, outlaw cinema. Available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory.


Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. Hes currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott, and co-operates the website Podcasting Them Softly.

He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.

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