Gritty integrity. That’s the promise you get with every single film by maverick auteur Abel Ferrara, the director of The Bad Lieutenant, King of New York, The Black Out, The Funeral, and so many other brilliant, transgressive pieces of searing indie cinema. His customarily seedy and sadly neglected 1985 masterpiece Fear City might just be one of his greatest and least celebrated pieces of work, 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. The dark and purposefully smeary cinematography by James Lemmo captured NYC in all of it’s old-school, scuzzy splendor, highlighting shadowy alley ways and ominous street life, with streaks of bold color and flashing neon emanating from downtown. 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.