Lost and Found: Fear City

Since I first discovered his work with King of New York (1990), Abel Ferrara has been one of my favorite independent filmmakers. His films’ provocative style and content defined the pre-Disney New York City for me. Ferrara documented on film the city I knew from my childhood and young adulthood, the one that scared me and thrilled me in equal measure. That New York is long gone, but Ferrara’s films from the 1980s through the 1990s remain to remind us of a time when New York was ominously known as “Fear City.”

Smell the fear!

It’s fitting then that Ferrara was the director to helm a film called Fear City (1984). It was to be his first studio film, but once 20th Century-Fox saw all the nudity, violence, and other unseemly content they sold it to the independent Aquarius Releasing, It didn’t make much impression on the box office or critics. As the follow-up to early career masterpiece Ms. 45 (1981)—a more perfect exploitation film has never been made—Fear City was bound to suffer by comparison, and it does. Still, it’s fittingly lurid for the times, set inside the world of Times Square strip clubs, where a serial killer is stalking strippers. Even though much was actually shot in Los Angeles for budgetary reasons, it’s an Abel Ferrara film so you know it has the requisite New York Movie vibe.

Griffith and Berenger definitely generate some sexual tension together.

It’s the most “Hollywood” cast Ferrara had worked with to this point, featuring Tom Berenger in the lead, alongside Jack Scalia, Billy Dee Williams, Melanie Griffith, and Rae Dawn Chong. Berenger was hot after The Big Chill, (1983), which raised his profile considerably. Veteran smooth operator Billy Dee had done Return of the Jedi the year before. Griffith was returning to the screen that year after being absent for some time.

The strong, silent type.

Berenger plays the brooding antihero Matt Rossi with quiet power. He and Scalia play well off each other as Italian American best friends with differing styles. Their business is managing exotic dancers and other adult entertainment. This puts them into constant conflict with Al Wheeler, the exasperated vice detective trying to solve the killings. Played by Billy Dee in full scenery chewing mode, Al is epically entertaining, especially when spitting out lines like “There’s nothing I hate more than guineas in Cadillacs.”

Griffith’s striptease opens the film with a bang.

In the same year as Fear City, Griffith also played porn star Holly Body in Brian De Palma’s sensational and salacious thriller Body Double—a film briefly profiled here a few years ago. It was the Year of the Stripper for Griffith, who had equally memorable moments of doffing her clothes in each film. She opens Fear City with a jaw-dropping striptease. Griffith’s character Loretta nurses a burgeoning drug habit, plus she also happens to be Rossi’s ex-girlfriend. He’s still pining for her, and Griffith shows us Loretta still cares for him too, but she’s sleeping with another stripper now, played by Chong. As the serial killer gets closer and closer to Loretta, Rossi works to save her from being the next victim.

Berenger broods, on the streets of New York.

The New York exteriors Ferrara shot are terrific, now serving as evocative time capsules of the good old bad days in the city. Midtown packed with thrill-seekers and neon signs advertising topless dancers will make you swear you’re back trolling the Deuce again (or at least watching HBO’s The Deuce). Ferrara captures the era’s sleazy charms while also leaning into the script’s neo-noir stylings. While it’s more a work-for-hire than the director’s most acclaimed films, Fear City packs in just enough sexy exotic dancing, slasher-style murders, and hardboiled crime drama to please trash cinema devotees.

Fear City is streaming on Tubi and Amazon Prime, and would make a good double feature with another “Lost and Found” flick that also centers around a serial killer targeting strippers, Dance with Death.

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