Fear City – 101 Films

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Director: Abel Ferrara
Starring: Tom Berenger, Billy Dee Williams, Jack Scalia and Melanie Griffith
Country: USA
Running Time: 95 min
Year: 1984

When it comes to discovering filmmakers through blind-buys, Abel Ferrara might be my favourite of the bunch. I found out about Ferrara after buying the Arrow Video release of King of New York and fell in love with the man’s work, so whenever the opportunity to check out another film of his arrives, I always jump at it. 

There’s something about each film he makes that has me captivated, whether it’s the shocking Ms. 45, the video nasty classic The Driller Killer or his end-of-the-world drama 4:44 Last Day on Earth. Nobody’s quite making films like this man, so I was beyond excited to check out the upcoming 101 Films disc for his 1984 feature Fear City. Let’s just say, it’s an interesting film, especially considering it’s sandwiched between two of my favourites of his, the aforementioned Ms. 45 and the massively underrated China Girl. 

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Fear City feels like a riff on William Friedkin’s Cruising, with less S&M clubs and more strip clubs. It’s full of violence, nudity, neon-lit streets and everything you’d expect from an erotic thriller of its era. It stars Tom Berenger, Melanie Griffith and Billy Dee Williams (who’s absolutely terrific in this, by the way) who are all caught up in the case of a serial killer who’s attacking strippers in strange, bizarre manners. 

I’ll get this out of the way first, I think this was the first Ferrara film where I didn’t completely love the characters, as they mostly feel two dimensional, despite writer Nicholas St. John collaborating with Ferrara on most of his big films from this era, outside of Williams’ Al Wheeler, a detective who is committed to finding out the identity of the killer. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but he has this level of pizzazz that I couldn’t help but love. Berenger’s lead performance as Matt is nothing terrible, but he’s lacking the charisma that’s needed for his role that he’s unable to conjure, and this also rings true for the relationship he has with Griffith’s Loretta. 

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Strangely enough, the best performance in the film is from the mysterious killer, who spends the majority of his time dancing around as he attacks his victims, which I found jaw-droppingly strange but quite amusing. To say the actor behind the killer (I won’t spoil who it is in this review) is revelling in his time on screen would be a massive understatement, but it does feel like it’s at odds with the tone of the rest of the film. There’s one sequence in particular where the killer is dancing in the nude, during a montage that might be in the hall of fame for “strangest moments to happen in an Abel Ferrara joint”, although this film’s finale could also be a contender. All I’ll say, bad martial arts in a gorgeous alley.

There’s also a good amount of time spent on flashbacks to Matt’s youth, his boxing career and more that, while amusing, is fairly unengaging overall. Still, where the film shines is with the look. I chose to watch the unrated version included on this release, which occasionally cuts back to VHS/DVD footage of the incorporated scenes, but whenever the HD footage is on display, the film looks sublime. It’s obvious that Ferrara’s work on this led to his work on China Girl, which focuses on the romance aspects in a far more interesting manner than Fear City does. 

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Is Fear City Ferrara’s best work? Not really, it’s probably the most by-the-numbers film I’ve seen from him (until it isn’t) and it still has most of his trademark qualities (the top-notch visuals, the shocking violence, the occasional excellent performance) but unfortunately, it misses out on the captivating characters and writing that usually make me fall in love with Ferrara’s work. I can’t say that I loved Fear City, but it’s still a good time for fans of his work or the typical sleaze that was present in 80s neo-noir flicks. 


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Fear City is being released on Blu-ray by 101 Films on March 18th, as part of their Black Label collection. The transfer is sourced from prior releases, and it looks fairly excellent, although I noticed a strange issue during my viewing. While the unrated cut plays in the correct aspect ratio, the theatrical version seems to have been slightly stretched to fill the entire screen. It doesn’t completely compromise the image, but it’s an issue that might call for a future replacement programme from 101 Films. Still, when watching the unrated cut, I had no issues to report. As mentioned in my review, when viewing the unrated cut, there’s occasional changes in video quality for the exclusive footage in this cut, going from the gorgeous HD print to VHS/DVD quality sequences, but I didn’t find it all too distracting. The audio track is an English LPCM 2.0 track and it sounds absolutely fantastic, with English subtitles included. The following extras are included: 


  • Uncut version of Fear City (97 Minutes)
  • Commentary with film critic Kevin Lyons
  • Extended trailer
  • Limited edition booklet: Includes ‘Seeing Red: A Neo-Noir Guide’ by Rich Johnson and ‘Returning To Fear City’ by Brad Stevens

The uncut version of the film runs for a minute and a half longer than the theatrical version included on the disc and is the version I chose to watch for this review. After having a look at the differences between the two cuts, it’s definitely the one I’d go for, both for the additional footage and the correct aspect ratio on this version. 

The commentary with Kevin Lyons is a decent listen, with Lyons being a film historian that’s clearly knowledgeable about Ferrara’s work and gives a fairly solid biography on the man’s work as well as those involved in its production. It’s a relatively dry listen but offers enough that I’d recommend giving it a listen for those interested in the film’s production and history. 

An extended trailer is also included.

I wasn’t provided with the limited edition booklet, unfortunately. 

Fear City is far from Ferrara’s best film, and I’d suggest other films before this one if you’re new to the filmmaker’s work, but 101 Films have put together a nice, if flawed release for this film. The aspect ratio issue on the theatrical cut is likely to be fixed in the future, fingers crossed and the disc could have done with a couple more extras to give it the limited edition feel, but what’s present is still good overall. Recommended for die-hard fans of Ferrara or sleazy 80s cinema.


Fear City - 101 Films
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