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Summer of Sam
Ten years after his masterpiece Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee tackled another story about how dangerous and ultimately tragic prejudice might be if it keeps growing unchecked. He might have tried and miserably failed with his only official horror film so far, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, but I would nominate Summer of Sam as at least one half of an example of the genre. The dread, fear, and paranoia that Lee captures with his grim vision of 1977 New York plagued by the Son of Sam killings and race relations plummeting after the infamous blackout, is perfectly accentuated with a grainy, bleak, and appropriately unpleasant visual style.
Almost a decade before David Fincher's Zodiac, Lee applies a similarly distant and matter-of-fact approach to depicting David Berkowitz's (Michael Badalucco) horrific slayings, making the acts seem that much more horrific via their realism. The scene where the neighborhood dog tells Berkowitz to go out and kill is so unsettlingly freaky, that it makes me wish Lee had tackled at least one horror project earlier in his career.
Summer of Sam technically isn't about the Son of Sam killer, who terrorized New York City during the summer of 1977, his weapon of choice a 44-caliber handgun. It's about how behavior found unusual in a culture can turn someone into the deeply marginalized minority. When Richie (Adrian Brody) comes back to his conservative Italian neighborhood, dressing and acting like a proud member of a British punk band, the immediate reaction from his old friends is that he's a freak, so he must be responsible for the murders that plague the city.
Lee treating Son of Sam's exploits as a sub-plot actually works in the film's favor as far as the sudden and visceral reaction we have to the killings are concerned. The death scenes lack the usual suspense of a standard serial killer flick. When Son of Sam casually approaches his victims and empties his gun, the violence is sudden, and ends suddenly, allowing us to contemplate the shocking matter-of-factness of it. The film is a bit bloated and overlong; it could have used less characters and sub-plots, but is a worthy entry in the genre nevertheless.
Kino's new 1080p transfer scrubs some of the grain found in previous home video releases. I compared it to my original DVD copy and found that to be the case. However, it's not scrubbed enough to ruin the film's grainy 70s look, and still captures impressive detail in Ellen Kuras' contrast-heavy and dark cinematography.
We get two DTS-HD tracks, in 2.0 and 5.1. The 5.1 track is appropriately jarring whenever Son of Sam shoots his .44, creating an ear-piercing gunshot sound. Lee's eclectic selection of tunes from the era, from disco to The Who, reverberates around the surround tracks, giving the period piece life. The 2.0 track perfectly balances dialogue and music for a listen through the TV speakers.
Commentary with Lee and John Leguizamo: This commentary is a blast. Lee and his lead actor have a loose and friendly demeanor. They obviously haven't seen the film in a while, so it feels like watching it with a couple of friends who joke around about their work.
Interview with Leguizamo: Leguizamo gives information about how he got cast in the film, while also giving us a quick history lesson about New York in 1977.
We also get a Trailer.
Summer of Sam finds the right tone between Fincher-style serial killer procedural, full of dread and fear, and an ensemble drama about the dangers of prejudice and paranoia. It's too long, like many of Lee's ‘90s output, but has aged really well and is highly recommended to fans of Zodiac.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com