All across New York City an unknown assailant known as “The New York Knifer” has been attacking the city’s stripper population. Coincidently, all the victims belong to an agency co-operated by troubled ex-boxer Matt Rossi (Tom Berenger) that hires out dancers to various clubs throughout the city. With more girls turning up dead, Rossi begins to feel pressure from not only the mob boss who controls the agency, but also from Al Wheeler (Billy Dee Williams), the head detective on the case who’s had it out for Rossi for years and is convinced he’s involved somehow. With both sides of the law on his back, Rossi decides to take matters into his own hands and is determined to catch the killer himself while confronting some personal demons of his own in the process.
Considerably pulpier than both The Driller Killer and Ms. 45, Fear City is nonetheless a quintessential Ferrara film in the way it offers a nice amount of dramatic substance and psychology to go along with all the stripper slicing. Considering the wide variety of genres and subgenres the film dabbles in on the surface the film might seem all over the place tonally speaking but Ferrara balances everything out nicely so not one aspect of the film cancels out another. As much as the film is about the killer, its also equally somewhat of a character study of Rossi which also includes a well executed romantic subplot involving Rossi’s ex-girlfriend Loretta playing by Melanie Griffith in an early big role. Its Berenger who really makes the drama of the film work so well as he brings so much more to the role of Rossi than just the stereotypical “sensitive tough guy”. Ferrara’s clever way of working Rossi’s boxing past into the main storyline was not only a great way to bring more depth to the character but it also gave the nameless killer a creditable opponent. The killer by the way also happens to be an expert in martial arts which leads to one really innovative subway attack sequence as well as an unquestionably 80’s training montage. Naturally Ferrara presents everything in his trademark meeting of the middle of 42nd St. grime and high style which at this point he had perfected after having really found his directorial calling card with Ms. 45.
According to Ferrara the idea for Fear City actually predated The Driller Killer with screenwriter Nicholas St. John writing the first script for the film in 1975. The original idea for the film was more psychological from the killers standpoint and by the time the film actually got made in 1984 the finished product was drastically different from that first script. The film does deal somewhat with the killers motivations although its obviously not the main focus of the film. Still its pretty fascinating to know how long Ferrara had the idea for the film and how much of that original vision remained in the final film. Ferrara has also stated that at the time the first script for the film was written he and St. John actually lived behind an agency like the one depicted in the film which played a big hand in the inspiration for the story. Fear City is also important as it was Ferrara’s first Hollywood production with a good sized budget behind it. Ferrara would go on to describe the film as “taking the payday” which sounds a bit dismissive although its hardly a film to be ashamed of with its original melding of genres and flawless cast. Fear City is again one of Ferrara’s most entertaining films, and a considering the films that came before and after it, its placement in Ferrara’s filmography makes complete sense.