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Dissecting Director Abel Ferrara!

Jan. 7, 2014by: Jake Dee

DIRECTOR ABEL FERRARA!

Buy THE DRILLER KILLER here

Abel Ferrara has made some gritty ass movies. To my mind, dude's not only a unheralded writer/director, his career choices and unwillingness to compromise artistically really ought to be commended. It's almost as if he's a low-grade Cassavetes - or a B-movie auteur - operating completely outside of the studio system, funding his films independently, shooting on location in his native New York, not giving a goddamn about convention or expectation. As a result, he's amassed more than a handful of memorable and truly unique pieces of exploitation sleaze. Flicks like THE DRILLER KILLER, MS. 45, FEAR CITY, KING OF NEW YORK (perhaps my favorite), BAD LIEUTENANT, BODY SNATCHERS, THE ADDICTION, THE FUNERAL, and even a few others - all embody a certain kind of character - the deeply depraved! I personally love his movies, and can't think of a filmmaker more apt to stick a knife to. Lads and lasses, let's go ahead and Dissect the 35 year career of Abel Ferrara!

BEST WORK

Buy BAD LIEUTENANT here

If for no other reason than eliciting the utterly searing performance of Harvey Keitel, BAD LIEUTENANT has to be Ferrara's finest film foray. Sure, it's not technically a horror film, but come on, anyone who's seen the spiraling depravity and moral unraveling of the film's title character knows how f*cking horrific the film devolves into. I mean, smoking crack and ass-f*cking nuns? Pulling teenage girls over for a moving violation, only to make them watch you jerk-off roadside? Never-mind the brilliant execution of such material (again, Keitel!), but to even conjure such scenes, commit them to paper, and then go out and actually film them? Well that takes a big pair of cajones...an endowment Ferrara time and time continues to demonstrate.

Shot in the gritty New York streets in a mere 18 days, BAD LIEUTENANT was one of the first NC-17 movies of the 90s, opening the door for the kinds of sleazy, unrepentant pulp fiction Tarantino would relay throughout the decade (with Keitel no less!) Unflinching, unapologetic, completely irredeemable BAD LIEUTENANT is at once a rich character study as well as a deep morality tale about how the law - the differentiation between good and bad - is reconciled by a legal authority figure. A cop. A cop who is also a severely troubled man. A man with a broken soul. Gambling, drug addiction, hard boozing, sexual abuse, parental neglect one the inside...a respectable, well-to-do police offer on the out. It's the collision course between these two inner-sides of one man that makes for such a compelling watch. It's a tragic fall of a man who, at one time in his life, must have wanted to do good for the world. Unfortunately, the personal demons were too much to overcome. In the end, the BAD LIEUTENANT couldn't even save himself...never-mind the city.

WORST WORK

Buy NEW ROSE HOTEL here

Like any filmmaker whose career spans some five decades, Ferrara has his share of misfires. For me personally, I find that Ferrara struggles the most when dealing with romantic material. Whether it's CHINA GIRL, CAT CHASER, DANGEROUS GAME or THE BLACKOUT - when Ferrara has to actually deal with human emotions of the heart...yeah, not his strongest suit. That's not to say he doesn't write/create strong female characters, quite the contrary actually, it's just when it comes to love and romance...the stories and interactions are nowhere near as credible or even compelling as the horror and hard-boiled crime stories he's helmed. And let's be honest, it's been awhile - regardless of genre - since Ferrara has ably (no pun) directed a film. Kicking it off with NEW ROSE HOTEL in 2001, Ferrara has done nine films - seven narratives and two docs - all with little success (critically, financially). But given the cast, source material, and impact it had on this nine-film slide - let's take another look at NEW ROSE HOTEL shall we.

Based on William Gibson's short story, NEW ROSE HOTEL tried to examine a bleak sort of futuristic corporate mind-control. I guess, having been pretty successful in the sci-fi realm with BODY SNATCHERS, Ferrara thought he could do likewise with the steampunk fiction of Gibson. Sadly, as a whole, the movie doesn't really work. Ferrara mainstays Walken and Dafoe couldn't even save the flick, despite the radiant presence of Asia Argento. And that's where I think the flick went wrong. Even though it had all the themes of a good Ferrara flick - mystery, sci-fi, amorality etc. - it's that same old bugaboo - love and romance - that undoes the flick in the end. Also, the absence of Nicholas St. John on NEW ROSE HOTEL - and every Ferrara film subsequent to THE FUNERAL for that matter - suffered grossly as a result.

TRADEMARKS

Buy KING OF NEW YORK here

Ferrara's most glaring and admirable trademark has to be his unwillingness to compromise as a filmmaker. As a result, the dude has worked almost entirely outside of the Hollywood studio system...instead making movies in the streets of NYC (not on a set), with little money, yet with complete artistic freedom and creative independence. His movies are gritty, grimy, realistic, and completely unsentimental. Hell, they often don't even feature music!

Thematically, Ferrara has always laced his films with religious subtext. Whether literal, metaphorical, even visual - Ferrara's characters usually grapple with faith, identity, and, in the end, some sort of redemption (or failure of). Not to go all dime-store psychologist on you, but if I had to guess, such weighty topics most likely derive from the strangling guilt Ferrara dealt with growing up as a Catholic Italian American. Scorsese shite. Paul Schrader shite. Just a hunch!

Also, like the best filmmakers, Ferrara wisely recast many of the same actors in his films. Christopher Walken, Harvey Keitel, Willem Dafoe, Annabella Sciora, Matthew Modine - but also, great character actors like Victor Argo, Paul Calderon and Giancarlo Esposito (Gus Fring!). In short, Abel is a trademark loyalist!

HIDDEN GEM

Buy THE ADDICTION here

Because of his low-key operation outside of the industry, there are plenty of golden nuggets to be mined from Ferrara's canon. Looking past the not so subtle DRILLER KILLER, his feature debut, I could easily cite movies like FEAR CITY - about a throng of Manhattan strippers being stalked and slaughtered by a murderous maniac...or the little seen avant-garde mob movie THE FUNERAL (which plays backwards chronologically and stars the likes of Benicio Del Toro, Christopher Walken, Chris Penn and Vincent Gallo). I could mention the supremely undervalued BODY SNATCHERS remake he made in 1993, during a time when horror was thought to be third rate at worst, moribund at best. Instead though, I've decided to loft a little love at Ferrara's offbeat 1995 vampire flick THE ADDICTION!

Written by Ferrara's longtime writer, Nicholas St. John, THE ADDICTION stars Lili Taylor, Christopher Walken (as per usual), Annabella Sciora (another Ferrara favorite), Edie Falco and Michael Imperioli (Sopranos anyone!)...in one of the first films to take an intimate look at how one deals with slowly morphing into a blood-thirsty fiend. But of course, vampirism in this case can serve as metaphor for any force - inner or outer - that can subsume your soul and overtake your life. Themes of fate, chance, happenstance, coincidence and of course, addiction - backdrop a gorgeously shot black and white canvas redolent of early German expressionism, a la Murnau's NOSFERATU.

At a brisk 82 minutes, shot in 20 days for a mere $300,000 - THE ADDICTION exemplifies the kind of minimalist, in-the-streets, do-it-yourself aesthetic Ferrara is known for, at the same time, in terms of narrative, completely bucks all convention of the vampire subgenre. The result is a highly credibly, singular and unique movie that deserves to be seen by more than the 46 people who have. Seriously, if you're a Ferrara fan, you'd be wise to cop THE ADDICTION!

NEXT PROJECT

Buy MS. 45 here

Departing quite a bit from the dark material he typically plumbs, Ferrara has a new movie in post-production this year called WELCOME TO NEW YORK. Unfortunately, it isn't really all that relevant to us here at AITH, as it deals with the rise and fall of French con-artist and one-time IMF head Dominique Strauss-Khan. Interesting nonetheless, but hardly the kind of thing we'd expect to see from Ferrara. So instead, I think it only makes sense to spotlight a movie of Ferrara's that, while not brand new, is getting a theatrical rerelease in selected U.S. cities from now until February 8th, courtesy of Drafthouse Films (click Here for more). Ladies and gents, that film is the lean, mean, exploitation revenge flick MS. 45!

The setup is simple. After being sexually assaulted twice in one day (by two different perps), a mute seamstress working in NY's garment district takes vigilant matters into her own hands...along with her trusty 45mm handgun! The chick snaps, and takes to the streets as a weird sort of feminine superhero...skulking and stalking the sleaziest crannies of the city and laying waste to any presumptive pervert she may run into. She doesn't even think twice...if a dude appears threatening toward a female...Ms. 45 is lifting the steel, taking aim and letting the heat flare! Rated NC-17 upon initial release, MS. 45 has all the vintage Ferrara touches...the grittiness, the griminess, the low-budget, the independence, the authentic NY milieu, and of course, the seedy and sordid characters.

In addition, MS. 45 marks the first of many collaborations between Ferrara and his star Zoe Lund (who actually co-wrote BAD LIEUTENANT), a young ingénue who sadly fell victim to a drug overdose in 1999. She was just 37. Hopefully, with the rerelease of MS. 45, a whole new generation of audience will get to discover Lund just as they do Ferrara!

MS. 45 hits DVD & Blu-ray uncut for the first time in North America later this year.

OVERALL

Buy THE FUNERAL here

Buy BODY SNATCHERS here

Buy FEAR CITY here

Here's the best and most respectful way I can sum up Abel Ferrara's career. When the dude passes away, someone should simply blast Frank Sinatra's "My Way" over an endless loop of scenes from THE DRILLER KILLER, FEAR CITY, MS. 45, KING OF NEW YORK, BAD LIEUTENANT, BODY SNATCHERS, THE ADDICTION, THE FUNERAL and probably a handful of others. Seriously, there's no higher compliment to bestowed upon a filmmaker. Abel Ferrara operated on his own accord, made movies in reflection of the way HE saw the world, not some soulless, bottom-line-minded studio exec, and gave us some of the most unflinchingly realistic crime/horror movies we've ever seen. As a genuine fan, I'll always remember the sobering and  sympathetic look at the depraved and downtrodden in his films, and the human spirit he time and time again captured so brilliantly. I proudly rock a 1990 KING OF NEW YORK poster on my bedroom wall!

Extra Tidbit: What's your favorite Ferrara flick? Mine's a toss-up between BAD LIEUTENANT and KING OF NEW YORK!

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