Blu-ray Review: Summer of Sam | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, September 19th, 2020  

Summer of Sam

Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Mar 23, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

New York City teetered on the brink of collapse in the summer of 1977. Crime was high, rolling blackouts plunged the city into darkness, and a serial killer was on the loose.

Summer of Sam drops the viewer into this atmosphere of paranoia, fear and destruction, drenched in summer heat, sputtering fans, extra-wide shirt collars, gold chains, disco and punk. The Son of Sam, or the .44 Caliber Killer, né David Berkowitz, roams the streets at night, shooting couples and young women as they sit in their cars. He sends taunting letters full of batshit devil imagery to the police and newspapers. Residents are afraid to leave their homes at night, and the clubs and restaurants begin to empty. In one scene, Mira Sorvino’s waitress Dionna pleads her restaurant-owner father not to fire their best server as business craters (sounds eerily familiar, huh?).

Smartly, the film isn’t about Berkowitz but the paranoia among a group of knuckleheaded Italian Americans in the Bronx. Similar in some ways to David Fincher’s better and masterful Zodiac, Berkowitz’s crimes are the setting and catalyst for a character-driven look at macho self-destruction, rather than plot fodder for a serial-killer horror film. In many ways Summer of Sam is like many of director Spike Lee’s mid-tier work—there’s a great film obscured by a few unnecessary impulses. Fincher was able to resist imagining the Zodiac killer (and, of course, police never caught Zodiac, while Berkowitz was identified and captured).

Summer of Sam really, really works when Lee sticks to the story of Dionna, her unfaithful husband Vinny (John Leguizamo), his best friend Ritchie (Adrien Brody), and their neighborhood’s wannabe tough guys. Ritchie has returned to the Bronx from the U.K. with liberty spikes, a dog collar, a fake cockney accent and CBGB dreams. Vinny philanders and blames his infidelity on God, on the Devil, on the murders­—on anyone but himself. And the drug dealers that round out his circle of friends increasingly mistrust what they don’t understand—principally Ritchie and his punk posturing.  

When Lee strays from the tests of loyalty and responsibility that Vinny repeatedly fails, Summer of Sam falls away from its strengths and into cheap shocks. It repeatedly films Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco) pulling his hair and screaming at the incessant barking of the neighbor’s dog. He’s bathed in the harsh green-tinted light favored by edgy ‘90s films like Fincher’s Fight Club. He even spells out “murder” in children’s alphabet letter blocks on a grimy kitchen table. At one point the dog demands, in human voice, for Berkowitz to kill.

Outside Berkowitz’s filthy apartment, Lee gives the Bronx and Manhattan streets the earthy, warm oranges and yellows reminiscent of films made in the ‘70s, especially Martin Scorsese’s. Police have failed to identify a suspect, even enlisting local crime figures to help bring him in. The longer the madman lurks, the more neighbors lose trust in each other and turn on their friends, suspicious that anyone dressed outside the norm is Beelzebub in the flesh. Lee is so effective at building tension in the city as circumstances intersect and grudges escalate into violence, that any entrance into Berkowitz’ world feels like an unnecessary detour into subpar horror filmmaking. It’s always more scary to imagine the monster than to see the real pathetic thing.

This new Kino Lorber Blu-ray edition is one of five Lee films from the ‘90s to be reissued this year by the studio, and it includes several trailers, an audio commentary from Lee and Leguizamo and an interview with Leguizamo.


Follow Ed McMenamin on twitter at @edmcmenamin


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