The Summer of '77: Record-setting temperatures baked the streets of New York City. In the oppressive heat, the people of New York were terrorized by a killer who struck in the night, shooting people seemingly at random as they sat in their cars. Beginning his year-long reign of terror on July 29, 1976, the unknown assailant quickly gained the nickname, "The .44 Caliber Killer" for the Bulldog Special he used in his close-range, shoot-and-run attacks. Later, after leaving one of a series of notes for the police, the killer, David Berkowitz, became better known as the Son of Sam.
When dealing with a story as infinitely interesting as the madness of and manhunt for the elusive Berkowitz, author Charles Willeford chose to focus on Berkowitz's downstairs neighbor, Deputy Craig Glassman. In his book, Off The Wall, Willeford contrasted Berkowitz with Glassman-two men living on their own; one a crazed killer scrawling notes about Satan on his walls (hence the book's title) and the other out on his own after being asked to leave by his wife. An odd couple, indeed. Interspersed between the alternating chapters are newspaper accounts of the Son of Sam's activities and reproductions of some of his letters to the police.
Writing about Berkowitz, Willeford was treading familiar ground. Though no Willefordian protagonist ever reached the depths of homicidal paranoia to which Berkowitz plummeted, the author long held that "madness was a predominant theme and a normal condition for Americans living in the second half of the century." Off The Wall is a fascinating portrait of the Son of Sam, detailing the origins and extent of Berkowitz's insanity. The only weak spot of the book is the over-informative introduction by Edna Buchanan, a reporter for "The Miami Herald" who gives an unnecessary, albeit well written, summary of the book.
Off The Wall, which was purportedly written for some quick cash in 1980, shows Willeford's immense skill as a writer. One might think that it's difficult to go astray with such captivating material but filmmaker Spike Lee disproves that notion...in a big way.
Of all the adjectives I might think to describe a movie about the Son of Sam, "boring" is not one to come to mind. Yet, Spike Lee's Summer of Sam is that and more. Hell, it's dull. Deathly dull. Drawn out, humdrum, monotonous, uninteresting, and tiresome-those words don't even begin to describe the tedium of Summer of Sam.
Written by Lee and actors Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli (the latter best known for his role as the "stuttering prick" Spider in Goodfellas -- not only does Lee cop camera movements from Martin Scorcese but actors as well), Summer of Sam uses the paranoia of New York '77 as its backdrop, giving the character of David Berkowitz (a completely miscast Michael Badalucco-looking like he's in his late thirties with a scruffy face-not at all the angelic twenty-four of the real Son of Sam) all of ten minutes of screen time, meaning that the most absorbing character is missed for the rest of the film. The remaining one hundred and twenty-five long minutes concern Vinnie (John Leguizamo conspicuously playing an Italian-American in a neighborhood that can't tolerate "spics and niggers") and Richie (Adrien Brody).
Taking a cue from Berkowitz who spells out words in lettered blocks; Lee employs big, overwrought, over-stylized scenes. Amongst the cluttered narrative, stereotypical characters, and disco dancing is the theme of man's duality. Like David Berkowitz, Richie and Vinnie have aspects of their personalities that they keep hidden from everyone around them, allowing them life only under a cloak of secrecy.
Richie, a punk rocker that has come back to "the neighborhood" from places unknown, makes bread to support his lame band, The Late Term Abortions, by dancing at a male strip club and getting blow jobs in the upstairs Ladies Room. Other than introducing some old-fashioned homophobia to the film, Richie's around to justify the overly-loud use of The Who on the soundtrack and provide a contrast to the shiftless neighborhood greaseballs that hang around a "Dead End" sign - what subtle symbolism, Spike! (And what self-respecting punk would be rocking to The Who in '77?)
Richie also becomes the target of the inevitable lynch mob. What's a tropical New York summer in a Spike Lee movie (er, "Joint") without a lynch mob (Do the Right Thing)? Is there a monster on the dead end street? What the interchangeable goombahs fail to realize is that the Son of Sam isn't going to stick out like a sore thumb, wearing a mohawk and safety-pinned pants. Instead, the most horrifying thing about Berkowitz, as well as so many other killers, is their innocuous outer appearance. Again, a good idea would have been to show more of Berkowitz, especially when not senselessly ranting in his apartment but, instead, calmly interacting with the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, Vinnie cheats on his wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino) because of his guilty desire for three-input sex. Sleeping with his hair salon clients (business is booming after it's announced that the Son of Sam shoots long-haired brunettes) and his wife's cousin, the wishy-washy Vinnie often suffers from bouts of self-reproach so severe that I was waiting for him to stick a lit match under his hand a la Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets. When Dionna dons a blonde wig, it looks like Vinnie might be able to leave the light on and switch up positions from missionary but, alas, it's yet another false hope for something to happen in this tired movie.
Summer of Sam is not immune to the blazing summer sun of 1977. It chugs along in dire need of maintenance, its engine labored, sputtering, always threatening to overheat. All too often it grinds to a halt and roughly idles, smoke billowing from its tailpipe before stalling out. It's then that one hopes to hear footsteps creeping up on this immobile film and pepper it with a spray of .44 slugs.
At times it seems that Spike Lee may be aware of the audience's ennui and attempts to liven things up with (rare) scenes of Berkowitz screaming his head off, a musical montage, goofy anamorphic effects (reminiscent of Crooklyn) a half dozen subplots and discordant flashbacks. In addition to these, there are the occasional sequences shot with the ultra-luminescence of Casino (and Clockers). Ellen Kuras's cinematography is as schizophrenic as Berkowitz himself.
The narrative is equally uneven, not staying with any one storyline long enough to have any impact; giving short shrift to everyone involved, especially Berkowitz. Hell, even Spike Lee has more screen-time as a heavy-lidded, mush-mouthed television reporter (again showing his complete inability to act).
The most impressive thing that Spike Lee did with Summer of Sam is that he managed to make a movie even worse than Girl 6 -- I thought that was impossible until Sam Carr's dog, Harvey, pattered into Berkowitz's apartment and started speaking to him with John Turturro's voice. "Go out and kill!" he commands. The walls were soon ringing with my laughter.
For a while I was afraid that Lee wasn't dealing with Berkowitz for fear of glamorizing a serial killer or exploiting the memory of his victims. Yet, with the words of Harvey (maybe they should have gotten that dog from the Bush's Baked Beans commercials, he might have delivered his lines better), I realized that Berkowitz's psychosis was being played out as a joke. The threat of the Son of Sam isn't just a backdrop to this inane film; it's a punchline.
If you're looking for a great exploration of mob mentality, check out the old "Twilight Zone" episode, "Monsters Are Due On Maple Street." For an insightful look at Berkowitz, you can try to track down Willeford's terrific book or check out Corky Quakenbush's hysterical "Davey and the Son of Goliath." Art Clokey's cloyingly Christian claymation series, "Davey and Goliath," provides the perfect opportunity for parody as both simpleton Davey and killer David Berkowitz were stringent Jesus freaks and believed that dogs could talk to them! Quakenbush's short is not only far more entertaining than Summer of Sam, but, even with its liberal interpretation, more accurate in its portrayal of the .44 caliber killer.