Monday, June 13, 2011

Bloody Nightmares #36: 13 (aka City in Panic) (1987)

A Toronto-lensed slasher film with a twist, City in Panic has some misguided morality (and an awfully dated view on homosexuality) but at least tries to do something unique in what was already a tired genre by the late 80s. While it rarely succeeds, and becomes rather ponderous before a final reveal that - while predictable - proves to be somewhat satisfying, there are a few interesting ideas (and tributes to other, better films) that prevent the film from being a complete waste. However, perhaps a low-budget slasher film isn't necessarily the best way to approach controversial issues regarding homosexuality and AIDS, and even forgiving viewers may be left with a bad taste in their mouth.

The film opens - just like Blood Cult - with another tired tribute to Psycho's famous shower scene, except a) this is filmed much more professionally and accurately and b) this time the victim is a male. In fact, one of the things that separates City in Panic from the many, many similar slasher films of the period is that the victims are almost exclusively male. More specifically, the victims are almost all homosexual males who happen to have AIDS - and the portrayal of homosexuals avoids many of the limp-wristed flamboyant stereotypes common at the time. Alas, the victims are still hanging out at steam baths and gyms, or trolling public washrooms for sex so it's unfortunately not as progressive as you might hope. This shower scene also gives us a brief look at our killer who, wearing black gloves and trench-coat and carrying a huge blade, looks to have stepped directly out of a 70s Italian Giallo film.

Not only is the killer targeting AIDS-infected men, but is also cutting the letter M into the flesh of each victim - the immortal Fritz Lang film M is actually referred to by name - though the reason for this isn't revealed until the end. We are quickly introduced to Dave Miller (a wooden David Adamson), a radio talk-show host who spends most of his time condemning conservative newspaper columnist Alex Ramsey for demanding that the police reveal all of the information they have about the recent killings. Miller's ratings are low - and his bills are mounting - and it's not hard to understand why since the long scenes of his talk show make it seem awfully dull. Even worse, we're forced to spend way too much time on these scenes, which never really get across the supposed mounting hysteria the murders have created. Eventually the killer calls in to the radio show and Miller is asked to act as bait, but that possibly interesting plot strand goes nowhere and the actual killer ends up being someone (not surprisingly) close to home.

It's a bit difficult to figure out what director Robert Bouvier is actually trying to do with his film. Is he trying to turn the conventions of the slasher genre on its head by making the victims mostly men? Is he making a comment on the fear and confusion regarding the AIDS virus in the late 80s? Is he making a statement on yellow journalism and fear-mongering in the media? I admire the attempt to add depth to an often banal genre, but frankly whatever point is being made is swallowed by stiff acting and endless talk radio sequences.  Even more damaging, the stalk-and-slash sequences are generally tensionless and, aside from a memorable scene where a security guard gets his dick sliced off after an unfortunate glory-hole session, quite unimaginative. Bouvier is obviously a competent director, and the final chase scene through a factory full of mannequins is quite effective, but there is very little here for a horror fan to grip on to.

City in Panic has been senselessly (and confusingly) re-titled 13 for this release, but aside from an obviously modern title card, and the removal of any and all credits, it seems to be intact. It's presented in a particularly shoddy full-screen transfer quite obviously taken from a VHS tape, and features all of the expected glitches and visual problems you would associate with that format. But even with that in mind this is a particularly flat and murky looking film, looking a lot like another 80s Canadian export: Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare (which just happened to share this film's cinematographer). Sound fares better, though there is some minor crackling on the soundtrack during the opening narration. There's a competent synth soundtrack from Dave Shaw that underscores the action nicely, but is forgettable.

This is a part of the Bloody Nightmares collection, so you don't get chapter stops. You don't get extras. You don't even get the original title.

The film ends with a call for tolerance and understanding, which is a nice sentiment but rings a bit hollow after the gay slaughter that has occurred for the previous 90 minutes. Indeed, the whole film feels a bit like a missed opportunity, as the idea of comparing the AIDS panic - and the fear promoted by the media of the time - with the hysteria created by a series of killings has some real potential. Unfortunately, this potential is snuffed out by lifeless acting, bland writing and dull direction. It's all competent (for the most part), but there's so little of interest here that watching it from start to finish - along with writing about it - can be a frustrating experience. City in Panic obviously wants to be more than it is, but doesn't bring enough to the table to rise above an already overstuffed genre.

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