Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Census Bloodbath: He May Be Bad, But He's Perfectly Good At It

If you’re an avid reader of Census Bloodbath, first of all, bless your heart. Second, you may notice that I’ve backtracked a tiny bit. Although I’ve already run a post-mortem on the slashers of 1980 and 1981, a second round of research has added a couple more titles to my list: mostly foreign and obscure stuff, but also titles with dubious connection to the genre that I found myself being more lenient with this time around. I’ll be working back through these extra titles as we also continue to push forward into 1982.

Year: 1980
Director: William Friedkin
Cast: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen
Run Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

One of those titles that received a less lenient treatment this time around was Cruising, an Al Pacino crime thriller from The Exorcist and The French Connection auteur William Friedkin. It’s hard to judge a movie’s slasherness sight unseen, but I was dead wrong about this one. Hell, it’s more of a slasher than half the crap I covered from 1980; don’t let the presence of prestige film mainstays fool you.

I don’t care how many Oscars you have between you, this movie has a higher body count than The Stepfather.

Cruising made the highly controversial decision to set a cop thriller in the milieu of New York’s gay S&M leather bar scene. This outraged moralistic heterosexuals, but it also caused a stir in the gay community who objected to the film’s narrow representation and violence against gay men. Fortunately, this is the rare occasion where time has been rather kind to a film’s controversial subject matter. Gay stories are becoming more abundant in the media, so this isn’t the only representation out there, and Cruising has now become something of a historical document capturing a particular urban scene a mere year before AIDS arrived on its doorstep and permanently decimated it.

There’s no denying that the depiction of the sexuality and activities of gay men is depicted with a certain sense of goggle-eyed horror, but removed from the stern gaze of Al Pacino, it’s also unflinchingly erotic, in a way that certainly had never been seen before in mainstream cinemas. It’s hard to watch this film from any perspective and not be awash with conflicting feelings, but it’s possible to read it in a way that doesn’t feel like an attack (as long as you’re aware of the strict conventions of the slasher formula).

I should probably get to the plot. Rookie cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino) is given an undercover assignment by stern father figure Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino); he must pose as a gay man and roam New York’s leather bars to attract the attention of a killer who has been cruising the area and murdering his hookups.

He easily befriends his harmless playwright neighbor Ted (Don Scardino of He Knows You’re Alone) but this deep dive into this psychosexual underworld is causing turmoil in his own mind and in his relationship with Nancy (Karen Allen).

But really, what doesn’t cause Al Pacino turmoil?

The sexual subtext present in every slasher film is incredibly transparent here. Most slasher killers are sexually repressed for one reason or another, and that repression requires a release, causing them to fly into murderous rages, penetrating those who commit the sin of tempting them, using the blade of a knife rather than anything naughty. It’s been this way from Psycho to Sleepaway Camp, and for what I believe is the first time, Cruising flips that concept on its head.

Especially in the 80’s and before, sexual repression is tragically prevalent in the gay community. Many of us are taught from birth that the way we feel is sinful and wrong, and that’s before we add a layer with a fetish like BDSM. The symbolism of the reasonably bloody kills in Cruising (the murderer always stabs his victims in the back) is unmistakable, and the motivation – while twisted – has a sad basis in real-life crimes. 

Symbolism? What symbolism?

For this reason alone, the killer would be terrifying, but combine that with his creepy whispered mantra (“Who’s here? I’m here. You’re here…”) and menacing silhouette, and you have yourself a tremendously chilling and memorable antagonist.

I didn’t even mention that he wears huge sunglasses and a leather jacket, which are pretty memorable in their own right.

Unfortunately, after a stellar first half exploring life and death in this fascinating lost community, Cruising turns its focus to its single weakest element: Al Pacino. His presence in the film was never interesting to begin with (he just silently wanders through bars gawking at men in leather hats groping each other, his only character development being the increasing amount of accessories he wears), but he fails to stick the landing on the two most crucial elements the third act needed to survive: Steve’s descent into madness and the solution to the mystery.

The reveal of the killer is a dud, as it doesn’t involve any of the characters we’ve come to know or any real agency on the part of Steve Burns. He sits around glowering, he’s handed a piece of evidence by the chief, and then he surveils the suspect in a montage so idiotic and cheesy that the film literally irises in on Pacino to underline that fact that he’s in the scene we’ve been watching him be in for three minutes. It’s a fat load of nothing, and it forces the villain’s exciting presence offscreen for far too long.

This devastating lack of action also decimated whatever feeble attempt at a character study there is in Cruising. The idea is supposed to be that Pacino gets too deep undercover and begins to question his own identity, but you get none of that in the man’s poisonously flat performance, which chokes on its own ambiguity. And the screenplay never commits to escalating his behavior to any real degree other than committing to be hog-tied once during a sting operation. It’s so easy to picture the third act that Cruising wanted to have and easily could have created, but it flinches, forcing us to suffer through 40 minutes of Pacino sitting around twiddling his thumbs until we reach the deliberately ambiguous ending that the bungled setup thoroughly failed to earn, and in fact renders completely nonsensical.

You can’t have a cop movie with a cop that doesn’t do anything, and it’s infuriating that this dreadful third act mars a film with this good a setting and villain. The lurid, saturated color and casually explicit sexuality of the first hour are so incredible that the fact the movie falls so hideously short of being a masterpiece is just devastating.

Killer: I’m honestly not sure.
Final Girl: Is there even a girl in this movie?
Best Kill: The momentum is brutally murdered at about minute 56.
Sign of the Times: One of the victims lives above a Radio Shack.
Scariest Moment: A man in a sling gets fisted in the middle of a bar. I’ve never been to New York, but I’m pretty sure that violates the health code.
Weirdest Moment: Sitcom icon Ed O’Neill briefly shows up as a homicide detective.
Champion Dialogue: “If that bulge in your pants ain’t a knife, why don’t we take a walk?”
Body Count: 4
  1. Loren Lukas is stabbed in the back.
  2. Eric Rossman is stabbed in the back.
  3. Martino Perry is stabbed in the back.
  4. Ted Bailey is killed offscreen.
TL;DR: Cruising is a waste of the monumental potential that the first hour sets up.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1263

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