Written by: Andreas Blackwell, Peter Wilson
Directed by: Robert Bouvier
Starring: David Adamson, Lee Ann Nestegard, and Ed Chester
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďYou can't go around killing people just because they have AIDS!"
In the horror genre, thereís a fine line between infamy and fame, and itís even blurrier and bloodied-over with slashers, a subset thatís typically preoccupied with pushing the boundaries of bad taste in the name of gore and splatterówhich is exactly why we love them, of course. For City in Panic, infamy was the only possible destiny from the moment it was conceived as The AIDS Murders. 25 years later, it hasnít escaped that fate, and whatever audience itís reached likely knows it as the AIDS slasher, a possibly ignominious tag to separate it from the pack of fellow slashers. And separate it doesósure, City in Panic might be another grubby slasher that hailed from the Great White North, but it did so with its finger on the pulse of a culture sieged by panic and fear. Leave it to a slasher movie to have no qualms about exploiting AIDS, marrying it to two cinematic monoliths in M and Psycho, and being gleefully tone deaf about the whole thing.
Dave Miller (David Adamson) rules over an unnamed cityís (read: obviously Toronto) airwaves as a liberal talk show host who tackles the usual stuff, including gun control, violence, and media sensationalism (apparently, this was some Bizarro culture where the radio hosts are the good guys). When a rash of murders breaks out, he suddenly finds himself caught up in a bizarre case involving a psychopath who slashes up his victims before carving an ďMĒ onto their carcass. As the spree unfolds, Alex invites psychologists on the air to develop a profile, and heís eventually tapped by the police into goading the killer into calling the show in an attempt to trace his location.
The early 80s featured a bunch of sleazy pseudo-giallo/slasher hybrids with killers roaming seedy, moonlit and neon-bathed cities, and City in Panic acts a straggler to this crowd. Not content to be a better-late-than-never afterthought, the film tries its best to recapture the likes of Maniac and New York Ripper. Director Robert Bouvier prowls and pokes around this anonymous underbelly with a nascent flair that emits a moody, grimy quality that reflects a contemporary urbanphobia. Between the strip joints and the glory holes, nearly every corner leads to danger, sleaze, or both. Whenever City in Panic stalks in this mode, itís charged with an energy that makes it obvious that all involved really give a shit about crafting an effective slasher film and makes no bones about its influences: the opening scene is an obvious replication of Psychoís shower slaughter with the gender role prominently flipped, as a man is brutally murdered by an unseen assailant.
Had the film tackled these implications rather than leaving them between the lines, City in Panic might have managed to transcend mere infamy. Instead, no one seems to give much of a shit about anything beyond the slasher stuffójust about everyone sounds like theyíre reading lines directly from the script, and Bouvierís few stylistic tics are superfluous and distracting (thereís a POV shot early in the movie thatís especially nauseating considering itís only capturing a routine conversation between a pacing Alex and his secretary). Save for the AIDS and homosexual angles (most of the killerís victims are gay men), itís a pretty stock murder mystery thatís not as clever as it thinks it is (itís the type of film that features a poster for M and has a character directly reference it, even though the killer has little in common with Peter Lorreís psycho). Even those angles are window dressing, though it should be noted that the film at least isnít mired in gay panic, as itís quick to note that the disease isnít exclusively linked to homosexuality. Plus, its lone homophobe is a reprehensible mouth-breather that would be the prick who gets the most glorious, over-the-top death in any other slasher.
This one has an agenda, though, so it sticks with offing AIDS patients and in doing so (perhaps unwittingly) reflects the eraís distorted AIDS paranoia. By 1987, science had more or less figured out the disease, but misconceptions still spread through the media and the general population. For a slasher, itís oddly progressive and at least a touch concerned with making sure AIDS victims are portrayed fairly; likewise, the homosexual men mostly evade any unseemly stereotypes. Ignoring the reversed gender roles, City in Panic is a pretty stereotypical slasher, right down to the murdererís familiar garb (a fedora, trenchcoat, and black glovesóthey obviously shopped from the giallo department). It at least passes the immediate eye test by crafting at least three memorable murder sequences. In addition to restaging Psycho in grungy fashion, the film also features vehicular slaughter, a cringe-inducing castration, and a killer workout routine, all of which sport grisly, realistic gore effects that attempt to ground an otherwise ridiculous movie.
Despite its best efforts to tackle some serious, timely stuff, City in Panic is dumb schlock that only perks up whenever itís playing slasher. Everything in between is tedious and perfunctory, with long stretches of the film being dedicated to Daveís banal on-air chatter, his petty rivalry with a local right-wing newspaper writer, and a melodramatic love life that finds him juggling an old flame with a new girlfriend. Nobodyís ever going to remember the film for that junk, though; instead, itís not unlike most above-average slashers in that itís forgettable save for a few kills and a wild climax in a cool, creepy mannequin factory that reveals the killerís unique motives. It also features AIDS awareness, too, but only in the most superficial and exploitative sense, which is just enough to tip it into the ďyouíve gotta see this shitĒ pile of slashers just below similar psycho-sleaze efforts like Nightmare and Night Warning. Apparently, few people agree with that assessment since City in Panic is still quite obscure despite its infamous reputation and has been relegated to a cursory DVD release on Pendulumís Serial Psychos set, where its VHS rip (complete with warbly video and garbled audio) sits alongside stuff like Blood Cult, Blood Massacre, and Las Vegas Bloodbath (which features hands down the most outrageous death sequence of any 80s slasher). For some reason, itís been retitled Thirteen here, which only makes sense if itís an attempt to evoke Friday the 13th after echoing Psycho and M. If so, that's a lot more honest since City in Panic owes a lot more to Sean Cunningham than it does Fritz Lang. Rent it!
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