What happened to Abel Ferrara?

David Jenkins wonders what happened to American director Abel Ferrara as his 1989 film ‘King of New York’ is re-released on DVD in August

What happened to Abel Ferrara?
Abel Ferrara's hard-edged 1989 gangster drama 'King of New York' starring Christopher Walken

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Bronx-born writer/director Abel Ferrara – best known for his charismatic 1989 crime saga ‘King of New York’, which is re-released on double DVD in early August – had thrown in the filmmaking towel a long while ago. The last time one of his films made the leap to British cinemas was in 1998 with ‘The Blackout’, a tawdry, ill-conceived erotic thriller which amounts to little more than a sleazy excuse to parade a scantily clad Claudia Schiffer across the screen.

Banished from the clammy leftfield alcove he had inhabited quite succesfully for some 20 years, through remarkable cult classics such as ‘The Addiction’ and ‘Bad Lieutenant’, Ferrara has been producing films at a steady rate since his fall from grace. None of this later work, though, has been deemed financially or artistically viable enough to receive a cinema release. Films such as ‘New Rose Hotel’, ‘R Xmas’ and ‘Mary’ all remain unseen in the UK; at present they are only available to those willing to shell out for DVDs from the US and Europe.

Rumoured to have broken into the business as a porn director (an assertion he is loath to confirm despite the fact that the IMDB credits him as creator of films with names like 1976’s ‘9 Lives of a Wet Pussy’), Ferrara started his career proper as a reliable exponent of superior scuzz like 1979’s ‘The Driller Killer’. Under the pseudonym Jimmy Laine, he stars in his own film as a down-at-heel artist who takes to the streets with a cordless drill. The film marked the director’s first distribution crisis, as the film was banned in the UK as a ‘video nasty’.

A decade of low-budget exploitation flicks followed, such as the gaudy femme revenge caper ‘Ms.45’ (known in some quarters as ‘Rape Squad’), stalk-and-slash New York stripper yarn, ‘Fear City’, and the mad anti-drink driving parable, ‘The Gladiator’, in which a tooled-up Ken Wahl takes to the streets of New York in a modified pick-up truck and dishes out bloody home-style justice to those driving offenders who may have slipped through the police net.

Though you could hardly claim that later films such as ‘The Funeral’ and ‘The Bodysnatchers’ were zeitgeist manna, the first Ferrara film to truly fall by the wayside was 1998’s ‘New Rose Hotel’, a feisty futuristic psychodrama that boasts brash performances from leads Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe. Walken plays a cantankerous businessman who employs an Italian prostitute (Asia Argento, who else?) to woo a Japanese scientist, but it is his loyal henchman Dafoe whom she ends up falling for. While the meaning remains somewhat elusive, its craftsmanship is undeniable, marrying different film stocks and using colour to heighten and darken the mood – deep red for sleazy, a clinical white for corporate.

2002’s ‘R Xmas’ followed, and though the prospect of an Ice T-fronted Christmas film about a kidnapping that takes place among the thugs and hoods of New York’s drug fraternity might sound as appealing as liver surgery, it’s a snappy, atmospheric and coherent work about class snobbery, racism and the ethics of negotiation across the social divide. With impeccable bad boy credentials, it also features a soundtrack by rapper Schooly D that offers up some blue renditions of Christmas carols.

While ‘R Xmas’ upped the quality quotient, 2005’s divisive satire on religious representation ‘Mary’ revisited the deep-set seam of Catholic angst familiar from ‘Bad Lieutenant’ and ‘The Funeral’. Despite the fact that three of its leads – Juliette Binoche, Forest Whitaker and Marion Cotillard – have all picked up Oscars for acting, the film is only available on DVD in Germany, Austria and Greece.

Ferrara’s latest fiction is the provocatively titled ‘Go Go Tales’, a slight but likeable work which received its world premiere out of competition at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. In it, Dafoe plays Ray Ruby, the greasy owner of a low-rent New York strip joint trying to keep his business afloat with a lottery scam. In one memorable scene, Asia Argento appears as one of Ray’s more extrovert striptease artistes who, as her grand finale, tongue-kisses a rottweiler.

While the popular appeal of these later works remains negligible, one feels that the director’s unique oeuvre, his commitment to themes of religion, manhood and the incandescent burr of New York night life, has been neglected for far too long. It’s high time these films got the release they deserve. With Ferrara’s next project a prequel to ‘King of New York’, and Werner Herzog tackling a remake of ‘Bad Lieutenant’, maybe the film world is set to remember why it embraced Ferrara’s dark vision in the first place.

The two-disc edition of ‘King of New York’ is out on Aug 18.




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