SummerOfSamFrom Spike Lee, a wildly overbaked yet vital account of the seventies-era “Son of Sam” killings. A staunchly uncompromising work, the film has much to say about the toxic effects of fear and paranoia.

Released in the summer of 1999, SUMMER OF SAM was Spike Lee’s first “white” movie—meaning that in contrast to most of his previous films (SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT, DO THE RIGHT THING, MALCOLM X, INSIDE MAN, etc) the cast is largely Caucasian. As usual, Lee made an ass of himself promoting the film, stating that then-NRA head Charlton Heston “should be shot with a .44 Bulldog,” a thinly-veiled reference to the type of gun used by David Berkowitz, a.k.a. the “Son of Sam,” who terrorized New York City in the summer of 1977.

SUMMER OF SAM was heavily criticized for its allegedly stereotypical portrayal of Italian Americans, although no less an authority than Martin Scorsese stated (in Premiere Magazine) that the film is actually quite accurate in its recreation of a very specific time, place and atmosphere. It was not a success at the box office, but I believe SUMMER OF SAM remains one of Spike Lee’s most memorable films.

During the summer of 1977 an Italian community in New York City is thrown into an uproar by a succession of random shootings of women with shoulder-length brown hair, perpetrated by the self-proclaimed Son of Sam. The latter is a chunky freak who lives alone and believes dogs are speaking to him.

Among those impacted is the studly hairdresser Vinny, who goes to pieces after seeing a couple of Sam’s victims outside his house. Vinny finds his relationship with his wife Dionna, which was already strained by his incessant womanizing, crumbling amid the terror of Sam’s killings. Also impacted is Vinny’s best friend Richie, who’s just returned from a trip to the UK and antagonizes his pals by talking and dressing like a British punk rocker. The fact that Richie also turns tricks in a gay club doesn’t exactly improve his standing.

Vinny and Richie’s pals take it upon themselves to patrol the neighborhood, and beat up anyone different from themselves. More mayhem occurs during a citywide blackout, precipitating mass rioting and ratcheting the tension up another level. Following a debauched nightclub orgy Vinny and Dionna have a violent altercation…and Sam’s killings continue.

Suspicion for the shootings falls upon Richie. Vinny’s pals convince the mentally deteriorating Vinny to lure Richie out of his house to be beaten up—just as the real Son of Sam is finally apprehended.

In common with many of Spike Lee’s 1990s productions (CROOKLYN, GIRL 6, HE GOT GAME), SUMMER OF SAM is excessively scattershot and long-winded. There are impressive elements but also quite a few annoying ones (including the distracting conveyer belt-cam that has the effect of making actors move while standing still, which Lee insists on using in nearly all his films). The good stuff, however, ultimately outweighs the bad.

Lee makes excellent use of tunes like the Who’s “Teenage Wasteland” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” and the film’s overall recreation of Disco-era New York feels authentic. Not all the performances are up to snuff, but Adrien Brody and John Leguizamo (in an adroit reversal of the standard Hollywood practice of casting white actors in Hispanic roles) are top notch, while Mira Sorvino and Jennifer Esposito provide enormous sex appeal (though not a whole lot else) as the female leads.

Viewers expecting a straightforward true crime saga a la ZODIAC will be disappointed, as Lee has turned out a highly impressionistic account that delights in visual quirks. Lee’s primary concern is with creating an overall atmosphere of apprehension and suspicion, and he succeeds.

“Sam” is as much a psychological force here as he is a physical one—and a good thing, as the scenes of the killer (Michael Badalucco) harassed by a talking dog are seriously goofy—infecting people’s minds and affecting the way they interact and have sex. This film’s sexual content, it must be said, is quite strong for a big studio movie, which gives it a definite edge (and probably contributed to its failure at the box office).

SUMMER OF SAM may be long-winded, but it has a lot of uncomfortable truths, and is even, in its own wonky, bulging-at-the-seams manner, quite exciting.

Vital Statistics

Touchstone Pictures

Director: Spike Lee
Producers: Jon Kilik, Spike Lee
Screenplay: Victor Colicchio, Michael Imperioli, Spike Lee
Cinematography: Ellen Kuras
Editing: Barry Alexander Brown
Cast: John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito, Anthony La Paglia, Ben Gazzara, Bebe Neuwirth, Patti LuPone, John Savage, Michael Badalucco, Michael Rispoli, Mike Starr, Spike Lee