Unrelentingly grim, Christiane F. portrays the drug scene in West Berlin during the 1970s. The 1981 film was released following the publication of the 1979 non-fiction book of the same name, based on a series of tape-recorded interviews with teenage Vera Christiane Felscherinow. Between the ages of 12 and 15, the aimless girl’s life spiraled out of control, plagued by addiction. In a haze of needles, sickness, sex, and death, Christiane F. finds herself heroin-dependent and prostituting her body around one of the city’s railway stations, the Bahnhof Zoo. The appearance of David Bowie (in concert) helped the film achieve cult status, but his cameo hardly glamorizes the dismal setting.
Harvey Keitel is the eponymous bad lieutenant in Abel Ferrara’s festering, pulp account of a New York detective gone wrong. Co-authored with Ms. 45 star Zoë Lund, Ferrara’s grubby filter and rough-and-ready sensibility is a fitting match for Keitel’s raw power. Ferrara and company deliver a gut punch that sinks us into the bad lieutenant’s personal crisis surrounding a case involving the rape of a nun.
Reviled by critics and moral groups for its misogynistic tone and excessive gore, William Lustig’s 1980 film Maniac revels in its sleaziness, never failing to disturb. Slithering through the streets of downtown New York City, killer Frank Zito (a tour de force performance by Joe Spinell) stalks, murders, and scalps women. He lusts over his gory trophies in his dingy apartment, but is haunted by his gruesome compulsions. Lustig captures a seedy underbelly most of us would rather leave shrouded under cover of night.
Based on a 1950 novel by Georges Arnaud, previously adapted by Henri-Georges Clouzot (1953’s The Wages of Fear), William Friedkin’s existential retelling, Sorcerer, finds four desperate men from different corners of the globe risking their lives. The men are charged with transporting a dangerous shipment of nitroglycerine across the treacherous South American jungle terrain. Covered in sweat and mud, the film’s surreal final destination takes us deep into the swampy squalor — especially that of the mind of Roy Scheider’s tortured protagonist.
Set in the bowels of Glasgow’s grungy tenements in the summer of 1973, Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher details the harrowing life of a young boy, revealing a stark lyricism amongst the misfit residents who are drowning in vermin, trash, and utter filth.
Walter Hill’s hostile world of male violence and rivalry is near cartoonish, bursting amid the towering, graffiti-covered walls, neon-lit corners, sweltering subway cars, and dark tunnels of 1979 New York City. Gritty location photography and urban chases blacken the fingernails, despite the film’s moody absurdity.
A hallucinatory blend of Mexican iconography, psychotronic horror, theater, and madness, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s stunningly captured tale about a feral family of circus performers doesn’t romanticize the nomadic life of its characters. Greedy pimps who push mentally challenged children into snorting cocaine, potbellied prostitutes, scavengers who tear an elephant carcass apart with their hands, and brutish men who hack the limbs from their wives populate Jodorowsky’s backwater world.
The sweat-slick prison setting of Jules Dassin’s 1947 noir — starring a barrel-chested, steely-jawed Burt Lancaster as an inmate with plans to lead a rebellion against a sadistic guard — is captured with stunning cinematography (How the West Was Won’s William Daniels). Packed cells of brooding convicts drives home the misery of prison life, where the suffocating walls of Westgate Penitentiary can be felt closing in through the screen.
“How quaint and bristly — like a plain-talking, bourbon-stinking grandfather who won’t close his robe — these quintessential ’70s policiers seem, today, fragrant with bigotry, bad New York weather, foul hygiene, cold-blooded cop behavior, and car chases that actually involved automobiles and gravity, not pixels,” critic Michael Atkinson reminisces in his review of 1973’s The Seven-Ups. Philip D’Antoni’s underrated dirty cop thriller, set on the mean streets of 1970’s New York, is all gray skies, grim reality, and grainy photography — “thick with the sort of unshakable Gotham vibe modern film stock is simply too clean to reproduce.”
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Loosely based on real-life madmen Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, John McNaughton’s Henry is an impossibly violent, nihilistic descent into a diseased mind — a cynical, devastating portrait of the modern-day horrors we are constantly inundated with. McNaughton’s low-budget shocker makes effective use of Chicago’s grimy streets.