“Another Son Of Sam” Will Leave You Feeling Nostalgic For The First One

Posted: May 29, 2009 in movies
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Original VHS Box Cover for "Another Son Of Sam"

Original VHS Box Cover for "Another Son Of Sam"

Over the years, your intrepid host has sought out films that literally no one has anything good to say about in my endless quest to prove consensus opinion on just about everything wrong . Quite often it does seem that the masses are mistaken, of course, as the chart-topping success of drivel such as “American Idol” or “Transformers” proves. On occasion, though, I have to say that what passes for “conventional wisdom” is, in fact, absolutely correct, and some stuff that most people think is crap really is, well, crap.

The few reviews I found over the years for stuntman-turned-director-for-a-minute Dave A. Adams’ 1977 slasher (I guess) flick “Another Son Of Sam” stated in no uncertain terms that one’s best course of action was to just stay away from the thing. That even for zero-budget regional cinema (this was shot in Charlotte and Belmont, North Carolina) this was lamer than you’d expect. Any particular saving graces the film had went unmentioned even by the most seasoned exploitation junkies, and if this movie couldn’t even appeal to that crowd, well—it must be irredeemably lousy.  So few people ever saw this thing that any information on it was scarce at best, but what little I could find painted such an unflattering picture that I felt literally compelled to see the thing just to see what all (and I use the term “all” loosely, trust me) the slagging-off was about.  Could it really be as bad as the tiny handful of commentaries about this film suggested? For that matter, could ANYTHING  be as bad as the tiny handful of commentaries about this film suggested?

The answer, as it turns out, is yes, it can, and yes, it is.

The "original" Son of Sam, David Berkowitz

The "original" Son of Sam, David Berkowitz

First off, let’s deal with the absurdity of the title. Harvey, the escaped-mental-patient-turned-serial-killing-maniac in this film has about as much in common with David Berkowitz, the “real life” Son of Sam killer,  as Steve Miner’s horrendous “Day of the Dead” remake has with George Romero’s original.  Apparently the original title of this film was “Hostages,” which is dull as watching paint dry (then again, so is the movie) but at least bears some relevance to the plot. Apparently Adams changed the name at the last minute in order to “cash in,” as it were, on the story that was dominating the headlines at the time (and before the credits roll, we’re treated to a short list of history’s other famous serial killers, everyone from Jack The Ripper on down). That’s an established trick in exploitation filmmaking, of course, and I don’t hold it against the guy—it’s the film itself that he deserves a verbal drubbing for.

The “action” starts off with a pretty generic 70s -looking dude and his girlfriend going around in circles in a speedboat. This, we find out in short order, is our “hero,” police Lieutenant Claude Seltzer (played by Ross Dubuc, a Charlotte-area TV weatherman — you’ll believe it when you see him), and his lady-love, psychiatrist Dr. ( I don’t think we ever get her fist name) Ellis (Cynthia Stewart, another local “talent”).

After a hard day’s waterskiing that we’re told about incessantly for the first ten minutes but never see, our loving couple heads over to a seriously ultra-70s cocktail bar called the Treehouse Lounge, where they find a cop buddy of Claude’s moonlighting as the emcee and take in the mellow sounds of seriously ultra-70s crooner Johnny Charro, whose musical number “I Never Said Goodbye” is probably the “highlight” of the picture (Adams must have thought highly of it, as well—or more likely couldn’t afford any other music, since the song pops up  every time somebody turn on the radio and again over the end credits).  Think of a poor man’s Tom Jones.  Hell, think of an absolutely destitute man’s Tom Jones. Think of the most flat-busted, never-had-two-nickels to-rub-together-in-his-life man’s Tom Jones. Then knock your expectations down about another ten rungs. That’s Johnny Charro. Oh, hell, words can’t do the man justice, THIS is Johnny Charro—

Lounge Lizard Johnny Charro

Lounge Lizard Johnny Charro

As an aside, our guy Johnny is apparently still at it. He bills himself as “the Dean of Tampa Bay nightlife”( he must have done at least some regional touring in the late 70s to make it up to Charlotte) and you can catch his act every Thursday night at the American Legion Post 111 and every Saturday night at Tampa Bay Sports Grille in Oldsmar. He’s also got a new record out called—I kid you not—“Do-Wa-Diddy Ybor City.” This all according the clearinghouse for all things Charro,  http://www.johnnycharro.com.

Anyway, where were we (and does it really matter)? Oh yes—after a groovy night out, it’s back to work the next day for our middle-aged lovers. Claude is sitting around his office doing a whole lot of nothing, but his ladyfriend has spent her morning giving  electroshock “treatment” to a violent psychopath named Harvey, who seems pretty pissed off about the whole deal. So angry, in fact, that they have to restrain him, which still doesn’t do any good as he breaks his restraints and kills the orderlies attending to him.

After a phone conversation with the good Dr. Ellis where he mentions waterskiing yesterday yet again, Claude decides to head over and see her, but on his way he’s detained by an urgent call to go investigate the robbery of $500 from the dean’s office at a local (apparently all-women’s) college (who knew deans kept a cash box around?). It proves to be a very costly call, though, since while our guy Seltzer is taking statements and dropping off his business card at the college, his girlfriend is being attacked by her hospital’s resident psycho-on-the-loose.

When Claude pulls up to the hospital, he has to slam his brakes to avoid hitting a man fleeing from the scene with blood literally dripping from his hands. Rather than do what you’d think any cop would in the situation and actually go after the guy to see what the hell was happening, though, our crack police lieutenant instead just saunters inside, makes some idle chit-chat with one of the other doctors, and heads down the hall to find his girl.Needless to say, she’s in pretty rough shape (a coma, we later find out, although we never do find out if she lives or dies—and trust me, by the end of the movie you really don’t care, either) and he finds the strangled orderlies, as well.

Then—finally!—the “chase” is on, but it’s a pretty limp one—Claude’s buddy from the Treehouse and another cop head over to provide backup while he chases the killer around the park a little bit, draws his gun, and then doesn’t fire. After that harrowing action, we’re treated to a little bit of standard right-wing get-tough-on-crime cop dialogue, with Claude’s buddy telling him “don’t worry, Lieutenant, we’ll catch him,” with Claude replying “and then what? We let him out on the streets again?” (funny, I didn’t realize that escaped mental patients who killed people with their bare hands were turned back out on the streets in even the most liberal jurisdictions—which I’m assuming Belmont, North Carolina isn’t).

In short order our two competing subplots neatly dovetail, with Harvey taking refuge at the dormitory of the women’s college and killing the girl who stole the $500 before taking a couple of her friends hostage during an agonizingly lengthy and dull standoff with the cops, who have a SWAT team in tow.

Essentially, after the initial escape “Another Son Of Sam” turns into nothing more than a crushingly boring police procedural, with lots of cops standing around talking about not very much. We learn that Harvey was sexually assaulted by his mother (what a surprise) at a young age and his mind completely snapped. He’s not averse to using firearms. He takes pleasure in killing young women.  He can’t be reasoned with. He won’t be taken alive. And we learn all this because the cops have brought in another of Harvey’s doctors who provides this info-dump off-camera and then decides he’d better leave the scene of the hostage crisis because, hey, he’s gotta get back to work.

During the standoff, Harvey makes an absolute mockery of the cops and their highly-vaunted (and apparently pretty new at the time) SWAT team, who can’t find him, can’t fire shots at him for a million convoluted reasons, and essentially can’t do anything right. He kills Claude’s Treehouse buddy and has no problem dodging the other policemen at every opportunity until they finally get him pinned in a room, at which point they resort to what must be one of the most unorthodox (and very probably illegal, or at least against every regulation in the book) methods of “crisis negotiation” in the annals of police lore. They actually bring Harvey’s sexually abusive mother over to talk her son out of the room. She apologizes for never visiting him in the hospital. She says she just wants to talk. She promises he won’t get hurt if he just comes out of the dorm room. She says the police are there to help. Harvey listens. He responds. He opens the door. He comes out—

—and the cops shoot him dead on the spot. Folks, Harvey’s mom isn’t exactly the strongest candidate in 1977’s Mother of the Year contest. First, she sexually abuses her son, turning him into a raging psychotic maniac, then she doesn’t visit him in the hospital, then she lures him into his death. Not exactly June Cleaver material. Next time your mom is driving you nuts about something or other, remember — things could be a lot worse.

Finally we’re “treated” to some inane dialogue among the surviving female hostages, and the movie, mercifully, ends around the 1:10 mark.

I don’t mean to be too hard on “Another Son of Sam”—well,actually, I do—but I will say this in its favor. Its absurdly low budget does, in fact, provide a few not-quite-sublime-but-nevertheless-fun “flourishes” to enjoy—for one thing, all we ever see of Harvey is the exact same shot of his eyes staring out of complete darkness. Lighting and location of the rest of the scene aside, Harvey’s eyes are always peering out of a pitch-black background, even on a sunny afternoon.  For another, Harvey himself is never shown full-on until the movie’s end and we “experience” things from his point-of-view through a series of patently amateur hand-held “perspective” shots that are so poorly executed as to be almost disorienting.  Thirdly, there are numerous occasions during the movie when the film literally stops dead yet the sound keeps rolling for another four or five seconds (this could be considered, I suppose, some sort of attempt at artistry using intentional freeze-frame shots, but believe me when I say it looks a lot more like what happened was that Adams shot this thing using nothing but short ends a la Andy Milligan and that they kept running the sound even after the film had run out of the camera). And finally, of course, there’s Johnny Charro — honestly, maybe he’s as much awesomeness as one film can really handle.

“Another Son of Sam” is available on DVD-R from Something Weird video. It probably goes without saying that this is as close to an “official” DVD release as this flick is likely to get — and about as close as you’d probably want.

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