My Top 8 Horror Films: Summer of Sam (1999)

I’ll end the list with a film based on historical events. The other films on this list featured monsters, zombies, demons, etc., but Spike Lee made a movie that people often forget about that uses the Son of Sam murders as the backdrop. For many, that added bit of reality adds another layer of horror: it actually happened.

Yes, a man by the name of David Berkowitz went on a killing spree, and no one could do anything. Yes, there was major blackout in New York City on July 13-14, 1977 that resulted in riots, looting, and violence. Yes, the Yankees were on a winning streak that would lead them to win the World Series. Lee perfectly mixes all these larger narratives to loom over the characters at the center of his drama: a group of Italian Americans that are consumed by lust, paranoia, and theories. In one scene, a character details their belief that Reggie Jackson is the .44 Caliber Killer because of his jersey number: 44. There are several intrusions on the main narrative that focus on the growing psychosis of David Berkowitz, his murders, and the media coverage thereafter that feeds the mass hysteria. The main characters, played by John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino, and Adrien Brody, try, like everyone else in New York, to live their lives as normally as possible to forget what’s happening. They try to keep cool from the heat wave, go to night clubs to dance, fuck, etc. But it never works. The Italian American community boils over with anger and fear, which culminates in vigilantism that targets people they suspect as being the killer. The marriage between Leguizamo’s and Sorvino’s characters collapse. A blackout. Chaos.

The casting is also interesting. Lee received a lot of flak for casting Leguizamo, a Latino, in the lead role as a ridiculous Italian American who cheats on his wife and works out feverishly. Brody plays an Italian who wants to be British really really bad . When asked about it, Lee pretty much used it as a chance to point out white people cast white people as non-white people all the time. It’s amusing to see a white stereotype played out by non-white actor as it makes an interesting case: whiteness has always been about power and comfort. Whenever that power and comfort is challenged or eroded, whiteness quickly devolves into violence. The historical events are merely pieces that lead to an inescapable realization of horror: white people would rather destroy others than to control their emotions. They can resort to racism to hurt each other and as an excuse to harm others.

TW: Racist, homophobic language

In his review of Summer of Sam, Wesley Morris deftly points out that: “Lee is downright anthropological in his contemplative, unromantic assessment of the period and the film's Italian American cast. Everything here - from punk and Catholic dogma to disco and the blond wigs the Bronx women wear to protect themselves from the brunette-obsessed Berkowitz - is freakish or odd. Even when the TV news reporter Lee plays in a couple of cameos ventures to the director's own Bed-Stuy 'hood to get the "black perspective" on the murders, the film never leaves the confines of the television screen it's framed in.” Cities are reflections of the white imagination, in many ways. Rather than address any real issue, whiteness finds a quick fix to keep the world rolling. Whiteness cannot alter its own perception. It runs amok. We survive in it.

Reyes Ramirez