summer of sam

'Summer of Sam' stirs controversy
By Joshua Hyman

Summers always seem to bring out the blockbuster movies everyone can't wait to see. This summer will be no different.

George Lucas has already unveiled the first of his highly anticipated pre-quels to the Stars Wars trilogy. Mike Myers has topped his "shagadelic" self once again with a Part Two in the Austin Powers saga. And where would the summer be without another flick by slapstick artist Adam Sandler?

But our last summer of the century is going to make an even bigger exit with the premiere of Spike Lee's latest film, the controversial "Summer of Sam."

With the writing, producing and directing reins in his hands and a flair for always angering somebody, Lee has taken the horrors of the Son of Sam serial killings during the summer of 1977 and woven them into a complex script with big box office hopes.

Backed by an all-star cast, Lee takes on the task of displaying how Son of Sam's plague of terror tore apart a Bronx neighborhood, turned lifelong friends against each other and transformed trust into paranoia.

Making a film that chronicles these horrific murders undoubtedly brings attention to them, whether the movie is for entertainment purposes or not. Lee, however, denies exploiting the carnage of that summer.

"In no way, shape or form is this film a gratification of Son of Sam and in no way, shape or form do we feel that we exploited the people that David Berkowitz murdered," said Lee at a news conference.

"There is nothing we can do to bring back to the parents, to the loved ones, the relatives that are gone, and there's no way in the world I can actually feel the loss that they have.

"At the same time, these tragedies did happen. We feel the film is accurate in its depiction of the events during this time."

The summer of 1977 was eventful. The self-proclaimed Son of Sam -- originally known as the .44-Caliber Killer for the weapon he used -- was running rampant through the streets of Queens and the Bronx killing young women, and some men, and striking fear into the residents of New York.

David Berkowitz, who was convicted of the slayings, later claimed that it was his neighbor Sam's demon-possessed Labrador retriever who commanded him to take these people's lives. He said he obeyed the dog's commands to silence the voices.

It was also one of the hottest summers on record in New York with temperatures sweltering in the hundreds. The heat wave was only the setup to the famous blackout of '77, which cut off all electricity and opened the doors to looters throughout the city.

To top all it off, it was also one of the New York Yankees' World Championship teams. The year Reggie Jackson hit three home runs during the Series, crowning him Mr. October.

But just as Jackson was giving New Yorkers something to cheer, Berkowitz was giving people something to fear.

When Berkowitz was eventually caught, through an investigation of a parking ticket, the Son of Sam victims had numbered 14, seven of whom died.

John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino and Jennifer Esposito headline the Hollywood clout of this film by portraying four friends who endure the fear of a community haunted by a serial killer. However, Lee uses the presence of the Berkowitz rampage to augment the numerous problems these friends face.

Leguizamo and Sorvino play Vinny and Dionna, a young Bronx couple. Vinny has a hard time being faithful to his wife and although Dionna expects fidelity, she says nothing.

When one of the killings takes place in the neighborhood, Vinny reconsiders his life and finds the flaw of his fancies, but he doesn't make a change. The strain of his cheating, combined with the anxiety of the slaying being so close to home, eventually causes the marriage to end.

Brody plays Ritchie, Vinny's punk rocker best friend, and Esposito portrays his girlfriend Ruby, the girl "everyone has been with."

Vinny and the neighborhood tough guys don't understand Ritchie's punk rock behavior and job as a male stripper. On a vigilante mission, these tough guys decide they will catch the Son of Sam, and slowly grow more and more suspicious of Ritchie.

The Son of Sam is notorious as New York's most-feared mass murderer. Most people under the age of 25 have little or no knowledge of him. And people who didn't live in New York at that time can't appreciate what it was like to live through that disturbing time.

Controversy aside, Lee was precise in recreating those unnerving events, paying close attention to detail. The film gives off an uncomfortable chill that will give most viewers a case of the heebie-jeebies. Lee's keen ability to use an array of camera angles, multiple story lines, and his film making talents are not in question.

Lee uses the them to paint his picture. A picture most people would prefer to forget.

As reported in the June 20 New York Times, not only were the families of the victims distraught over the release of the movie, Berkowitz himself was angered. Not even he cares to relive those events.

Sorvino downplays the idea that the film might glorify the killer. "I think the film makes him look terrible, and he should look terrible. That's who he was, that's who he is."

As to Berkowitz's unhappiness with the film being made, Sorvino notes, "He's sorry that film is being made about it. Yeah he's sorry that anyone even remembers it. Meanwhile he'd like to sell you his video. ... I don't buy it, I think once somebody is capable of taking lives in such a cruel and premeditated fashion that person doesn't change inside, and I'm kinda disgusted that the media has given him a kind of moral high ground."

Depictions of Berkowitz notwithstanding, many believe Spike should have done the right thing and left the memories of the Son of Sam's villainous crimes to rest.


6/25/99