cult director Abel Ferrara is one of the kings of neo-noir. He got his start in the 1970s with gritty, low-budget films, including the grindhouse classic The Driller Killer. He followed him woman 45a cult revenge flick before transitioning into more serious crime dramas, particularly in the 1990s Bad lieutenant and King of New York. These films explore complicated characters living outside the law with career-best performances by stars Harvey Keith and Christopher Walken.
RELATED: ‘Bad Lieutenant’: An all-time masterpiece about sin and forgivenessBody Snatcher), a vampire film (The Addiction) and several documentaries. His work features provocative themes, with a particular focus on morality and religion, alongside tons of violence and harsh urban environments. Throughout his career he has remained an independent filmmaker at heart. While his work isn’t always flawless, it’s never boring. As a result, he was praised by many directors, including Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and Edgar Wright.
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“City of Fear” (1984) – IMDb: 5.7/10
city of fear focuses on a policeman (Billy Dee Williams) and former boxer (Tom Berner) investigates the murders of several exotic dancers. It’s one of Ferrara’s earlier films and far from his best. He does a good job with the action and visuals, but the story doesn’t have the complexity or moral ambiguity of his later films.
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That said, Ferrara still manages to deliver ’80s trash goodness, including a plethora of over-the-top fight scenes. There is even a serial killer who is a martial arts master. The right kind of exploitation fan will get out.
‘Pasolini’ (2014) – IMDb: 5.9/10
Willem Dafoe Stars in this biopic about the Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of Ferrara’s greatest influences. Pasolini is probably best known for his art horror Salò, or the 120 days of Sodom. Passolini tells a fictionalized version of the life of the director from the end of the shooting Salò until his assassination in 1975.
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“[Pasolini] is an expression of freedom, an expression of the individual. He is part of the tradition and at the same time he created a tradition,” says Ferrara. “Pasolini was a good guy in every sense of the word. He treated people rightly; he lived with compassion; He lived his whole life full of energy and a desire to write, paint, act, direct and create.”
“Body Snatchers” (1993) – IMDb: 6.0/10
Body Snatcher is Ferrara’s loose remake of the 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s set on an army base in Alabama, where clones are replacing the staff as part of a massive conspiracy. Steve (Terry Kinney), an EPA agent dispatched to the base, along with his teenage daughter (Gabrielle Anwar). After just 87 minutes Body Snatcher is a sleek, well-crafted sci-fi game with some interesting themes centered around conformity and freedom.
Ferrara was motivated to make the film because he loved the author’s original story Jack Finney. “It’s just beautiful fiction, man,” he said. “[It’s about the] writer’s spirituality. He’s trying to come to terms with the possibility that the world could potentially explode in his face.”
‘Napoli, Napoli, Napoli’ (2009) – IMDb: 6.2/10
Naples, Naples, Naples is one of three documentaries that Ferrara has made that are different Chelsea on the rocks and sporty life. It explores the shadier side of Naples, Italy’s third largest city. Ferrara interviews various locals, notably several inmates at a women’s prison. They talk about their lives before and after imprisonment. The interviews are interspersed with fictional scenes.
The film offers an interesting exploration of the causes of urban decay and crime. Ferrara makes connections between the city’s current problems and its history, trying to draw lessons that apply to the whole world. Not to mention that it ends with a bizarre but intriguing rap from the director himself, recounting what he learned over the course of working on the documentary.
“China Girl” (1987) – IMDb: 6.2/10
Chinese girl is Ferrara’s neo-noir version Romeo and Juliet. It follows the relationship between Tony (Richard Panebianco) and Tye (Sari Chang), whose brothers are members of rival gangs. As usual, Ferrara’s mastery of on-screen violence is very evident here. The film is also lightning-fast, racing by at just 89 minutes.
Additionally, Ferrara manages to deliver a distinctive, neon-lit vision of New York’s Little Italy and Chinatown. Tarantino gushed about the film in an episode of The Rewatchables podcast and named it one of his favorite films of 1987.
“The Addiction” (1995) – IMDb: 6.4/10
The Addiction The focus is on the philosophy student Kathleen (Lili Taylor) who is bitten by a vampire and craves blood. She meets Peina (Christopher Walken), an elderly vampire who says he has beaten his blood addiction and offers to help her do the same.
“He’s addicted to everything, not just drugs. He’s addicted to alcohol, to gambling, to casual sex. Makes. The power of the badge,” Ferrara said of Walken’s character. It is one of three collaborations between Ferrara and Walken. “[Walken’s] giving, intelligent, dedicated to his work, dedicated to his craft,” says Ferrara. “He puts himself into everything he does and it gives things a whole new life.”
“The Funeral” (1996) – IMDb: 6.6/10
The funeral is a melancholy gangster film about a crime family in New York in the 1930s. Using the funeral of one of the brothers as a framing element, the story jumps back and forth in time to tell their story. The two remaining brothers embark on a revenge campaign.
The cast includes several notable crime actors of the ’90s: Walken, Benicio del Toro, Chris Penn, and Vincent Gallo. Supposedly the rotation was pretty loud. “Abel Ferrara was on as much crack as I was The funeral‘ Gallo said. “He was never on the set. He was in my room trying to steal me.”
‘MS. 45’ (1981) – IMDb: 6.8/10
woman 45 is one of the greatest cult films from Ferrara. It’s a revenge thriller about Thana (played by a frequent collaborator Zoe Tamerlis), a mute woman who is raped twice in one day. She is traumatized and goes on a killing spree, attacking several men.
woman 45 has since gone on to become an influential exploitation classic, echoes of which live on in films like kill Bill. This succeeds thanks to the excellent performance of Tamerlis. “The film is her and embodies her,” says Ferrara. “The beauty of a film is that it captures a moment in time, and this film shows her as a 17-year-old Columbia student.”
“King of New York” (1990) – IMDb: 6.9/10
Walken gives a menacing performance as a recently released drug lord. He’s trying to restore his power in the city while still being legitimate. Other drug dealers threaten to undermine him, and a crew of shady cops are hellbent on sending him back to prison.
It’s one of the darkest and dirtiest crime films of the early ’90s. “King of New York did scarface look Mary Poppins‘ Ferrara joked. The director shot it in the heart of New York to give the film an authentic feel. “We shot this so deep in Brooklyn that you needed a passport to get there,” he said. “Everybody takes the subway and you just hope they don’t get lost or mugged along the way.”
“Bad Lieutenant” (1992) – IMDb: 7.0/10
Ferrara’s best film is this dark drama about sin and redemption. Harvey Keitel plays the crooked cop title. He is violent, addicted to drugs and unstable. After robbers break into a church and rape a nun, Keitel sets out to arrange for some vigilante justice. He catches the criminals, captures them, and then talks to the nun they attacked. To his shock, the woman tells him that she has already forgiven her attackers. This triggers a spiritual crisis in Keitel’s character.
Keitel gives one of the darkest and most complex performances of his career. His dedication to the role is truly impressive. It encapsulates the character’s inner struggle with what’s left of his conscience. The result is a challenging exploration of several important issues: religion, justice, and whether true forgiveness is possible. Not surprisingly, Scorsese was revered Bad lieutenant and ranked it among his five favorite films of the 1990s.
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