Billed as a descent into an urban hell, SHADOWS IN THE CITY doesn't aim to be frightening in the traditional sense, but its attempt at a galvanizing view of an oppressive world becomes morbid and off-putting.
This independent, almost underground film, created by Russian painter Ari Roussimoff, is bracketed by appearances of a good-natured gatekeeper (Lou Cypher) who oversees the doorway between life and death. He introduces us to a doomed spirit, a man named Paul Mills (Craig Smith), who returns home
to Manhattan after touring with a carnival and spends the bulk of the movie's running time wandering through a stark, black-and-white shot Gotham. He ruminates about his dead parents and brother; the latter killed himself by running his motorcycle into a wall, and his mother was a suicide as well.
In Paul's dreams, they beckon to him from the other side, and he hallucinates about a Spirit of Death (Jack Smith).
Trying to find warmth and acceptance, Paul has joyless sex with a prostitute (Valerie Caris), then gets beaten up by a couple of her friends. He goes to a biker bar where his brother used to hang out, and sees the burly regulars rough up a yuppie who's intruded on the scene and group-grope a
stripper on a pool table. Still unable to find a place to fit in or be happy, Paul finally shoots himself, and wakes up in a region of the dead, where the white-faced denizens greet him and he's consigned to wander in a bleak purgatory forever.
Roussimoff seems to be aiming for some kind of statement, and takes a much more experimental approach than usual for an independent horror film. His story proceeds in a stream-of-consciousness style, and the cast is populated with such off-Hollywood names as underground filmmakers Jack Smith,
Emile de Antonio (both in their final film appearances) and Nick Zedd, porn star/performance artist Annie Sprinkle and B-movie queen Brinke Stevens. It's an ambitious attempt to add an extra level to the genre, but Roussimoff's artistic aspirations come off as rather pretentious, given the movie's
complete lack of sympathetic or interesting characters. The filmmaker succeeds in drawing us into a world of hopelessness and despair, but doesn't provide the extra thematic material that would keep it from being thoroughly depressing.
SHADOWS IN THE CITY also suffers from inviting comparison to better movies that cover the same ground, like ERASERHEAD and CARNIVAL OF SOULS (to which the final reels owe an especially large debt). This kind of avant-garde approach to genre filmmaking is difficult to pull off, and Roussimoff
lacks the vision of David Lynch or the satiric clarity of John Waters, whose early work SHADOWS IN THE CITY recalls in numerous scenes set to golden oldies songs. Unfortunately, many of these numbers slow the film to a crawl; the two best come at the very beginning ("Mr. Bassman") and end (Spike
Jones's "Der Fuhrer's Face"). The effort put into this unconventional project is certainly commendable, but the end-product remains difficult to sit through. (Violence, substance abuse, sexual situations, nudity.)
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- Released: 1991
- Rating: NR
- Review: Billed as a descent into an urban hell, SHADOWS IN THE CITY doesn't aim to be frightening in the traditional sense, but its attempt at a galvanizing view of an oppressive world becomes morbid and off-putting. This independent, almost underground film, cr… (more)