Monday, January 11, 2021

“I Can’t Understand Why Things Like This Go On” - Another Son of Sam (1977) - Film #195

One subgenre that consistently contributes more than its fair share to the quality of world cinema is the protoslasher that references real serial killers. While arguably less focused on real-world crimes than The Zodiac Killer (1971), Dave Adams's Another Son of Sam (1977) is a sincere and successful attempt to scare its audience by showing them that dangerous killers can exist in even the most mundane places.

Some critics are oddly unimpressed with Dave Adams's vision of realism. For example, reviewer Wizard-8 writes, "For the most part this movie will test the patience of even the most forgiving viewers." Reviewer snicewanger writes, "I don't know whose idea it was to make this film, but they should be locked in a padded room." And reviewer jellopuke is so unimpressed, I will quote the entirety of their misguided review: "This is incredibly amateurish in all ways with a terrible script, terribly edited (with strange freeze frames everywhere), terrible actors giving terrible dialogue, and a beyond boring pace. STAY FAR AWAY. This is 75 minutes of your life you will never get back. Do ANYthing else with your precious time on this earth. PLEASE."

In actuality, one could hardly find a more productive use of 75 minutes than viewing Another Son of Sam. Read on to find out why...

The film begins with words of thanks from director Dave Adams to the city of Charlotte, the Charlotte Police Department, Kings College, and the Treehouse Lounge. The title then identifies various mass murderers through history: Jack the Ripper, George Metesky (New York’s mad bomber), Howard B. Unruh (a shooter in Camden, NJ), Charles Starkweather, Ronald York and James Latham, Richard Speck, Juan V. Corona, Palestinian commandos, Ted the Seattle Slayer (still at large at the time, though eventually identified as Ted Bundy), David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”), and several others. 

The film proper begins with a handsome man piloting a small motorboat and docking it at a private boathouse. He is met by an attractive woman and they walk up a long stairway to their house. The film then cuts to the couple riding in the boat together, then waterskiing, before cutting to the Treehouse Lounge for a musical performance by a man (or, more accurately, a legend) named Johnny Charro. 

After several minutes of Mr. Charro’s performance, the man, a police officer named Lt. Setzer, complains to his friend that he is tired because he was waterskiing all day, and then they talk about a new officer joining the force.

The film cuts to a mental institution where a female therapist speaks with a disturbed young man, Harvey. Elsewhere in the hospital, Lt. Setzer’s girlfriend Dr. Ellis is interrupted while working with a phone call from Lt. Setzer. Instead of saying hello, Setzer opens with, “Doc, I’ve got this little problem. I was out doing some waterskiing this weekend and, um, I think I caught a cold. What’s the chance of seeing you for a little bit of medication.”

“My rates are high,” she replies.

“With the wages of a police officer, they better not be too high. Besides, I’ve already got a girl who’s a pretty big spender. But seriously, Doc, I do have something I wanted to show you, so what time could I come by to see you this afternoon?”

“Well, since you’re in such agony to see your doctor, I guess I could see you for just a few minutes.”

Unfortunately, while Dr. Ellis is busy on the phone, the patient Harvey strangles an orderly in a very bloody manner with a phone cord.

There is a quick cut to a shot of Harvey grabbing a steel pole that lasts less than a second, and then the film cuts back to the police station, where Lt. Setzer drives away in his car. Then there is a cut to someone who has been impaled with a coatrack. When Dr. Ellis arrives at Harvey’s room, he grabs her.

In a fascinating excursion into experimental film, the director cuts to a point-of-view shot, apparently from the perspective of a drunk person, with the camera swinging toward the ground, floating down an exterior staircase, and then moving into the street directly in front of Lt. Setzer’s car before freezing the frame on Setzer’s startled face. (Interestingly, this shot has nothing to do with the film’s narrative, as Lt. Setzer doesn’t run into anyone or anything; he simply drives to the mental hospital as if nothing has happened.)

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Lt. Setzer arrives at the institution just as an army of doctors, nurses, and security personnel are wheeling the attacked and injured Dr. Ellis on a gurney through the corridors. In the waiting room, a group of police officers including Lt. Setzer decides what to do. They are informed by a phone call (for some reason) that the murderer might be in a nearby park, so two officers are dispatched to search for him. We do not see Lt. Setzer’s reaction to his girlfriend’s attack, though he does lean across a desk.

The officers stroll through the park, which is adjacent to a college dormitory building. In a suspenseful sequence, we watch the officers from the killer’s point of view as his heartbeat pounds. Suddenly, the camera bursts out of a bush to collide with the two officers, who fall into the bushes. Lt. Setzer arrives and points his weapon at something unseen.

In a dorm room, a girl named Tina calls someone on the phone to say she has money.

Back in the park, Lt. Setzer reunites with the two officers. They have somehow lost the suspect. Based on shaky POV shots, we gather the killer is approaching a dormitory building.

At the police station, the police captain tells his officers the mayor wants to know how they let the suspect get away. “Now until he’s apprehended, we go to the buddy system. We don’t have too much on him. All we know is that he’s placed in that mental institution because he couldn’t function in our society. And you people put him back in that society.”

After the briefing, the captain pulls Lt. Setzer aside to ask about Dr. Ellis. “Well, she’s in a coma. She’s been beaten up pretty badly. They say it’s more shock than anything else.”

In the dormitory, two girls, Heather and Tina (the girl who had money) hear a scream. They enter the screaming girl’s room, only to find that she is afraid of a little white mouse named Tom, Heather’s pet. They take the rat back to their dorm room. The filmmakers present an acceptable jump scare when Heather opens a closet door to find Tom’s cage, only to be surprised by a giant falling Snoopy stuffed animal (the Snoopy’s name is, of course, Henry). The jump scare is followed up by another one when Tina checks on Heather in the shower, as Heather jumps out at her. The filmmakers freeze on Heather’s smiling, soapy face while Tina continues her dialogue complaining about both Heather and her mouse.

Next, the filmmakers intercut a low-speed car chase with a salacious scene implying that Tina changes from a towel to a nightgown, as well as a subplot involving $500 stolen from the university administration office. The sequence with Tina includes what might be the film’s most horrifying image as we see her lying in bed while a hand gropes out from underneath the bed.

Setzer drives to the dormitory and encounters Darlene, who accuses Tina of stealing the $500 from the administrative office, though she has no evidence. They also encounter Heather and her boyfriend and convince Heather to ask Tina about the money. When Heather goes upstairs to her dorm room, she finds Tina murdered on the floor. Setzer runs to his police car to call in the crime, only to learn that the other officers believe they have caught the killer after their car chase. “You’ve got the wrong man,” Setzer tells another officer on the radio. “There’s a college girl here who would…disagree…if she could talk.” The film freezes as Setzer removes his revolver from a holster.

Once the entire police force has gathered in the lobby of the dorm building, Heather cries to Setzer, “I loved her! You didn’t even know her! Didn’t know her!” Also, there is a shot of three girls walking down a staircase for no apparent reason. The police eventually evacuate the building and decide to call the SWAT team from “the city.”

In the morning at a police meeting on the lawn outside the dormitory, the police captain explains the killer’s backstory and motives. “Harvey, as he goes by, was sexually assaulted by his mother at an early age. Consequently, he was institutionalized. He’s been in the institution for a good 10 years. Seems to enjoy assaulting young women. Very high IQ.”

Suddenly, an officer sees something through one of the windows and another officer runs inside. When he reaches the fourth floor where the suspect was spotted, Setzer and the captain startle him and chew him out for not following procedure by rushing into the building. Then they order him to check out the rooms on the floor by himself, which is what he presumably would have been doing had they not interfered. He checks the first room, where he is surprised by the khakis-and-loafers-wearing killer, thrown across a bed, and brutally strangled.

In a touching scene scored with sentimental flute music, Metzer and a police sergeant look down at the strangled officer’s body while the sergeant holds his weapon in what might be considered a less-than-safe manner as it points directly at Setzer’s head.

A SWAT team member enters the building, only to be shot by the killer in another one of the dormitory’s 300 or so stairwells. The killer now has a police revolver and an automatic rifle, which he immediately uses to mow down three innocent bystanders, prompting another SWAT team member to say casually into his walkie-talkie, “This is Nelson. Who’s doing all that shooting?”

The killer next finds a room where Heather and Darlene are backed up against a wall, having apparently run upstairs instead of evacuating. The killer strangles Heather when she rushes him with a sorority paddle, and then attacks Darlene.

Setzer and the captain reach the room where the killer is holed up. They crouch at the end of the stairwell, where Setzer scratches his cheek with the barrel of his revolver while the captain calls the killer out. “The building’s surrounded. You’ve got nowhere to go.”

We hear Darlene from the dorm room: “Somebody help us, please!”

Setzer takes a second to process her statement. “There must be two girls in there,” he deduces. “She said ‘help us,’ didn’t she?”

“That’s what it sounded like,” the captain agrees.

Meanwhile, the SWAT team puts its plan, which involves rappelling off the side of the building to shoot through a window into the killer’s room.

The rappelling officer shoots through the window, though we don’t see this happening. He appears to shoot Darlene. The killer shoots another officer (revealed seconds earlier to be the captain’s son-in-law). In the room, Heather is still alive. The killer moves toward her. 

The police put into play their last-ditch plan. They bring the killer’s doctor and his abusive mother (referred to by the captain as “the old lady”) up to the floor. His mother talks to him. “Harvey? It’s Mother. It’s been a long time. You’re almost grown now. I wanted to visit you, to see you. I even dreamed about it. Probably the reason you’re in that room is because I didn’t. Harvey! Those people in that room have never done anything to hurt you. Now let them go!”

For a tense moment, she stands in the middle of the hallway outside the room. Behind her, a half-dozen police officers aim their guns in her direction.

In the next shot, Harvey is in the hallway being shot by the officers. 

In the aftermath, Lt. Setzer comes out of a hospital room, approaches the waiting Heather, and, oddly, slips a ring onto her finger, indicating somehow that Darlene (or perhaps Rita) has died. The police sergeant comforts Heather and she tells him, “Sergeant, I can’t understand why things like this go on. I mean, first those people at the hospital and then my roommate, my friend. All these policemen. And now this. I just can’t understand why it has to happen. And I really don’t think I ever will.”

Cut to end titles, and the inimitable Johnny Charro singing his signature song “I Never Said Goodbye” on the soundtrack.

Establishing its protoslasher credentials, Another Son of Sam features some of the bloodiest strangulations in cinematic history. Whether it is a hospital orderly strangled by a phone cord or a rookie police officer strangled by Harvey's own two hands, the bloodiness of the strangulations is impressively horrifying, though it is in fact unclear where the blood is coming from in both cases. In any case, Harvey is a protoslasher for the ages, and one of the finest stranglers in film history.

Some uncharitable observers have observed (uncharitably) that the title Another Son of Sam is a misnomer, as the film has nothing to do with the first Son of Sam, a real serial killer who plagued New York City in 1976. The title, some say, was used simply for exploitation purposes. These same observers fail to observe the same thing about Spike Lee's Summer of Sam (1999), a film that rivals Another Son of Sam in its horrific atmosphere.

Like many masterpieces reviewed here on Senseless Cinema, Another Son of Sam was the only film made by its director, formerly a stuntman with credits such as Trucker's Woman (1975) and William Grefé's Whiskey Mountain (1977). Dave Adams had a solid visual sense (evidenced by the shot of the hand emerging from under the bed and the fisheye shots of strangulations) and a creative, resourceful attitude toward storytelling (evidenced by the many shots that end in freeze-frames while dialogue is still going on). After Another Son of Sam, he deserved more chances to contribute to film history. It is truly a shame that Another Son of Sam was his final film.