Cinema Fearité presents 'Cruising'
William Friedkin got more than he bargained for when he made the slasher mystery 'Cruising.'
When you ask people what the best horror movie ever made is – not their favorite, but the best – it’s not surprising that The Exorcist is always in the conversation. It is surprising that it was director William Friedkin’s only “horror” movie (although, considering classics like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining to Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark were also made by “non-horror” filmmakers, maybe not so much). But Friedkin did flirt with the genre a bit after The Exorcist. In 1980, he made the unique faux-slasher movie Cruising.
Cruising is about a serial killer who haunts gay S&M clubs in New York City looking for victims. A police officer named Steve Burns (Scarface’s Al Pacino) who fits the specific dark-hair-dark-skin victim type is sent deep undercover to try and flush out the murderer. As Steve bounces from club to club and meets different people, he makes friends and finds himself becoming emotionally invested in the case. He also uncovers police harassment and discrimination that he didn’t know existed before. As he slips deeper into the subculture, he gets closer to the killer…perhaps a bit too close.
William Friedkin based his screenplay for Cruising on three sources – a Gerald Walker novel, some interviews he did with a former NYPD undercover cop who consulted with him on The French Connection, and a series of articles in the Village Voice detailing a rash of real-life killings (of which, in a weird coincidence, the perpetrator played an X-ray tech in Friedkin’s The Exorcist). The movie is much more of a murder mystery than a horror flick. It’s a classic whodunit with plenty of false leads and red herrings. It just also has more than its fair share of slice-and-dice moments.
From the start, Cruising was a contentious production. Once word got out that Friedkin was making a movie set in the gay S&M scene, protesters flooded every filming location in the city. Some activists even tried to get then-mayor Ed Koch to withdraw the tax incentives for the film (he refused, citing first amendment and anti-censorship reasons). Certain gay bars portrayed in the film who had initially agreed to let Friedkin shoot at their establishments backed out after getting pressure from the community. Many homosexual extras and crew members quit the production, and those who didn’t leaked information to the protesters in order to help them disrupt filming. Cruising became a strong unifying factor for the gay community, even before anyone had even seen it.
In retrospect, opinions about Cruising have softened a bit over the years. Friedkin himself admitted that he used the gay subculture merely as a backdrop for his murder mystery and not as a main plot point, so the “sexual deviance,” while unflinching and graphic, was nothing compared to the brutal violence that was presented elsewhere. Furthermore, it turned out that most of the protesters weren’t involved in the S&M subculture at all. The men in the city who were part of that scene actually wanted the story to be told. And the representation, albeit exaggerated, was something that had never before been seen in mainstream film. So, once it was released and people started seeing it, Cruising became a different kind of a rallying cry. And now that it’s been out for almost 40 years, it serves as a time capsule of a more reckless and carefree, pre-AIDS time period. History has a way of changing minds.
Besides Pacino, Cruising is packed with familiar faces. Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark) plays Steve’s girlfriend, his anchor to the straight world as he immerses himself in the hedonism of the homosexual nightlife. Paul Sorvino (The Stuff, Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game) is Steve’s captain who gives him the assignment and works to keep him protected while he is deep undercover. Don Scardino (Squirm, He Knows You’re Alone) plays a friend that Steve makes while on assignment and James Remar (The Warriors) plays the friend’s jealous boyfriend, while Jay Acovone (The Hills Have Eyes II) and Richard Cox (Seizure, Hellhole) show up as other denizens of the S&M scene. Gene Davis (The Hitcher, The Relic) pops in for a subplot about drag queens being harassed by police officers, and Powers Boothe (Frailty, Sin City) makes a short appearance in an iconic scene as a hankie salesman (“The yellow hankie in your left rear pocket means you give golden shower, the yellow in the right rear means you receive gold.”). Finally, the legendary Joe Spinell (The Last Horror Film, Starcrash) and the equally legendary Ed O’Neill (Al Bundy himself from “Married With Children”) show up as NYPD cops.
Photographically, cinematographer James A. Contner (Nighthawks, Monkey Shines) perfectly captures the New York aesthetic that was popular at the time in movies like Taxi Driver and Maniac (having Joe Spinell in the picture helps out a lot). With much of the film taking place at night and in seedy clubs, Cruising is a dark and grimy movie, and the lighting seems to always have a blue tinge, just like the New York evening (and possibly symbolizing the constant blanket of the corrupt NYPD). It’s a grindhouse look, simultaneously sleazy and artistic. It’s New York.
The soundtrack is another typically New York aspect of Cruising. The movie has a suitably dramatic and suspenseful score from composer Jack Nitzsche (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Officer and a Gentleman), but the real musical draw is the pop and rock songs that are peppered throughout. The soundtrack includes tastefully placed and curated tunes from the likes of The Cripples, The Germs, John Hiatt, and Willy DeVille, songs that reinforce the decadent party atmosphere of the New York S&M club settings. There are no hit singles to be heard anywhere, just a bunch of rocking club jams to set the scene.
Over the years, William Friedkin has continued to flirt with the horror genre, making movies like the violently sexy Jade, the weird conspiracy-tinged Bug, and the disturbingly misogynistic Killer Joe. But he has yet to make another movie as horrifying as The Exorcist, or as slasherifically controversial as Cruising.