As someone who makes it a point to plumb the depths of the horror genre, more specifically the slasher sub-genre, and conclusively the slasher sub-genre of the 1980s, I am always on the lookout for a title that vies to do something different, or at least vies to do the same ol’ thing while utilizing a gimmick that’s different. Your less discerning horror fan may stop at the top-tier slasher shelf of John Carpenter’s Halloween, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, or any of those infamous 1970s classics, having decided that the resulting sea of imitators couldn’t possibly have merit and weren’t worth examining. From this indifferent perspective, and at the surface level, post-classic, 1980s slashers were all the same: a masked killer that’s mythological in scope or in some way related to the plucky heroine cuts down teenagers at an isolated getaway. The casual horror fan has no interest in this slasher sub-genre’s B-team, perhaps considering reasonably mainstream titles like Terror Train or April Fool’s Day to be as obscure as they wish to go, but for those of us who want to keep diving downward, those titles become almost charming in their broader appeal. Those slashers, competent or not, don’t strike with the same sense of surprise. If you see enough of them, and regardless whether you like them or not, you begin to realize that they really are kind of the same. (Try watching My Bloody Valentine and The Prowler back to back and tell me I’m wrong.) These second-string slashers don’t have that hook that makes them stand out from the rest, either with carefully calibrated ingenuity or sheer dumbfuckery.
In regards to the latter, let’s talk about 1986’s City in Panic.
If you know your histories, you know of the VHS boom that hit during the 1980s, a time during which movie fans could obtain copies of their favorite movies and watch them repeatedly, or trade them with other collectors like baseball cards. Because of this boom, filmmakers realized they had a completely new market readily available in which they could peddle their films. No longer was their lack of access to talent, technology, or even a modest budget going to discourage their ability to make a movie and sell it to distributors. Cut out the middleman, aka theatrical exhibitors, and appeal directly to the consumer at home. This is how the shot-on-video era was born, and with it came a sea of full-screened, standard-definition, oddball titles—and the “direct-to-video” stigma that would follow.
A Canadian production originally filmed under the conflictingly hilarious title “The AIDS Murders,” City in Panic’s story derives from the real-life killings of fourteen men, all customers of the same Toronto bar during the 1970s, all of whom were gay, but none of whom had AIDS. Written by Andreas Blackwell (the writer’s only credit) and Peter Wilson (one of two credits), and directed by Robert Bouvier (one of two credits—are you sensing a theme?), City in Panic, I’m sure, was intended to be more of a socially conscious think-piece and less of the hysterically trashy romp of bad-taste filmmaking that it ultimately became. Director Bouvier had apparently set out to embrace the sub-genre while deconstructing it with a social-issues scalpel, evidenced by the opening murder sequence that replicates the infamous shower scene from Psycho…only this time presenting the stabbing victim as a man instead of the typically nubile young girl the sub-genre had become accustomed to blood-sacrificing. In fact, all of City in Panic’s victims are adult men, taking a further step away from the usual slasher fold and not killing a single teenage girl. (Gasp!) It’s all part of Bouvier’s weird, half-baked intention to channel something like Scream but which results in something like Scary Movie (only funny).
Bouvier didn’t stop at Psycho in terms of presenting City in Panic as some kind of self-aware look at the genre: the flick is a Frankensteinian hybrid of Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio (about a controversial radio show host whose extreme views put him in danger at the hands of an unstable listener), William Friedkin’s Cruising (about a serial killer picking off homosexual men), and any typical Italian giallo in which the would-be victim stumbles ass-backwards into the murderous conflict by working with a police detective who, for reasons evidenced by his own techniques, definitely shouldn’t be a detective. More specifically, City in Panic’s plot involves a mysterious giallo-styled murderer, right down to the black gloves and high-collared trench coat, who goes by the alias “M” (inspired by Fritz Lang’s serial killer flick from 1931), and is butchering seemingly random people who all hail from different backgrounds, and who don’t share any obvious connection to each other. It’s only until the investigation is underway when investigators realize the victims do, in fact, have something in common: they had all, at some point in their lives, contracted AIDS. “M,” it seems, is embarking on a bloody path to “protect the city” from this bloodborne scourge, and for some reason, police captain Barry McKee chooses longtime friend and deadbeat dad Dave Miller (David Adamson), a hot-button radio show host, to draw the killer out of the shadows by baiting them into calling his show so the police can trace the call.
As mentioned, and in spite of the comical mess that it ends up being, City in Panic was seemingly designed with good intentions, mostly as an awareness piece about this new deadly disease called AIDS that was spreading fast through certain communities during the 1980s, which was caused by unprotected sex, blood transfusions, and needle drug use. Despite those three causes, and despite both men and women contracting the disease in different ways, AIDS became known, prominently and unfairly, as “the gay plague.” Though it bungles its message with trashy results, City in Panic was striving to show that people suffering from the disease came from different lifestyles: gay and straight men of opposite professions, along with well-put-together women, along with…well, let’s stop there. The film attempts to examine different people through the same unbiased lens, but it completely botches this approach by positing the accidental takeaway that any woman with AIDS is a victim, but any gay man—depicted as visiting bathhouses or soliciting anonymous sex—is someone with an amoral lifestyle who brought it on himself.
Because the gay aspect overwhelms a large part of the conversation, and because this is the 1980s, an era in which there was no such thing as subtlety, City in Panic is built on stereotypical looks at homosexual lifestyles and homophobic characters way too eager to toss off the usual number of gay slurs regardless of who may overhear. Captain McKee chides a homophobic cop who had bellowed, “This is one case I wouldn’t mind not solving,” by loudly reminding him, “NOT ALL PEOPLE WITH AIDS ARE MEN,” and though that’s supposed to be a teachable moment for not just this particular homophobic character but the audience as well, there is zero acknowledgment in the film that AIDS can be contracted through other means beyond sexual recklessness. This is evidenced not just from the scene where a character (who looks hilariously like Corey Feldman and Crispin Glover were fused inside Seth Brundle’s telepod) watches a program about AIDS on television and remarks, “This is why I’m celibate,” but also a really heavy-handed montage where glimpses of Dave having unprotected sex with his lady friend are intercut with Captain McKee looking at crime scene photos of M’s AIDs-having victims.
City in Panic is peppered with so-called opportunities like these to learn and heal, but they not only come off as uninformed preaching, they’re completely undone by scenes like, for instance, a gay character tapping the shoe of the guy in the next public bathroom stall and eagerly sticking his dick through a peephole (through which he initially looks, I guess to see if it’s still a hole, which may or may not be another Psycho reference). Though gay men are ultimately depicted as victims of their choices, those consequences come as the result of broadly “godless” behavior straight from the Westboro Baptist Church playbook. City in Panic takes the slasher flick’s typical presentation of teenagers as hive-minded miscreants who only want to bang, do drugs, and make really questionable choices, and applies the same kind of lazy strokes akin to SNL’s version of homosexual culture, depicting nearly all of its gay victims as engaging in reckless sexual behavior. The most telling aspect of how the film treats gay characters is through its failure to assign them any redeeming qualities; their purpose is to either badger DJ Dave with flamboyantly antagonist behavior—that would be the muckraking, sherry-drinking gossip columnist, who is never outed as being gay but is clearly presented as such, in keeping with the film’s unsubtle characterizations—or die bloodily in a bathroom stall after soliciting anonymous oral sex through a dick hole. There is exactly one gay character with AIDS, Tommy the bartender, who is presented as a real person and not a walking caricature, but it’s not until after he’s been murdered that his two secrets are revealed, which is supposed to feel like a really dumbfounding moment since his character wasn’t engaging in broadly gay behavior. (Dave remarks, in total disbelief, that he had no idea Tommy was gay, as if he should’ve been wearing a sign.)
To lend credit that it doesn’t deserve, City in Panic really is trying to make a point during the final conflict with the killer as they lay it all out on the table and reveal why they did what they did; the scene comes so close to being the kind of genuinely moving moment that teeters on making the audience sympathize with the killer that City in Panic threatens to become kind of a real movie—one that presents life as messy and impossible to categorize—until you remember the preceding 85 minutes and laugh all over again. By then, the damage has been quite done, ultimately leaving City in Panic so void of subtext that its intended conversation about AIDS has no value except for its potential for a drinking game: take a shot every time someone says the word “AIDS,” and take two whenever someone very unnaturally inserts the topic of AIDS into everyday conversation. You’ll be drunk before Dave takes a call from some concerned Canadian listener who thinks wishy-washer liberals need to shut up about mental illness because this killer clearly must be some kind of freak! (It’s all made additionally amusing by the fact that this is a Canadian production, which means there are flagrant uses of “aboot” and “hoose.”)
It feels wrong to say that City in Panic’s value comes from an ironic sense of entertainment, being that it struggles to tackle a major health crisis that was tearing apart communities and instilling a real sense of fear in the general public during the 1980s, but why its makers felt the slasher sub-genre was the best medium through which to convey that message remains a baffling choice, and is handled with all the care of any Three Stooges short where the trio play delivery men constantly dropping shit down the stairs. Bouvier even tries to suggest the slasher sub-genre itself is to blame for all of society’s ills, and this isn’t speculation, but comes as a rational takeaway from Dave’s asking a psychologist guest on his radio show, “Are the people who make slasher films responsible?” And I guess Bouvier doesn’t quite want to throw this against the wall exclusively to see if it sticks, because the psychologist responds by saying all of society is to blame for M’s killings…without ever explaining what that means. (I also feel compelled to point out, since City in Panic is knowingly deconstructing Psycho as part of its plot, that Psycho 4: The Beginning would come about four years later and also lean heavily on a radio call-in show trying to lure and defeat a serial killer, as well as a psychologist guest host who muses about serial killers, as its plot devices.)
It’s not impossible to make a gay-themed slasher flick that actually has relatable, believable characters who just so happen to be gay—see 2004’s Hellbent for an example on how to do this—but you won’t find any of that in City in Panic. Nor will you find substance, maturity, or understanding of what it is Bouvier and co. were actually making, as evidenced by the below and very real exchange from the film’s denouement:
“How could you kill innocent people?”
“THEY HAVE AIDS!”
“You can’t go around killing people just because they have AIDS!”
If you’re a connoisseur of trash cinema and you don’t mind finding some conflicted laughs in a film trying to be socially conscious but failing miserably, spend some time in this City in Panic. Just…stay out of the men’s room.