City of Blood (1983) – By Jonathon Pernisek

While on one of my routine hunts for the best in VHS trash I decided to pick up City of Blood, which featured a very amusing cover design and a premise so odd in description I had to see it in execution. Over time I’ve realized this is all you need to do in order to make me whip out my debit card and waste some money, but now as I try to write this review I realize how this particular title wasn’t really terrible. In fact, the final verdict is much fuzzier, since while there are many disappointing elements in Blood I never once felt myself itching for it to end.

The main protagonist of the film is Joe Hendersen, a quickly aging medical examiner who is haunted not only by his disturbing profession but by visions of his former wife. Joe often has whole conversations with his wife only to realize he’s been talking to himself, resulting in total emotional breakdowns. He’s a very interesting character, and as played by the eternally sweaty and admittedly unattractive Joe Stewardson he’s definitely not your usual hero.

When a series of murders involving hookers rocks the city, Joe finds himself getting caught up in the case, despite the objections of the actual investigators. Dreams take Joe to the scene of the crime, where he watches as mysterious African tribesmen stalk one of the women before beating her to death with an ancient club. Featured in the opening of the film, which takes place almost 2,000 years in the past, these warriors are now somehow connected to Joe’s present society. In an effort to piece some clues together, Joe slowly attempts to get closer to one of the local prostitutes, a sullen and suspicious girl named Abigail.

At the same time, and this is when the movie really starts to get muddled in terms of plot, government officials are trying to force Joe’s signature on a death certificate with no name. Joe learns from a couple of black activists that the man behind the certificate was a well known civil rights leader who is now dead, murdered while in prison at the hands of his interrogators. If this news were to be made public a race war would surely ensue, but Joe refuses to play along by signing a certificate stating the man died of heart failure. It’s a fascinating moral debate, and surely enough to sustain an entire movie, but there’s way too many other things going on for the audience to concentrate.

The film manages to keep going because of its lead’s determination and unique position in the plot. He’s a tired old man caught in the middle of a raging conspiracy he’ll probably never fully understand, a truly dangerous situation. However, the ghostly visions of his wife never really amount to much, and I was totally caught off guard when he started having a sexual relationship with Abigail the street walker. It’s a total what-the-hell moment, as Abigail is easily twenty years his junior and gives no earlier sign she might want to go to bed with such an older man.

Aside from all this, Abigail has her own strange dream, one in which a period couple of the 1800s (I have to assume the era, to be honest) chase each other through one of the creepiest forests ever put on film. The trees are lined up perfectly in a stretch of land covered in a permanent blanket of fog, making the horizon totally unidentifiable and thus making the scene effectively claustrophobic. Once again, however, the dream doesn’t amount to anything I can actually connect to the rest of the story. The young woman of the couple spots a rather silly looking skull before screaming her eyeballs out, which of course causes Abigail to sit straight up in bed (the traditional position for any person who has a scary dream). Is the woman in the dream supposed to be some sort of ancestor of Abigail’s? What does it all mean as a whole?

Like I said before, City of Blood did keep me on a leash until the end credits, but ultimately it made no attempt to explain itself and thus left me feeling a little cold. I enjoyed its electronic score, which reminded me of Blade Runner more than a few times, and the somber nature of the characters made me think of more recent depression-based horror flicks like The Sixth Sense, but this is all I can really give the film after being so let down by the anticlimactic conclusion. This is a curiosity, to be sure, but I’d give five bucks to anyone who can decode its screenplay.