City of Shadows (1987): Black Sheep Blues

Matty takes a look at a dark, gloomy gem from the David Mitchell and Damian Lee production line.

Released on U.K. video as ‘Nightmare City’, CITY OF SHADOWS is a highly effective mix of kitchen sink drama, police procedural, social commentary, conspiracy thriller, and Mad Maxian sci-fi that lives up to the bleak connotations of its dual titles. Exuding an oppressive vibe and unsettling mood that’s augmented by Ludek Bogner’s Edward Hopper-esque cinematography and a psyche-penetrating Tangerine Dream score every bit as mesmeric as their work on Strange Behaviour (1981) and Near Dark (1987), this gritty Canadian cheapie packs a wallop, exploring themes of poverty, child abuse, pedicide, and coercive control. It’s testament to makers David Mitchell and Damian Lee’s skills, then, that they render such a deeply upsetting brew so compulsively watchable and, even, entertaining — albeit in a uniquely scuzzy way. Just think of City of Shadows as the midpoint between, say, Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock (1984) and J. Lee Thompson’s Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989).  

Produced under their Rose & Ruby banner, Mitchell directs and Lee writes and stars in a creepy supporting role as child killer Garrett. In the midst of a fresh rampage following his questionable early release, Garrett is doggedly pursued by his long-time nemesis, maverick detective Paul (Paul Coufos, reuniting with Mitchell and Lee after music/biff ‘em up hybrid Busted Up (1986)). Already haunted by an attempt to recapture Garret that turned into a bloodbath, Paul’s crusade becomes personal when the bearded transient psycho kidnaps his girlfriend’s young son — the double thrust of the film being Paul trying to save the moppet from certain doom and uncovering the mystery of his and Garrett’s connection, which runs significantly deeper than simply cop and killer. Maddeningly, despite being presented as a surprise within City of Shadows’ narrative, the latter is a plot point blown by every single one of its published synopses from IMDb down over, so steer clear if you want its full impact. 

Set in a future-shock world that appears to be going to hell in a handbasket,  Mitchell juggles the contrasting elements of the film — rich vs. poor, law vs. order, and, ultimately, nature vs. nurture — very nicely indeed, impressing a distinctive, full-throttle attitude upon City of Shadows and imbuing it with a sweeping, almost epic quality. While Lee’s script is a little lax with certain ideas and characterisations, it’s anchored by a gripping, well-structured story. It isn’t afraid to go quiet either, and though scrappy, City of Shadows deserves applause for at least trying to do something thoughtful and different in the expository moments that unfurl in between the brawls, shootouts, and other various genre elements.

Performances are good. As mentioned, Lee is skin-crawling. Coufos does an agreeable job with his plays-by-his-own-rules schtick. Tony Rosato, who was also in Busted Up, adds plucky spark as Paul’s partner. Rabid’s (1977) Frank Moore excels as a smarmy rival ‘tec with a hair-trigger temper. And the Christopher Plummer-like Paul Harding is great in his small yet pivotal role. The standout, however, is the brilliant John P. Ryan as Paul’s no-nonsense boss. Bagging an associate producer credit as part of his casting deal, Ryan’s introductory scene alone is worth the price of a rental, the gum-chewing thesp delivering an intense, towering, and borderline Shakespearean masterclass as a man driven by duty and unwavering morals; a powerfully principled police captain who’s fiercely protective of his officers, his ruinous precinct, and the brow-beaten populace that inhabit it.

Can ● 1987 ● Thriller ● 92mins

Paul Coufos, Damian Lee, John P. Ryan, Tony Rosato ● Dir. David Mitchell ● Wri. Damian Lee, based in part upon material from two original stories: ‘Chris’ by Steve Ippolito and ‘Brothers’ by Jacques Murray

Canadian (L) and U.S. (R) VHS art courtesy of VHS Collector

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