Ha ha, speak up everybody, you’re on the air - it’s Burl here to review a fairly obscure little Canadian mystery-slasher picture! It’s one of those grimy, vaguely giallo-inspired movies that came along regularly through the early and mid-80s – pictures like American Nightmare and Evil Judgment are close cousins, it seems to me! The movie we’re talking about today goes by several titles – among them, reportedly, The AIDS Murders – but I’m going to refer to it by the name on the VHS tape I watched: City in Panic!
The city in question is Toronto, and though they don’t name it, it’s pretty identifiable! Ha ha, there are plenty of recognizable cityscape shots, and the piles of dirty snow seen everywhere identify the climate and the season for us as well! It looks like it was a cold shoot - ha ha, as someone who has worked on movies in Toronto in the wintertime, I had real sympathy for the cast of this picture, and even more for the crew!
The panic has already begun as the story begins: enough people, maybe two or three, have been murdered for the police and the public to realize it’s a serial maniac! Because the victims are mainly gay men, the action starts outside the Oak Leaf Steam Baths on Bathurst Street, which I cheered when I saw because, even though I never went to the steam baths, they were in the same building as Mimi’s, a great restaurant at which I used to frequently eat my breakfast! Ha ha, they made a terrific French toast! Mimi’s was a marvelous place, always full of famous, semi-famous, and non-famous musicians, and Mimi herself was a real character!
Anyway, the man comes out of the steam baths looking chagrined and heads home for a shower! The killer is on his tail, and what follows is the most slavish recreation of the Psycho shower scene outside of Gus Van Sant’s weird 1998 remake! Then we’re introduced to the competent but unremarkable actors who will essay our main characters: firstly Dave Miller, impersonated by David Anderson, an anodyne talk radio host who plays with toys as he broadcasts and whose catch phrase is “Speak up, you’re on the air!” The topic du jour on Dave’s radio show is of course the murders, and his position on the matter is tough to define, but it’s apparently at odds with that of the town’s other media giant, a Truman Capote-ish columnist called Alex Ramsey!
Although these two constantly reiterate their respective opinions on the killings and on the approach the police are taking to solve the crimes, I was never quite sure what those positions were! As near as I can tell, Dave is asking the public for patience, opining that the cops have a tough job so let them do it; while Alex Ramsey just wants someone to declare martial law and do whatever they have to do to get this murderous scoundrel off the streets! Meanwhile we meet other characters: Dave’s radio producer Louise, played by Bonnie Beck from Wild Thing; Ramsay’s assistant (and, I think, Dave’s ex?) Elizabeth Price, played by Leeann Nestegard; and Dave’s best friend, who’s also the detective on the case, Barry McKee! We also get to know Barry’s partner, who is the world’s angriest cop!
But the killer seems unstoppable! Kitted out in giallo-wear (black hat, cloak, gloves and glasses), the fiend takes out He-Man, a ponky male stripper who prances about to the screams of the ladies! Ha ha, even the cops, even his best friend, even He-Man’s own physician refers to him only as He-Man! And there’s more! Every so often the killer will roll up in a sweet boogie van right out of Prom Night and put the knife to, oh, let’s say a fellow hanging upside down in the gym, or else a security guard who takes advantage of a glory hole and by garr pays the price! Arghhh, ha ha! A letter M is always carved into the victims, and later on a poster for Fritz Lang’s M provides an important if belated clue to Detective Barry McKee!
I guess I shouldn’t give
away the killer or the motive, but despite the fact that the victims are almost
all gay men and are afflicted with AIDS (which, in keeping with the mid-80s provenance
of the picture, it assumes is an automatic death sentence for anyone who’s got
it), it’s not a simple case of murderous homophobia! I suppose the movie is
pretty progressive for its day, in that none of the gay folk are simple caricatures;
but it’s nevertheless very much of its day, so keep that in mind and be warned if you’re thinking of
I can’t say the solution to the mystery surprised me, and, ha ha, I’m pretty easily surprised! Also, the movie is simply not terribly well made, even if it could have been worse! Some of the acting is not bad, and some of it is; and it’s not a movie with much of a sense of humour – by the end, I must say, it gets pretty grim! But then suddenly, with a bonk on the head, it’s all done, and the only thing left is to wait for the AIDS to inevitably claim any still-living infected characters, as far as the movie's medical understanding goes! As movies go it’s a bit unusual and it’s a bit Toronto, and those are its main virtues, so I’ll give City in Panic one set of gravity boots!