Abel Ferrara movies frequently feature lots of graphic violence, complex questions involving the Catholic faith, the dangers of drug use, and men trying to survive in a decidedly crappy world. A rather unique individual away from the camera, Ferrara prefers to shoot his films on the cheap using the gritty streets of New York City as a backdrop. In addition to movies, he’s also made his mark on television by directing episodes of Crime Story and Miami Vice for good pal Michael Mann.
He’s also fond of working repeatedly with the same performers, so here’s a rundown of who you might expect to see while watching Abel Ferrara movies. Next to each name is the number of Ferrara films they’ve appeared in.
- Christopher Walken (4 films)
- Matthew Modine (6 films)
- David Caruso (3 films)
- Paul Calderon (3 films)
- Victor Argo (6 films)
- Harvey Keitel (2 films)
- Forest Whitaker (2 films)
- Willem Dafoe (2 films)
- Annabella Sciorra (2 films)
Now here’s that list of Abel Ferrara movies that I’ve been promising:
- Mary (2005) – Ferrara examines the feminine role in the Catholic faith, going so far as to suggest that Mary Magdalene was both an apostle and trusted confidant of Jesus Christ. Juliette Binoche stars as an actress who plays the legendary female figure in a movie about the life of Christ, then becomes obsessed with her subject and heads off to Jerusalem for further exploration. Matthew Modine is a money-hungry actor/director (who also plays Jesus), while Forest Whitaker co-stars as a television journalist putting together a program about God‘s favorite son. Like most films dealing with Biblical topics, Mary received both great praise and great derision. Watch it and decide for yourself.
- Bad Lieutenant (1992) – Heralded as a modern classic by Martin Scorsese, this powerful tale of redemption stars Harvey Keitel as a corrupt cop who gambles, uses heroin and cocaine, and subjects teenage motorists to humiliating sexual situations. But that all begins to change when his latest case involves the rape of a nun. Full-frontal nudity from Keitel–as well as an unflinching portrayal of the downside of drug abuse–makes Bad Lieutenant worth a look for anyone who enjoys being challenged. Still the best of all Abel Ferrara movies.
- The Addiction (1995) – Filmed in black and white and serving as an allegory for drug addiction, The Addiction stars Lili Taylor as an NYU philosophy student who gets transformed into a vampire. As she gives in to her newfound bloodlust and grapples with existential problems, she encounters the mysterious Peina (Christopher Walken), a man who claims to have overcome his vampirism. A bizarre-yet-fascinating film.
- New Rose Hotel (1998) – X (Willem Dafoe) and Fox (Christopher Walken) are corporate extraction specialists who help scientists defect from one company to another without being killed. Sometimes the scientists come to them, while sometimes they use unethical means to bring about a defection. Based in a dystopian version of Tokyo, the two men set out to have a genius switch loyalties, but first they’ll need a prostitute (Asia Argento) to give him some encouragement (and by “encouragement,” I mean lots and lots of blowjobs). Music provided by old school rapper Schoolly D.
- The Driller Killer (1979) – Ferrara directs and also stars as Reno Miller, a frustrated artist in New York City whose sanity is on the verge of unraveling. Between all the homeless bums sleeping around his apartment building and the punk band that just moved in next door, Reno finally flips out and goes on a rampage with a cordless drill. The film was particularly controversial in the UK, getting banned and becoming one of their infamous “video nasties.”
- The Funeral (1996) – Set in 1930s New York, this Abel Ferrara gangster film stars Christopher Walken and Chris Penn as violent brothers Ray and Chez Tempio. As they come together to bury their murdered third brother (Vincent Gallo), the two criminals must learn who’s responsible and decide how to take revenge. A brilliant cast and twist ending makes The Funeral a crime film worth adding to your Netflix queue. Co-starring Annabella Sciorra, Benicio del Toro, Isabella Rossellini, and Gretchen Mol.
- Ms. 45 (1981) – A controversial exploitation film that’s sort of a cross between Death Wish and I Spit on Your Grave. Zoe Tamerlis Lund is Thana, a mute seamstress who gets raped twice in one night. Her sanity beginning to slide, she kills the second attacker and takes his .45 pistol. That’s when the fun begins, as Thana goes on an armed rampage through the city. By the climax of the film, she’s wearing a nun’s habit and gunning for any man in her line of sight.
- King of New York (1990) – One of the better Abel Ferrara movies, King of New York features a cast filled with current and future stars. Christopher Walken looks appropriately vacant as Frank White, a drug kingpin who’s just been released from prison and can’t wait to resume his old position. But the climb to the top won’t be an easy one, as Frank will have to square off against a group of determined cops, as well as rivals looking to brings him down. Cops include Wesley Snipes and David Caruso, while criminals are played by Steve Buscemi and Laurence Fishburne (back when he was still billed as Larry Fishburne). A modern-day morality play about how crime doesn’t pay.
- Body Snatchers (1993) – Somewhat based on the 1955 novel The Body Snatchers, Ferrara sets his movie on an army base in Alabama. While people are being replaced by alien doubles grown in plant-like pods, a rebellious teen girl (Gabrielle Anwar) tries to warn others of the danger. But the movie would be over pretty quickly if people actually listened, wouldn’t it? Co-starring Forest Whitaker, Meg Tilly, and R. Lee Ermey. Surprisingly, Ermey plays a military man.
- Dangerous Game (1993) – A director (Harvey Keitel) working on his latest film begins to follow the script a little too closely in real life. This leads to all kinds of trouble, especially when he begins an affair with the leading lady (Madonna). The Material Girl took a public dump on the film, noting that her performance was strong even though it was a “shit movie.” Needless to say, Ferrara was displeased with her actions.
As you can see, Abel Ferrara movies cover a wide variety of topics, from paranoia-fueled science fiction to gritty crime dramas. The presence of Christopher Walken in many of his works partially qualifies them as odd movies, but its Ferrara’s Catholic-obsessed vision and unusual off-screen behavior that puts them over the top.