Once, there was another killer who haunted the night, struck out of nowhere and slipped away. Before John Wayne Gacy, the clown-suited slaughterer of teenage boys; before Wayne Williams, the strangler who stalked the poor black kids of Atlanta, there was David Berkowitz, who cruised the streets of New York City after midnight with a loaded .44, looking for young women to shoot. In a terrifying yearlong spree before his arrest on Aug. 10, 1977, he shot six people to death at close range, wounded seven others and wrote his nickname in 72-point type across the front pages of New York's tabloids: Son of Sam.
To New Yorkers of a certain age, the name will forever evoke a time most of them would rather forget: a steamy summer in a crumbling city that paused in its everyday mayhem (1,553 murders in 1977, compared with 631 last year) only for an all-night riot touched off by a citywide power failure. But the era also saw the first stirrings of a vocation in a college student named Spike Lee, who spent the summer roaming the city with a Super 8 camera. (His neighborhood wasn't afraid of Son of Sam, he says; Berkowitz only shot white people.) Now, at a time when moviemakers are under pressure to justify every gunshot, Lee will invite New Yorkers to relive that "frenetic, crazy" era in his new movie, "Summer of Sam."
"Summer" was provocative even as it was being filmed last year, on location in the Bronx not far from where one of Berkowitz's victims lived. After the murdered girl's parents protested what they saw as an attempt to make money off their tragedy, the production relocated. Neysa Moskowitz, whose 20-year-old daughter, Stacy, was killed just 10 days before Berkowitz was arrested, denounced Lee last week as a "piranha" who "just wants to make a buck." Neither the director nor anyone from Touchstone Pictures, the Disney unit that is releasing the movie, returned calls seeking comment. In an interview last summer, Lee admitted he "will never be able to feel what they [the families] feel," but added: "We did not feel we were being exploitive."
Lee has made a movie that is less about Sam than about the summer. The shootings, although graphic, and Son of Sam himself, although frighteningly loony, are mostly just the backdrop against which Lee plays variations on one of his familiar themes, violence and ignorance among working- class white people. For what it's worth, Berkowitz--whose case inspired New York to pass a law preventing criminals from profiting by the sale of their stories--told The New York Times that he's sorry "the ugliness of the past is resurfacing again, all because some people want to make some money." Berkowitz, who is now 46, pleaded guilty to the killings and is serving six consecutive life sentences. For everyone who believed they'd never have to think about him again, "Summer of Sam" is a reminder, in this year of unaccountable evil, of another year when danger lurked in every stranger's shadowed face--and an occasion to be thankful that the epidemic of murder is slowly lifting from our nation.