Summertime 1977 proved to be a particularly violent period in loud, crowded, then destitute New York City, especially as random sniper attacks against young women and couples bred a new level of fear among already put-upon citizens.
That heightened wariness transformed into full-on terror after the shooter began writing esoteric, occult symbol-laden letters to the police and newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin. He called himself “Son of Sam” and promised to kill until he was caught.
“Son of Sam” eventually killed six victims and injured seven more until a parking ticket brought him down. The mysterious figure turned out to be David Berkowitz, a 24-year-old postal worker living in Yonkers.
Berkowitz told authorities he had been acting under the command of a demon who spoke to him through Harvey, a black Labrador retriever belong to his entirely unsuspecting neighbor, Sam Carr (hence “Son of Sam”).
Later on, Berkowitz claimed his killings were black magic rituals carried out in cahoots with a nationwide network of devil-worshipping cults.
The “Son of Sam” saga is a fascinating chapter in New York history and, as such, naturally lends itself to movies. David Berkowitz himself doesn’t earn any money from such films, though, as a result of legislation that occurred after book publishers allegedly offered the killer cash for his story. Statutes declaring that convicted criminals cannot financially profit from their crimes, in fact, are commonly known as “Son of Sam laws.”
Besides that, then, David Berkowitz’s other legacies include this array of movies.
ANOTHER SON OF SAM (1977)
Originally filmed as Hostages in 1975, enterprising B-movie promoters renamed this bargain-budget madman-on-the-loose thriller Another Son of Sam two years later in order to cash-in on the headlines of the day. The plot in no way even remotely resembles the David Berkowitz case, but distributors rushed it to drive-ins and grindhouses right as the .44 Killer case dominated the news. As such, Another Son of Sam is just another poorly made trash-flick made forever memorable by some entertainingly sleazy hype and ballyhoo.
OUT OF THE DARKNESS (1985)
Martin Sheen stars as real-life NYPD detective Ed Zigo in Out of the Darkness, a well-crafted made-for-TV movie that takes the unusual approach of focusing on the personal lives of law enforcement as they hunt down “Son of Sam.” Sheen is top-notch, as is Hector Elizondo as a compassionate priest and twinkle-eyed character actor Robert Trebo in the role of David Berkowitz.
SUMMER OF SAM (1999)
Director Spike Lee rather spectacularly misses mark after mark in his overwrought (pizza) slice-of-life potboiler set among Italian-Americans in the Bronx who fear the Son of Sam in July 1977 and suspect a local kid who turned punk (Adrien Brody) may be the shooter. Good performances, particularly by baby-faced Michael Badalucco as Berkowitz, elevate Summer of Sam to watchable status, as does a colorful appearance by real-life killer correspondent Jimmy Breslin, who refers to his former penpal as a “sick f—k.”
THE BRONX IS BURNING (2007)
The first non-documentary mini-series made for ESPN, The Bronx Is Burning is based the terrific nonfiction book, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning by Jonathan Mahler. The title is taken from a quote by sportscaster Howard Cosell, who was calling a Yankee game on the night of July 13 when New York experienced a complete power blackout that kicked off a wild night of riots, looting, and arson.
At the same time, the city was metaphorically “on fire” with Ed Koch’s history-making mayoral campaign, punk rock emerging from CBGB, celebrities hobnobbing at Studio 54, and the streets running red with the blood of victims gunned down by Son of Sam. Although Bronx focuses overwhelmingly on the Yankees, Paul Marini plays David Berkowitz and he makes it count.
SON OF SAM (2008)
Throughout the 2000s, direct-to-DVD shlockmeister Uli Lommel spewed forth a stream of cheapo true-crime cash-in flicks. Among them are B.T.K. Killer (2005), Green River Killer (2005), Black Dahlia (2006), Curse of the Zodiac (2007) and, Son of Sam, his typically junky spin on the David Berkowitz storey. Yogi Joshi stars as the killer. His name is the most interesting this attached to the film.
Watch Investigation Discovery’s original scripted mini-series, SERIAL THRILLER with ID GO. Each installment of the SERIAL THRILLER trilogy propels viewers into a chilling true crime story of a real-life serial killer.
Main photo: Summer of Sam, Touchstone Pictures promotional image