Oh, Ulli Lommel.
Where to even begin?
Born in what is now Poland but what was then Germany, the late Ulli Lommel got his start as a frequent collaborator with the enfant terrible of New Wave German cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Lommel acted in several of Fassbinder’s films and Fassbinder produced Lommel’s third film as a director, the acclaimed The Tenderness of Wolves. In the 70s, Lommel relocated to the United States and, after marrying heiress Suzanna Love, he became a prominent part of the New York City art scene. He hung out with Andy Warhol. He made films about punk rock. He directed three films, Cocaine Cowboys, The Boogeyman, and The Devonsville Terror, that proved that he actually did have some talent when it came to taking on thrillers and horror films.
And then, it all pretty much fell apart. Reportedly, after he and Love divorced, he lost not only his frequent star but also his main financial backer. Lommel spent the rest of his lengthy career directing zero-budget horror films that were best-known for featuring stock footage that was lifted from his previous films. Starting in 2005, he started making direct-to-video movies about real-life serial killers. In interviews, Lommel insisted that his films were not exploitive but that, instead, his serial killer films were meant to offer up a critique of the hypocrisy of American society. And while it’s easy to roll your eyes at Lommel’s claim, I have no doubt that he was being, in his own way, perfectly sincere. His serial killer films are famous for not sticking to the facts but they should be even more famous for their emphasis on alienation and loneliness. All of Lommel’s serial killer films focus on people living on the fringes of society, ignored by those who would rather pretend that they didn’t exist. Lommel consistently portrayed serial killers as being a symptom of a much bigger disease.
Unfortunately, Lommel made his films with very little money and on a very tight shooting schedule. Reportedly, Lommel’s philosophy was to almost always only shoot one take. If someone screwed up a line or if there was a glaring continuity error or if the camera crew briefly appeared in the background, so be it. Indeed, because Lommel’s later films were so deliberately chaotic and semi-improvised, it was often difficult to tell if a continuity error was actually a mistake or something that Lommel deliberately planned.
Sadly, this led to Ulli Lommel getting a reputation for being one of the worst directors of all time. That’s not fair, though. Whatever one might say about his low budgets or his odd style, one cannot deny that Ulli Lommel had a unique vision and that he stuck with it. That’s more than you can see for most bad directors. If nothing else, you’ll never mistake a Ulli Lommel film for being the work of any other director.
Take his 2005 film about the Son of Sam. The film is 80 minutes of David Berkowitz (played by Yogi Joshi) wandering around New York with a confused look on his face. Whenever he sees anyone, a voice commands him to kill while another voice chants “Son of Sam …. Son of Sam.” Meanwhile, there are flashforwards to the recently arrested David Berkowitz, meeting with his public defender and subsequently asking a priest (played by Lommel himself) to exorcise the demons from him. Then there are flashbacks to Berkowitz at some sort of Satanic coven meeting where the high priestess won’t stop laughing. (In typical Lommel fashion, the high priestess is clad in her underwear while everyone else in the cult is dressed in black.) Then, there’s another set of flashbacks to Berkowitz talking to an old woman who may or may not be a part of the cult. Then a dog shows up and gives Berkowitz a meaningful stare.
It’s a mess with no real plot and making it through the entire 80 minutes is a true endurance test. The film not only screws up the facts behind the murders (i.e., the real-life Berkowitz shot people sitting in cars, the film’s Berkowitz shoots a drug dealer standing in a doorway) but it also buys into Berkowitz’s self-serving claim of having been manipulated by a Satanic cult, a claim that falls apart under scrutiny and common sense but which was still recently presented as fact by a Netflix miniseries. We’re told that the film is taking place in the 70s, which is good because, despite the presence of one awkward conversation about going to Studio 54, you’d never know it otherwise.
And yet …. there’s an intensity to Lommel’s vision that I have a hard time totally dismissing. The movie plays out like a fever dream and the visuals are so chaotic and so random and just so weird that it’s hard not to feel that Lommel probably did manage to capture what it was like inside of David Berkowitz’s messed-up head.
Don’t get me wrong. Son of Sam is not a good film. It’s a mess and it’s repetitive nature gets boring fairly quickly. But it’s also hardly the work of the worst director of all time. Instead, it’s uniquely Lommel.