The first key signifier of any genre is iconography and it is rather interesting how often the horror iconography appears throughout other genres. The “psychological thriller” is a relatively new subgenre that typically exists within the larger “thriller” or “suspense” genres, but the iconography associated with the psychological thriller is the same as we would find in the typical urban-set horror film. The real difference between the horror film and the psychological thriller seems to be intent. Horror, in all its forms, is designed around the idea of disturbing or frightening the audience. Its primary motive is fear and/or discomfort, usually centered on an external threat. The psychological thriller is typically more devoted to internal struggles and the possibilité dramatique that comes along with it, even though it can, when the occasion calls for it, call upon an external threat to level the dramatic playing field. In essence, the psychological thriller is actually a bit of a bricolage, something designed to play both ends of the field, taking bits and pieces from the dramatic and mixing them with bits and pieces of the horrific.
In the past, I have argued for a subgenre of horror that I called Urban Horror, films which deal with external or internal breakdown along the lines usually associated with horror genre, but which put more emphasis on the dramatic than the visceral. As such, TAXI DRIVER is a perfect example of an Urban Horror film. Usually the arguments against my including of films like TAXI DRIVER into the horror genre have to do with their privilege of prestige. It’s the very reason “psychological thriller” is used so frequently. A film like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS plays like a horror film, contains mutilation, abuse, frightening set pieces and (mild) gore, but because it is an Oscar winning film with an Oscar winning cast and an air of prestige about it, people stick the “psychological thriller” label on it, as if the attachment of “horror” to the film is an insult to the material.
I generally don’t receive much blow back when I refer to CRUISING as an Urban Horror film, probably because it doesn’t have the same kind of critical baggage that films like TAXI DRIVER have. It feels like an urban-set giallo film. It has the same kind of cynical oppression running through its veins, that feeling of misanthropy, that willingness to push buttons for the sake of pushing buttons. It is an incredibly uncomfortable film (more so if you’re a homophobe) and one that wallows in its exploitation instead of coyly flirting with it. William Friedkin is well aware of each and every leading question the film asks, well aware that he is presenting situations that can only lead to unethical outcomes. Everything about this film is designed for the maximum amount of discomfort. That Friedkin is a fan of Argento and Bava should come as no surprise, but what is surprising is how well he’s taken their lessons to heart. This is a cold film, unsparing in its misanthropic view of a hedonistic underworld and the dismissive, opportunistic cops that patrol it.
CRUISING has the ability to disquiet and disturb precisely because there is no heart beating beneath the surface. It wouldn’t feel out of place among Fulci’s THE NEW YORK RIPPER or Dallamano’s WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS?. It’s very construct, a killer running loose in a world that the pursuers cannot understand but must immerse themselves in, something they do at their own risk, has been the backbone of many horror films. Friedkin’s film resists the politicizing and sociological bent that several of these films take and creates a work that draws largely on primal instinct. The dramatic elements of the film are all centered around an internal struggle brought about from external stress, allowing the film to straddle the traditional lines of demarcation between the horror film and the psychological thriller. By the time the credits roll, identities have shifted, perceptions have changed and ethics have eroded beyond repair.
The typical horror film ends with a coda that assures us that order has been restored, but that the balance is still teetering precariously on the edge. Friedkin rejects such hopeful notions here. In Friedkin’s world, there is no order to be found. It’s all an illusion. An impossibility. Pacino survive his ordeal in CRUISING and brings the psychopath to justice, but loses himself in the process. The ending assures us that no matter how many psychos we lock up, there will always be murderers wandering the streets. It’s a hopeless film. A disturbing film. And yes, an Urban Horror film.