One of my favorite courses to teach is called Visions of the City in American Cinema, which moves from silent Edison shorts to Tyler Perry. In the class, we put urban history into dialogue with the social imaginary constructed and peddled by the history of film (you can see a syllabus for it here, if you scroll a bit). Local examples are useful (and help make things relevant), and when I taught it in Philadelphia, it was easy to draw links to local location shooting: the unjustly forgotten blaxploitation gem Trick Baby, the great use of Market East in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981), overlooked 90s independent films like Cheryl Dunye’s magnificent Watermelon Woman and Andrew Repasky McElhinney’s flawed but visually striking Magdalen, and even the recent spate of lazy, uninteresting studio pap—Limitless, Next Day Air, or the excruciating Law Abiding Citizen, which somehow roped Mayor Nutter into an ill-advised cameo.
Teaching in Newark, drawing on local film legacies presents a greater challenge. Newark has been better represented in literature than it has in film, what with all those Philip Roth novels chronicling it. IMDB lists 206 titles as being shot in Newark, but a good portion of those make fleeting (or disguised) use of the city. I remember when they filmed part of Dark Knight Rises here; I had to walk from Penn Station to campus because the subway was closed. I would not say the film is of much use as a vision of the city (well, of this city; obviously its gothic noir reflects a larger metanarrative). We do get a lesser De Palma movie with some nice shots of residential neighborhoods (Wise Guys from 1986, one of his worst), but when I thought I had found a useful Newark film—New Jersey Drive, one of three gritty, ambitious urban dramas Nick Gomez made in the mid-90s before settling on a television career that’s surely more lucrative but vastly less interesting—it turned out to be set in Newark but not actually shot there. Its theme of rampant car theft had angered local officials concerned with the city’s already often demonized reputation, and Mayor Sharpe James’s spokeswoman had declared, “Over my dead body will they film this in Newark,” as a fascinating 1994 New York Times article reported.
Most of the films that best engage with Newark are documentaries: Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno and Jerome Bongiorno’s Revolution ’67, about the iconic uprising that continues to define the city’s legacy; Marshall Curry’s Street Fight, about now-Mayor Cory Booker’s first, failed, campaign; or Charles Brack’s Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Project, a necessary intervention into a media that otherwise found the 2003 murder of a fifteen year old lesbian in downtown Newark unworthy of much note.
So what in the realm of narrative cinema does that leave? Well, here’s one that I don’t think has been discussed in the context of urban film history: The Ironbound Vampire (1998). Wikipedia currently fails to include it on its “Ironbound in popular culture” section, but the debut of filmmaker Karl Petry is a Newark film through and through, from the title (which refers to the downtown-adjacent neighborhood criss-crossed by railroad tracks) on down. It seems to have had a pretty successful run on Alpha Video’s New Cinema line of low-budget thrillers; IMDB reviewers have mixed things to say, but it’s a fun, adventurous film that packs several curveballs into its brief hourlong running time.
Based, as an opening title card informs us, on “the life and work of parapsychologist Joanne D.S. McMahon, who was born and raised in Newark, ‘Ironbound,’ New Jersey,” it veers from a contemporary police investigation of local murders to WWI flashbacks in which a young local man winds up carrying vampirism home, on through perfect casting that brings not one but two cast members from Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space into the fray (thus situating things in a glorious DIY lineage), into the travails of what the DVD box calls “a beautiful female vampire-killer,” and finally some gratuitous home-stretch nudity presumably added to insure that the box could read “Contains nudity and sexual situations,” arguably a prerequisite for its target demographic.
The results are hit and miss, but more the latter than the former. I’m a sucker for this sort of thing; viewers deeply invested in classical Hollywood production value and bourgeois narrative markers might be considerably distressed at points. But what is inarguable is that Petry engages with Newark in a way so few films have. Ironbound Vampire opens with a lovely montage of Newark footage. Presumably shot on empty streets at dawn, its stillness sets a nice requiem-like tone:
We get great footage of postindustrial Newark, in scenes that effectively capture a city hit hard by global economic change without ever falling prey to the romanticizing ruin-porn lens that comes under so much (rightful) criticism:
I’m not sure where this cemetery is, but Petry knows how to create a vibe with the right angle, and chooses the right time of day to harness natural light
Petry even manages to shoot inside St. Benedict’s Church, probably the only film to use it as a location. Newark Penn Station, too!
Ironbound Vampire even takes brief detours to Manhattan, Philadelphia, and Asbury Park, where Petry captures some resonant boardwalk-area shots.
Amidst the location shooting, we do, of course, also get perks like burning vampire corpses:
Ultimately, Ironbound Vampire is a little confusing and unfocused at times, but still a remarkably ambitious film considering its micro-budget, and one of the very few films I know of to really utilize Newark as a character. It’s great example of creatively harnessing overlooked urban space in a way that drives and informs narrative and aesthetics. Unlike so many films of its era that engage with “the city,” it doesn’t offer knee-jerk anti-urban backlash or pathologization, but instead simply takes Newark as a somewhat weatherbeaten place where vampires—who don’t seem to carry much of the allegorical weight usually assigned them—may prey, but vampire-hunting parapsychologists triumph in the end.
Oh wait, I think Cory Booker actually did use that allegory when he ran…