The final year of the 1980s was a disturbing one.
Four days after George H. W. Bush was sworn in as the 41st President on January 20, 1989 Florida authorities sent 2,000 volts into the body of Ted Bundy, executing a man who had murdered dozens of women. In February, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatw...
All season 4 episodes
Season 4: "Relentless" | Trailer
Some Dreamers of the Bloody Dream
MISSING: Tracy + Judds Nelson, Apatow and Judy (R.I.P.)
Never Time the Markets
31 Flavors and a Kick in the Crotch
Little Bulbs, Big Dreams
With the Intent to Cause Mischief
The Thong Song, SisQó and We
The Snack Aisle Strangler
Hollywood Video® Loses a Legend
The final year of the 1980s was a disturbing one.
Four days after George H. W. Bush was sworn in as the 41st President on January 20, 1989 Florida authorities sent 2,000 volts into the body of Ted Bundy, executing a man who had murdered dozens of women. In February, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie after the publication of Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses.” In March, Exxon spilled 240,000 barrels of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, and in June Chinese soldiers killed hundreds of protesters demanding democracy in Tiananmen Square.
Amidst these troubling events, Americans sought refuge in the movies, spending today’s equivalent of half a billion dollars to watch Michael Keaton face off against Jack Nicholson in “Batman.” “Driving Miss Daisy” would beat out “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Dead Poets Society,” “Field of Dreams” and “My Left Foot” at the Oscars as the year’s Best Picture.
But the most important movie of 1989 wasn’t “Batman” or “Driving Miss Daisy” (or even “Do the Right Thing”).
The most important movie that year, released on August 30, failed to hit even eight figures at the box office, raking in just $7 million — 97% less than “Batman.” It included many characters whose t-shirts are tucked into their jeans. It featured a combustible police captain screaming at a detective, “If you argue with me you’re going to find yourself working the airport!”
Many critics wrote off “Relentless,” a thriller starring Brat Pack veteran Judd Nelson as the Sunset Killer, as just a bad serial killer movie. “Pure trash you say?” asked The Deseret News. “You understate.” TV Guide said Nelson’s acting, “consisting of rolling his eyes, sweating, and lurching at the camera—is another minus.” The Chicago Tribune called the film “murderously unimaginative” and “essentially a middling episode of ‘Kojak’…There are documentaries on basket weaving with more nail-biting tension.”
But director William Lustig wasn’t after accolades. He did not make his 1989 masterpiece to break box office records, or even to entertain moviegoers. Lustig designed “Relentless” to be a serial killer dog whistle.
As a teenager in 1970s New York City, Lustig spent much of this time in 42nd Street “grindhouse” theaters watching sleazy exploitation movies. He soon began working as a crew member on hardcore porn films and by the time he was 23, he’d directed and produced two porn movies of his own, “The Violation of Claudia” and “Hot Honey.”
By the time he was 25, Lustig had begun directing in the grindhouse style that had influenced him as a teenager. “Maniac,” about a man who places the scalps of women he’s killed on mannequins around his apartment, was Lustig’s first in a series of movies exploring violence and depravity that included “Vigilante,” “Maniac Cop” and “Hitlist.”
But Lustig craved impact. The stories he’d inhaled as a teenager in those dank, sticky theaters had been so real. Now that he was behind the camera he could see how phony movie-making really was. He wanted the gore and mayhem to feel authentic to him again. He wanted to believe it all again. Lustig decided he would go mainstream to reach an entirely new, and much larger, audience than his first four films. With this new project he would challenge the idea of watching a movie as a passive experience. If he could pull it off, he would change cinematic history forever.
The plan was ambitious: using his deep knowledge of serial killer psychology and subculture, Lustig would pack his new movie with subliminal imagery and dialogue. Those moments would indicate to any pathological liars with a grandiose sense of self-worth who harbored dreams of elaborately-planned murder in the service of abnormal psychological gratification that this was their moment. Lustig would spark a wave of diabolical, psychotic homicide across the country. “Relentless” would be a relentless, if subtle, cue to let the killing begin.
His subliminal directing worked. Hundreds of would-be serial killers saw the movie and began hunting prey. What Lustig could not have predicted is that the poor quality of his film had a direct correlation to the poor quality of the budding serial killers it inspired. While hundreds, if not thousands, of deranged nutcases took up Lustig’s call to action, not a single one of them succeeded in actual murder. What’s more, “Optophobia” producers contacted several successful serial killers active in the early- to mid- 1990s (through U.S. Department of Corrections representatives) and each confirmed they’d never heard of “Relentless.”
Why has Lustig escaped justice for more than 30 years? Just because each of the bumbling lunatics triggered by “Relentless” failed to kill anyone, doesn’t mean the architect of a grand plan to induce indiscriminate slaughter across America should be free to saunter into Cecconi’s for a lunch meeting with his agent anytime he wants to.