The visual artist and performer Ari M. Roussimoff and his camera crew — including the cinematographer and director Ellen Kuras — crept about the lower depths of 1980s Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens shooting an underground horror movie in 16-millimeter black-and-white film. The thing he assembled, “Shadows in the City” (1991), is an astonishing and often queasiness-inducing curio of No Wave cinema.
This week the Museum of Modern Art is displaying its collection’s print — with the scruffy look and distorted audio — before its restoration. Aficionados of late-20th-century New York City scuzz may want to check it out in its raw form, which runs until Oct. 11. After all, it’s a movie for which too much cleanup may be inapt.
The movie’s very loose story follows Paul (Craig Smith), who wanders around the city mourning several deaths in his family, soliciting prostitutes and contemplating suicide. From Times Square, he visits Lower Manhattan, and the West and East sides. There’s a terrifying biker bar in the meatpacking district, and some possibly undead high jinks for him in Alphabet City.
The cast is replete with avant-garde artists. Taylor Mead, the wise fool of microbudget classics by Ron Rice and one of Andy Warhol’s regulars, is here a skid row wet brain. The documentarian Emile de Antonio plays a mage. The “Flaming Creatures” auteur Jack Smith is “the spirit of death.” And Nick Zedd, Joe Coleman and Kembra Pfahler represent the younger side of No Wave.
The story, such as it is, borrows from both the experimental short film “Scorpio Rising” and the classic B-movie “Carnival of Souls.” (Bruce Byron, who appeared in “Scorpio,” also has a role here.) But the movie is mainly driven by a nightmare anti-logic that spews forth gnarly imagery pitched between the art house and the grindhouse. An end credit shows a dedication to Forrest J. Ackerman, the editor of the horror fan magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. The movie could be alternately titled “Famous Monsters Go Downtown.”
Shadows in the City
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes. In theaters.