As horror film devotees, we are constantly revisiting our favorite monster shows and relishing in cinematic excursions into darkness. A lot of common tropes become part of our personal lexicon and understanding, and one such ingredient frequently used would be the way in which horror cinema sometimes presents its curtain raiser. It alienates its featured victim, introduces its star threat or invites us, the audience, into the environs where the horror shall take place.
The idea of this establishing and provocative imagery is to alienate the target and create a sense of vulnerability in the dreaded notion of isolation. This is something that is utilized in motion pictures set in suburbia, rural badlands, the harsh terrain of high school (or other insular institutions), the domestic home, or the stock & standard eighties fare of the cabin in the woods.
However, when the horror film in question is set in a busy urban landscape such as New York, the concept of remote seclusion, away from the masses (and help), might be trickier to convey. But thankfully, there are many inner-city horror films that successfully create a sense of terror in the private recesses of physical space and leave an emotional and mental scar on the characters that occupy such ground.
Here are five terrific New York City-based horror movies:
WOLFEN released the same year as both THE HOWLING and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON is a stylish moody urban horror film that is actively interested in socially-aware commentary and political insight. The film talks about urban decay in the early 1980s, a time when New York City was still being ravaged by the aftermath from the ’70s recession. With that, New York became a great mecca for the arts where wonderful grindhouse cinemas, peepshows, Broadway musicals and off-beat theatre co-existed with street gangs, urban crime, and prostitution.
WOLFEN is known for its in-camera effects which are similar to thermography, later used in the terrific PREDATOR (1987). This approach to the visual effects showcases the wolves’ P.O.V. Opening with the slayings of a wealthy investor and industrialist, as well as his cocaine-addled wife and their Haitian bodyguard. The film is a decidedly bleak, highly political story about the decay of environmental surroundings and the loss of naturalism and spiritual fulfillment.
Albert Finney is sturdy in his performance as a dedicated police officer, and he bring credence to what is ultimately a police procedural with an interesting edge. As a retired police officer forced back to work, and who must now deal with the supernatural, Finney brings a solemn realism that counters the spiritualism of the film.
The controversial element of WOLFEN is the fact that the film is not at all a traditional werewolf movie. In fact, critic Roger Ebert denied that the film was even about werewolves. Instead, he said that it was something to do with Native Americans, their connection to the wolves, and the ability to interchange souls. The film responds to the relationship shared between Native American Indians and the natural world which is all but lost in a modern day New York City. Parks and the beachside & earthy residences scattered around the concrete jungle are the last remaining points of reference for the werewolves and the indigenous cultures. The starkness of the film is cold, precise, incredibly dense and highly cerebral. This taut screenplay does it’s job and delivers intelligent commentary while serving the enthusiast some visceral carnage.
BASKET CASE (1982)(COVER PHOTO)
Besides the innovative gore and sly humor, New York City’s filth and fury are well-represented in this movie. The film depicts a Times Square that no longer exists, where hookers and junkies share street space with chorus girls. It’s the New York of the early 80s – brutal and sleazy, a melting pot of art and culture, violence and grit. This is the seedy backdrop for BASKET CASE, a meshing of the “Ten Little Indians” story structure and the evil-twin motif. While Belial enacts his vengeance on the physicians that failed him, the film relies heavily on the grittiness of the New York streets. 42nd Street was truly a Calcutta for film freaks, and BASKET CASE is a testament to this.
THE FAN (1981)
Douglas Breen is a sensitive, introverted recluse who is unappreciated and unnoticed. But one person makes the annoyance of living worthwhile- Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall), a famous film and theatre actress ready to step back into the limelight in a brand new musical that may rejuvenate her career. And waiting in the front row armed with a bouquet of roses is her number one fan…but is it simply Sally’s autograph Douglas wants? Or is it her blood?
With his quiet intensity and sharp ability to be one of the slickest motion picture actors of the early 80s, Michael Biehn puts his heart on his sleeve as Douglas Breen, the titular role of THE FAN. Broadway and the world of musical theatre is a place of terror in THE FAN. Biehn stalks dingy rehearsal spaces, hides out in the darkened backstage where Bacall performs numbers by Marvin Hamlisch and so forth. It is a truly effective locale for what is a remarkably underrated and stylish inner-city horror film about obsession, delusion, and fame.
DRESSED TO KILL (1980)
Legendary auteur Brian De Palma delivers one of the most sleek and sadistic serial killer films ever put to screen with his Hitchcockian masterpiece DRESSED TO KILL. This tale of a murderous transvestite garnered a lot of criticism from activist groups and polarized audiences, but the sheer luridness and visual sumptuousness of the piece overrides any sort of unfair assault.
Technically, the film is an absolute prime example of masterful filmmaking and storytelling. It boasts a knock-out cast headed by movie and television legends Angie Dickinson and Michael Caine. But it is Nancy Allen as the high society call girl, and Keith Gordon as the computer whizz who give the film its heart and palpable depth.
Airy museums, taxi cabs, grotty police stations and lush skyscrapers act as much of the film’s overall landscape. De Palma uses that crisp, stark, clean beauty in contrast with the ugliness of New York in order to host his masterfully handled take on violence. The marriage of locale and systematic bloodshed are complementary and also make intricate commentary on the complexity of sex perversion and brutality as a response to character psychosis.
Another Brian De Palma New York City-set horror doozy is SISTERS, a Hitchockian psycho-thriller which, much like the aforementioned BASKET CASE, utilizes the deranged twin syndrome, but in a dramatically different arena of style, execution and direction. Jennifer Salt stars as a journalist who investigates the murder of a man by a fashion model (played by Margot Kidder), and eventually discovers that there is more than meets the eye to this knife-wielding French beauty.