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The Essential New York City Horror Movies

Normally, the masked killers of slasher films haunt the same small places. Michael Myers had Haddonfield, Freddy Krueger had Elm Street, and until recently, the Ghostface killer(s) had Woodsboro. But horror’s most meta maniac can’t resist the allure of those bright city lights. In Scream VI, in theaters Friday, Ghostface is headed to New York City, trying to prove that if you can slay it there, you’ll slay it anywhere. In doing so, the franchise joins a proud lineage of horror movies that reveal a lot about the Big Apple.
The horror genre is often as insightful as it is scary, holding a distorted fun-house mirror to the world around it. As New York has changed over the years, so have the ways in which horror reflects the city that never sleeps. Some themes recur throughout its big-screen appearances: It’s a metropolis defined by a unique combination of size and spectacle, one that’s both crowded and lonely, a place of boundless opportunity and countless failed dreams. From the bright lights of Broadway to the darkest streets, these are the films that show how one place can get under an audience’s skin in ways that reflect the changing nature of the city and of horror itself.
The visual of an oversize gorilla climbing the city’s most famous skyscraper is essential New York iconography, yet the Eighth Wonder of the World — quite literally the biggest star in Broadway’s history — exposes the towering heights and frightening lows of the city in this classic 1933 film. Kong, who squishes and eats his fair share of New Yorkers, is himself scary, but the most horrifying parts of the movie come from how sympathetic he is. It’s not how different his home of Skull Island and the concrete jungle of New York are from each other but how similar they become. Each proves deeply inhospitable to outsiders — Carl, Ann, and the rest of the film crew are as scared of great apes and dinosaurs as Kong is of the flashing camera lights that capture his image when he’s chained up onstage. Ann, desperate for both work and an escape from Depression-era New York, is just as disposable as Kong. The way he takes her in his giant grasp as he rampages through the city — before the iconic climax in which he climbs the Empire State Building — underlines how similar the pair are, how they’ve been chewed up and spit out by the city. In the end, maybe it’s New York, rather than beauty or the helicopters, that kills the beast.
For a distinctly New York City movie (albeit one largely shot in Los Angeles), you don’t see much of the Big Apple in Roman Polanski’s tale of satanic paranoia. Instead, the action largely takes place inside one of those towering apartment buildings that help make up the skyline; it is gray, spare, and anonymous in the film’s opening credits. The setting helps make Rosemary’s Baby so tense, creating a brand of horror unique to the scale of New York. Rosemary and Guy live in the ominous Gothic Bramford building (in reality, the Dakota Apartments on West 72nd Street; one apocryphal story says they got their name because of how isolated they were at the time they were built). Rosemary’s Baby fosters horror by burrowing under the surface of respectable, well-off domesticity, where everything is perfect and just so, right up until it isn’t. As Rosemary spends increasing amounts of time in the building — a distinctly New York way of living — she becomes steadily reliant on those around her, with the Bramford’s Gothic façade hinting at the horror lingering behind it. Rosemary’s paranoia and terror come not from loneliness but from being cut off from the rest of the world, isolated with a group of people who are slowly revealed as insidious and evil.
There are nosy neighbors in every city, though New York’s density makes voyeurism especially unavoidable. Brian De Palma’s psychological horror film takes this to another level when reporter Grace Collier witnesses a murder across the street from her apartment. Sisters is obsessed with looking, from the Candid Camera–style show that sets the narrative in motion to De Palma’s continued nods to Hitchcock’s voyeuristic eye and the Rear Window–esque sleuthing. Grace lives on Staten Island, described as “the Lost Borough” in one of her newspaper stories, which is itself somewhat cut off from the rest of the city, a situation Sisters amplifies through the ways it films apartment spaces to create a feeling of horror through isolation. As Grace phones the police to report the murder, Sisters moves into a split screen between Grace’s apartment and the one where the murder took place. This division of space creates a powerful separation of the two buildings, as opposed to connecting them through cuts in editing. Even at the dramatic peak, the characters are separated from one another, reinforcing the feeling of loneliness and isolation.
Notorious video nasty The Driller Killer is one of the ugliest New York City horrors and all the better for it. Abel Ferrara’s darkly comic portrait of a starving artist’s descent into madness and murder captures the grittier, more scummy nature of the city in the ’70s and ’80s. The Driller Killer isn’t interested in the New York of Broadway and Times Square, instead casting its eye on a grimy labyrinth of dark streets and dive bars. Reno Miller, the Driller Killer himself, is in a horrifying living situation; his bills and rent continue to pile up, and his landlord is apathetic at best. The city doesn’t care about Reno and is more than willing to cast him aside, a cycle that repeats itself in his murderous rampage as his victims are homeless. The horror of The Driller Killer comes from the cyclical nature of its violence, capturing the brutality of a city that can so easily discard those it no longer has use for. While Reno is considered useless by gallerists and landlords, his violence captures the darkest part of an at times uncaring city.
Queer culture is an integral part of the image and idea of New York, and William Friedkin’s messy, endlessly compelling Cruising uses it to show the isolating horror of the city in a new way. Al Pacino stars as Steve Burns, a detective who goes deep undercover to attempt to catch a serial killer who is targeting gay men. Controversial both now and at the time it was released — gay-rights advocates protested that the movie stigmatized them — Cruising opens the door to queer subcultures in interesting ways. (For instance, Burns walks down the street with the camera acting as his gazing eyes while he looks at a rogue’s gallery of gay male archetypes before learning about the sexual subtext of colored handkerchiefs.) Beyond revealing aspects of queer culture, Cruising also shows a complex relationship between queerness and horror. From the police beating a gay man in an attempt to coerce a confession to its messy trope of self-hate and homophobia, Friedkin’s film evokes horror from the brutal Establishment and messy, outdated tropes of queer self-loathing.
It would be impossible to write a list of horror (or in this case, horror-adjacent) films set in New York and not include the two original Ghostbusters movies. Although there are some scares in these comedies, the Ghostbusters films aren’t horrified by New York City; instead, they wear their love for it on their sleeves. Coming off the back of a brutal decade captured in horror films like The Driller Killer, Reitman’s movies choose to celebrate the city. If a pervasive theme in many NYC horror films is the isolation and loneliness that can occur in a city this big and busy, the Ghostbusters movies show the flip side of that: a strange sort of camaraderie that’s more common than outsiders may think. These are movies about New York City’s problems, yes (supernatural or otherwise), but they’re also about how no place comes together like the Big Apple. The ending of Ghostbusters 2, in which the Statue of Liberty saves the day, may be lacking in subtlety, but it speaks to a vibrant, loving side of New York, especially in times of trouble.
The title for this Jason slashfest is a little misleading: Jason mostly takes a cruise ship and doesn’t arrive in Manhattan until the movie’s final act. But his eventual arrival on the streets of New York shows why so many people want to take a stab at the city (literally, in Jason’s case). He stalks his victims through subway trains and across Times Square, with a disaffected populace offering nothing but a dry “Welcome to New York” in response to this latest round of terrified teens screaming about a maniac being after them. Jason Takes Manhattan leveraged imagery that understood how the film’s eponymous killer was now iconic enough to take on the Big Apple; the poster sees Jason’s face dwarfing the skyline, and early advertising had him cutting through the “I ❤️ NY” logo. It’s no wonder that after this the only places left for him to go were hell and outer space.
Maybe you’ve heard this one before: Small-town kid moves to the big city. It’s a classic arc in real life and fiction, so perhaps it’s only natural that the extremely meta sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch follows the same trajectory, swapping the original’s humble, cozy beginnings for the Big Apple. Director Joe Dante’s eye for parody lets him lovingly send up the new home of the eponymous creatures, and a performance of “New York, New York” shows that literally anybody, even Gremlins, can “make it there.” With riffs on Looney Tunes, Donald Trump (the basis for billionaire Daniel Clamp), and even Gremlins merchandise, Dante’s self-aware sequel is more than willing to mock the increasingly hypercapitalist landscape that New York became, even while celebrating it as a natural place where the franchise, people, and Gremlins of all sorts might aspire to put their stamp.
In a different New York–set portrait of Reaganism, Gordon Gekko said, “Greed is good.” Patrick Bateman looks at him and says, “Hold my beer.” Patrick couldn’t exist outside of New York City: He’s obsessed with Broadway musicals like Les Misérables and desperately covets entry into expensive restaurants and exclusive clubs. He’s a filthy-rich Wall Street trader, and his world is one of stark anonymity. He and his colleagues all wear the same clothes and are confused for one another — even when Patrick rushes to his lawyer in a frenzy after confessing to his supposed crimes, he is mistaken for someone else. He’s a copy of a copy, indistinguishable from the countless identical traders he simultaneously envies and loathes. American Psycho shows the glitz and glamour of the city, peeling away its veneer of perfection to reveal just how ugly it can be. It’s no wonder Patrick’s first onscreen victim is a homeless man, whom he asks venomously, “Why don’t you get a job?” From the skyscrapers of Pierce & Pierce to the city streets Patrick stalks, American Psycho captures the vastness — and vast inequality — of New York like nothing else.
Cloverfield, J.J. Abrams’s very mysterious creature feature, uses the then-burgeoning found-footage horror revival to showcase two versions of New York City at once. When our protagonists are working through their personal breakup dramas at a going-away party, they feel as if they’re the biggest, most important people in a city of 9 million. But when a kaiju attacks, Cloverfield captures the horror of being in the midst of disaster and never relents from its frantic, first-person camcorder perspective. The film takes the idea of being dwarfed by New York to new extremes, with the smallness of the characters amplified by the limitations of their perspective — how little they (and the audience) know about what’s going on. It’s a distinctly post-9/11 take on horror. Cloverfield shows the evolution of both the genre and the city that so many scary movies call home. The place has changed over the decades, from grit and grime to an endless advertisement for capitalism itself. Cloverfield takes this cinematic history and breaks it apart, leaving the question of what new visions of New York can be built from the rubble.

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