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“When You Get Caught Between the Knife and New York City”: New York Urban Horror Films

As horror film devotees we are constantly revisiting our favourite monster shows and relishing in the structure and visual fabric that make up these cinematic excursions into darkness. A lot of common tropes would soon become part of our personal lexicon and understanding, and one such frequently used ingredient 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, to create a sense of vulnerability and to deliver the dreaded notion of isolation. This is something that is hurriedly utilized and subsequently examined in motion pictures happily using suburbia, rural badlands, the terrain of high school or 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 (1981)

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 at the time of the early ‘80s, one must remember that this is a film that opened when New York City was still ravaged by the ‘70s recession and with that came a great Mecca for the arts where wonderful grindhouse cinemas, peepshows, confronting Broadway musicals and offbeat theatre co-existed with street gangs, urban crime, street prostitution, drug dealing and the like — a New York of the grindhouse enthusiast, and an extension and reflection of what appeared on the big screen. Wolfen is known for its in-camera effect which is similar to thermography, later used in the terrific Predator (1987), and used to convey a visual effect that was to showcase the wolves’s P.O.V. opening with the slayings of a wealthy investor and industrialist, his cocaine addled wife and their Haitian bodyguard, the film is a decidedly bleak, highly political message movie about the decay of environmental surroundings and the havoc caused to a lost world of naturalism and spiritual fulfilment. Albert Finney is sturdy in his portrayal of a quietly dedicated police officer, and his measured performance gives credence to what ultimately is a police procedural it’s interesting edge. As a retired police officer forced back to work and forced to deal with the supernatural, Finney brings a solemn realism that counters the spiritualism of the film.

The controversial element in 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 about werewolves, instead he said that it was something to do with Indians and their connection to wolves and 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 — however, parks, the beachside and earthy residence scattered around the concrete jungle are the last remaining points of reference for werewolves and the indigenous cultures. The starkness of the film is cold, precise, incredibly dense and highly cerebral, and this taut screenplay does it’s job and delivers intelligent commentary while serving the enthusiast of visceral carnage.

BASKET CASE (1982)

Besides the innovative gore stylings and sly humor, New York is presented in all its filth and fury in this movie. Here is a city where Times Square is the Times Square that no longer exists, where hookers and junkies share street space with chorus girls and street thugs. It’s the New York of the early ‘80s — brutal and sleazy, a melting pot of art and culture and 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 of the 70s and early 80s where the streets were mean but also a celebration of fabulous cinema worshipped in dive grindhouse cinemas and peepshows. 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, lonely recluse who goes about unappreciated and unnoticed. But one person makes the sheer annoyance of living all worthwhile; that person is Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall), a famous film and theatre actress ready to step right 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 and eagerly ready to applaud will be 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 the designated place of terror in The Fan and it is used in sublime effect — Biehn’s Douglas stalks dingy rehearsal spaces, hides out in the blacked-out darkened backstage where Bacall performs numbers by Marvin Hamlisch and so forth. It is a truly effective locale for what is a remarkably underrated stylish inner-city horror film about obsession, delusion and fame.

Michael Biehn: The Fan was made at the time when Paramount had huge success with Friday the 13th and in many ways, Friday the 13th really helped pave the way for The Fan. I truly believe all the violence and scares in The Fan are terrific and completely effective. It was a genuinely frightening film. It was a real treat to work with the likes of Bacall, James Garner and Maureen Stapleton and New York was a huge eye opener for a kid from Arizona. Going out to dinner with Bacall and Garner was a blast and with the paparazzi everywhere it was full on. Now it’s common to have that happen, but back then somebody having pictures of me straight away was pretty intense.

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. His 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. This film is outstanding. Technically it is an absolute prime example of masterful filmmaking and storytelling and 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 it’s heart and palpable depth. Airy museums, taxi cabs, grotty police stations and lush buildings act as some of the film’s overall landscape and De Palma uses the crisp stark clean beauty (and ugliness) of New York to host his masterfully handled take on violence which is true lavish opulence. The marriage of locale and systematic bloodshed are complementary and also make intricate commentary on the complexity of sex perversion and revulsion and brutality as a response to character psychosis.    

Nancy Allen: Michael Caine was incredible to work with and I distinctly remember the day where he was getting into the dress and the wig. We were sitting around on set one day and waiting and Brian casually suggested to me to go over and knock on Michael’s dressing room door and say hello and take a good look at him so that when he walks onto set you don’t start laughing! You know, just to get the initial image out of the way! So I walked over to his trailer and I opened the door and he was sitting in a director’s chair with the full outfit on with a big cigar in his mouth and he looked up and said “Come on in!” Then he came to the set and he was walking through, and all the crew were mostly male tough guy New Yorkers and he says “Well, I always knew that I got to work long enough and hard enough I’d get to play me mum!” And everybody laughed and that was that. Then we went to work, so it was really great.

SISTERS (1973)

Another Brian De Palma New York City-set horror doozy is Sisters, a Hitchcockian psycho-thriller which, much like the aforementioned Basket Case, utilizes the deranged twin syndrome trope but in a dramatically different arena of style, execution and direction from that gore-soaked VHS favourite. Jennifer Salt stars as a journalist who investigates the murder of a man by a fashion model played by Margot Kidder, and eventually discovers there is more than meets the eye to this knife wielding French beauty.  

Margot Kidder: Brian told me that he wrote Sisters specifically for me. When I found that out I had to laugh, I mean you thought of me to play this woman who castrates men after making love to them! Well ain’t that nice! But I loved it! On Christmas morning Brian came downstairs with the script and he handed it to me and said, “There’s your Christmas present”. And then we went off and made the movie, and it was a lot of fun. It was one of his very early movies. The money for it came from his mom who owned a toyshop and it was a wonderful time to make a movie and a wonderful time to be young. There is one major secret about Brian that many people just don’t know. And that is he is one of the funniest people I know! He loved to inject his scripts with strong humor that played nicely along with the horror or the suspense. He was always adamant as to what he wanted and why he wanted it and if you thought of changing it or altering the words or whatever, you better also have a great reason to back you up. Also, the character I played was supposed to be Swedish! But I couldn’t do a Swedish accent! I tried learning the Swedish accent but it was just too hard so I said, “Brian, can we make her French?” I grew up partly in Quebec so I was always around French-Canadian, and Brian was cool with that, his response was, “Fine. I just want her to be foreign.”

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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