Not going to the Village Parade? Staying in for Halloween this year? Why not put together a mini-marathon of scary movies set in New York!
Below, I’ve put together a (nearly) complete list of the best and worst New York horror movies, listed in no particular order. Did I miss one? Let me know and I’ll add it on! And be sure to post your favorites (or least favorites) in the comments.
THE DEVIL COMES TO NEW YORK
Young post-hippy newlyweds Guy and Rosemary get a steal on an apartment in the legend-shrouded Bramford and move in. Sure the neighbors are kooky, Rosemary’s first friend in the building jumps out a window, and her new tannis root necklace is a bit smelly, but it’s worth it for being so close to Central Park, right? Rosemary becomes pregnant, but soon begins to realize Guy might not be the father…
I love Rosemary’s Baby. I’ve heard modern viewers complain about it being dated or campy, but in my opinion, the characters are among the most realistic ever to populate a horror movie. Rosemary is both incredibly well-meaning and immensely naive, but she never comes off as a horror movie ditz. In many ways, it’s her bottomless desire to please others that results in her getting into such deep trouble.
And, though very much over the top, the Castevets are easily the most original Satanists every portrayed on the big screen. Thankfully avoiding the black-robes-and-eyeliner cliche, Rosemary’s Baby instead imagines what it would be like if your nutty uncle and aunt suddenly decided to bring about the rebirth of the devil. In a way, this makes it far more frightening, as even at the end of the movie, I don’t believe they realize what they’ve done.
FORGET ABOUT THE ALLIGATORS IN THE SEWERS…
C.H.U.D. (Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers)
…It’s the CHUD’s you’ve gotta watch out for! A schlocky but charming B-movie about the result of dumping toxic waste in New York City sewers. If you’re looking to make fun of this MST3K-style, you might find yourself surprised. Daniel Stern actually gives a decent, non-hammy performance (a rarity!) as the head of a homeless shelter. Not too many scares, but a lot of creepy fun.
I’VE BEEN SLIMED! TWICE!
Double Feature: GHOSTBUSTERS / GHOSTBUSTERS II
Sure, they’re shelved as comedies, but one of the reasons the Ghostbusters franchise is so successful is that the horror aspects were treated as importantly as the laughs. Though we’ve all seen it a million times, Ghostbusters is endlessly rewatchable and an excellent group film (I’ve seen entire crowds quote the dialog from start to finish). As for its New York content, the movie gives viewers one of the best tours of the city ever captured on celluloid, and as a plus, the geography of the movie actually makes sense!
Watch For: a brief glimpse of Ron Jeremy in the crowd outside Dana’s at the end of the film; and, Ray’s Occult Bookstore, located at 33 St. Mark’s Place
IF A BLACK CAT CROSSES YOUR PATH…
If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and rent Cat People. Produced by horror maestro Val Lewton, Cat People is about…well, people who turn into panthers in New York. Sounds silly, but there are at least two masterful moments of suspense that have stayed with me since I first saw the film, and the whole thing has a fun creepiness to it. Though Cat People wasn’t actually filmed in the city, look for a decent recreation of a Central Park transverse in one of the film’s most memorable moments.
THERE’S SOMEONE BEHIND YOU!
WAIT UNTIL DARK
Blind young Village resident Audrey Hepburn accidentally comes into possession of a drug shipment, and the owners want it back.
I gotta be honest (and I know I’ll lose a lot of you on this one): I’m not a Wait Until Dark fan. Based on a play, it’s always felt like filmed theater to me. In fact, during many scenes, the camera is plunked down literally in a fourth wall position to shoot the proceedings, which at times are distractingly theatrical. Yes, the finale in the dark is clever, but while I can imagine it having a great effect for anyone watching the stage play in a pitch black theater, on the screen, it loses most of its impact. But my parents swear it’s among the scariest movies ever made, so I have to include it.
THEY’RE DESTROYING THE CITY!
THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS
One of the first monster movies, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms tells the story of a hibernating dinosaur who, after being awoken by atomic bomb testing in the Arctic, comes to New York and tears the place up. The special effects, by master Ray Harryhausen, steal the show and are definitely worth a viewing. In a way, the movie is basically the same as…
SOMETHING ELSE IS DESTROYING THE CITY!
In fact, look closely in the film, and you’ll actually see The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms playing on a TV in an electronics store! Cloverfield is a Blair Witch Project-style movie about some annoying 20-somethings trying to escape New York in the middle of an alien invasion.
Sure, the geography makes NO sense (they skip the Williamsburg bridge AND the Manhattan Bridge to escape via Brooklyn Bridge, then somehow walk from Spring Street to 59th Street in a matter of minutes??) and the characters are especially unlikeable. But the handy-cam nature of the filming is well-used with the special effects to add a sense of realism to the whole thing, lending to some decent suspense and jump moments.
APE ON THE LOOSE!
The classic story of Beauty and the Beast, if Beast was a 50-foot gorilla. Impoverished beauty Ann Darrow accompanies the S.S. Venture on a trip to Skull Island to star in a film…and finds herself kidnapped by a giant ape! Kong is brought back to New York for a gala unveiling, only to escape and run amok in the city. Two remakes were made – one in 1976, culminating in Kong climbing the World Trade Center; and Peter Jackson’s cgi-heavy remake – but neither holds a candle to the original.
THE CHRYSLER BUILDING GETS ITS DUE
Q: THE WINGED SERPENT
The tag line for this film – “It’s name is Quetzalcoatl…Just call it Q. That’s all you have time to say before it tears you apart!” – should give you a very good idea of what you’re in for. Regardless, it’s a fun monster b-movie featuring the winged Q, who has been busy snatching people up throughout the city. Filmed on location at the Chrysler Building, you get a rare look at the top-most floor of the spire (which surprisingly looks like a wooden attic!).
CAMP CRYSTAL LAKE VISITS NY
FRIDAY THE 13th: PART VIII – JASON TAKES MANHATTAN
In the 8th installment of the series, Jason hitches a lift to the Big Apple from Crystal Lake with a high school class on a cruise trip.
Look, this might have been great if Jason actually got to Manhattan early on. Unfortunately, too much of the film takes place on the damn boat. Jason causes a bit of mayhem on the streets of pre-Giuliani Times Square, but then disappears into the sewers for the film’s climax (because there’s lots of fun and plenty of victims in the New York’s sewer system, right?). Jason is ultimately killed by “toxic waste” being flushed through the sewer (ironically, probably leading the creation of the CHUDs).
A NEVER-ENDING NIGHTMARE
Breaking pretty much every rule of Fiction 101 (Is he dead? Was it all a dream?) Jacob’s Ladder earns its worth with an awesomely high creep factor. Vietnam vet-turned-postal worker Jacob Singer suddenly finds that the world around him is crumbling in horrific ways. He begins seeing regular people with monstrous deformities, evidence of government conspiracies, and ultimately loses all grip on reality.
The best thing about Jacob’s Ladder is its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bizarro moments – “Wait – did that nurse have a bone protruding from her skull?! Rewind the DVD!” Also, great shots of Brooklyn on the cusp of the next wave of gentrification.
THESE PIXELS ARE DEADLY!
I AM LEGEND
Will Smith runs from badly rendered computer images.
Honestly, that’s all I got out of what I consider to be the worst entry on this list (seriously – I enjoyed Friday the 13th Part VIII way more, and that sucked). A virus has turned most of New York’s population into Darkseekers, which are basically zombies without the undead part. The city flees, and Robert Neville is left as the last man in New York City.
Besides the terrible script, silly plot twists, and terrible ending, what absolutely kills the movie for me is the fake-looking, cartoony CGI. With zero weight or reality to the monsters, Will Smith appears to be trapped in the horror movie version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and at no time do you ever feel he is in danger. Freddy, Chuckie, or Jason may be cliched or campy, but at least you believe they actually exist in the same world as the actors on screen. An extra with some make-up goes a long way…
A HOTEL ROOM HORROR WORSE THAN BED BUGS
Skeptical ghost book author Mike Enslin spends the night in the allegedly haunted room 1408 of the fictional Dolphin Hotel on Lexington Ave, and a lot of really weird things happen.
There’s a bunch of stuff about a dead daughter, a weird hotel owner, and some other nonsense thrown in to give the film some semblance of a story, but the real point is to cram as much weirdness into room 1408 as possible before the credits roll. Fun fact: 1408 adds up to the number 13!
MONSTERS IN TRUMP TOWER
GREMLINS II – THE NEW BATCH
Billy from the first Gremlins has moved to New York City with fiance Kate and now works at a skyscraper owned by multimillionaire/egomaniac Donald Tr-er, Daniel Clamp. His old mogwai Gizmo ends up the building and somehow gets wet, and Bill and company have to save the day once again from the evil gremlins that spawn.
The first Gremlins is dark. I can’t believe so many children of the 80′s (myself included) managed to get their parents to let them watch it (in fact, Gremlins is one of two movies that led to the creation of a PG-13 rating). For Gremlins II, the filmmakers clearly eased up on the evil stuff, substituting it with Looney Tunes zaniness. One or two people die, but for the most part, it’s a silly though occasionally enjoyable romp with some added New York satire. Watch for some interesting shots of a Times Square in transition.
EVIL ON ROOSEVELT ISLAND
Roosevelt Island. Ghosts. Water. Why not?
Other than a killer location, Dark Water is a pretty depressing run-of-the-mill ghost story. Single mom Dahlia and daughter Cecilia move into an apartment on Roosevelt Island and soon begin having major water leakage issues. A “restless spirit” backstory is gradually revealed, leading to a somewhat haunting, but mostly annoying finale.
Super depressing. Not recommended.
AWOOO, WEREWOLVES OF LON-ER, NEW YORK
A series of bizarre murders are occurring around New York, in which victims have been torn to shreds, and Detective Dewey Wilson soon realizes something distinctly inhuman might be responsible.
If you were hoping for a werewolf New York horror flick, you’re going to be disappointed, as the culprits turn out to be [spoiler alert!] well, wolves. OK, not exactly. They’re described as advanced wolves that sit above man on the food chain, and there’s some neat Wolf-POV cam to boot…but they’re still wolves at the end of the day. Some great footage of the city, including a 1981 South Bronx that is nearly unrecognizable today, but the film loses steam halfway through.
MOVE TO THE LAST SUBWAY CAR…IF YOU WANT TO DIE!
MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN
This is by no means a good movie, but Midnight Meat Train at least has a neat premise at its core: subway riders have been disappearing for the past ten years, and it appears a serial killer is responsible. But is he just doing it for kicks, or a darker purpose? Photographer Leon investigates, and soon learns the horrifying truth lurking beneath the city’s streets…
I think it’s unclear in the final film where it’s taking place. It was originally written for New York, but shooting moved to LA for budget reasons. Oh well. Fun fact: Oddly, the movie goes out of the way to point out that the murders occur after 2AM. So ignore the title of the film.
TERROR IN LITTLE ITALY
Mulberry Street is basically a low budget/low quality 28 Days Later set in a post-9/11 New York. A deadly infection spread by rats breaks out in Harlem and quickly overtakes Manhattan, turning people into ravenous rat creatures. We’re definitely starting to get into the one-notch-above-a-SyFy-original-movie territory here…
BOWIE AS A VAMPIRE LOVER
Based on a book by Whitley Streiber (always a good sign), The Hunger tells the story of immortal vampire and Upper East Side resident Miriam, who has a history of turning men into her vampire lovers. Unfortunately, they don’t get quite the longevity she has, and current 200+ year old husband David Bowie has suddenly developed a case of rapid aging. He appeals to a medical examiner for help, who inevitably winds up in Miriam’s hands, and a pretty boring soft-core lesbian scene ensues.
THE WORST LANDLORD EVER
The maniac in question is Frank Zito, a Vietnam vet, New York City landlord, and crazed homicidal killer. Frank kills his victims, then takes their scalps and clothes back home to decorate his many mannequins with. The story takes a turn when Frank falls for photographer Rita, which ultimately leads to his undoing.
The film is famous for a scene in which Tom Savini gets his head blown off with a shotgun, which caused Gene Siskel to walk out of the theater.
THE GATEWAY TO HELL IS IN BROOKLYN
Seriously. The gateway to hell is in Brooklyn. And, specifically, it’s in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone. Fashion model Alison moves into an apartment in the building and quickly becomes annoyed with the strange sounds in the night. Except, the only other person living there is a blind priest. There’s actually some fun stuff in the movie, which stars David Carradine, Martin Balsam, and Christopher Walken, among others.
Fun fact: John Williams was supposed to do the score for the movie. Then he backed out to work on a little known film called Star Wars. Dummy.
Finally, one more to close off the list…
IT’S A HORROR MOVIE WHEN YOU REALLY THINK ABOUT IT
PLANET OF THE APES
I stayed away from sci-fi for this list (Independence Day, Escape from NY, etc.), but I’ll make an exception for Planet of the Apes.
Not a New York movie, you say? Did you not see the ending? The whole thing was filmed in and around New York!
A few movies I forgot suggested by readers!
GORE IN GREENPOINT
Reader BKD69 writes: “You owe it to yourself to check out Street Trash. All on location in Greenpoint, literal rotgut booze, and penis football in a junkyard. Joe Bob would definitely say check it out, if he ever saw it.”
THE LAST MAN IN NUKED YORK
THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL
Ray B. writes: “One from the 50s – sort of a horror film, but not really – “The World, The Flesh and The Devil,” with Harry Belafonte as the lone survivor of a nuclear attack in a deserted New York … or is he? It was filmed, I read, on early Sunday morning in Manhattan to get the appropriate deserted look.”
NEW YORK’S DONALD DUCK SERIAL KILLER
NEW YORK RIPPER
Chris writes: “Great list! I’d add Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper,” about a Donald Duck-voiced serial killer stalking victims in 1982 New York. The Wikipedia articles makes it sound like the film is a sweeping tour of Manhattan, from Columbia University to the Staten Island Ferry, and I’ll have to check it out just for this reason.