New York as Hellscape in Horror Cinema of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s
“I think someone should just take this city and just…just flush it down the fuckin’ toilet.” -Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver (1976)
As soon as you emerge from the stairway of the Times Square-42nd Street station, you walk into (not through) a seemingly endless horde of slow-moving tourists in khaki shorts stopping every few steps to take photos on their phones of all the massive, lit-up signs displaying the logos of even more massive corporations. Disney. Coca-Cola. McDonald’s. The ads for the nearby Broadway spectacles offer the promise of an unforgettable New York City experience: a night at the theater seeing your favorite Hollywood actors who happen to not be filming anything for a few weeks so they could help bring in more customers for a few hundred bucks a pop, perhaps preceded by a luxurious family dinner at one of the surrounding themed restaurants — Hard Rock Cafe, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Planet Hollywood — who could ask for more?
Maybe Travis Bickle got his way after all.
In Martin Scorsese’s famed 1976 classic Taxi Driver, sociopathic cab driver Travis Bickle laments his city, which is overrun by junkies, pimps, porno theaters, peepshows, and muggers. This was not some tucked away neighborhood way uptown he was talking about, either. This was Times Square. The heart of the city. The place now overrun by those selfie-taking families of tourists lined up like cattle in Hawaiian shirts to see the latest musical extravaganza based on a movie they all recognize. They take photos of their kids sitting on a replica of Forrest Gump’s bench where one can assume the residue of many people’s blood and semen has long since evaporated. The only remotely sleazy things you’ll find in Times Square now are the mascots in cheap Halloween costumes of Marvel characters looking to make a quick buck off of the particularly clueless tourists who might not think twice about Iron Man wearing a fanny pack that barely conceals his otherwise exposed beer gut.
Don’t worry, the condensed Disneyland of Midtown Manhattan doesn’t account for the entire city. If you travel a few stops on the subway down to Union Square and walk a few blocks south, you can see all kinds of artisanal cheese shops, organic free-trade coffee shops, restaurants that specialize in twelve kinds of vegan mac and cheese or taco/ramen fusion bowls, and bars with dozens of local craft beers on tap where you can undoubtedly get a brew named after a pop culture reference during happy hour for just $10 a pint. They might even have a gluten-free variant if you’re lucky. Afterwards, grab a dairy-free Fruity Pebbles-flavored ice cream in a seven-grain fennel cone and do a fun Instagram shot of it right by the place where, forty years prior, a delirious Abel Ferrara murdered a homeless man with a power drill in the aptly named The Driller Killer.
The rain must have come. That’s what Travis Bickle hoped for. “Someday,” he said in one of his sprawling, proto-incel tirades, “a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” From the late ’60s through about the early ’90s, the common portrayal of New York City in cinema was that of a dystopian hellscape crawling with subhuman sleazoids stumbling in a heroin-induced stupor through shady streets as the manhole covers cough up heaps of smoke that combine with the grit and garbage which you could practically smell through the celluloid. Although it seems like it would barely warrant even an R rating by today’s standards, Midnight Cowboy received an X rating when it was released in 1969 pretty much just for capturing the gritty feel of New York City at the time.
While films like Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy — as well as others like John G. Avildsen’s Joe, Sidney Lumet’s Serpico, and William Friedkin’s The French Connection — took full advantage of utilizing this nightmarish version of New York for their own distinct purposes, it seems to me that in order to truly appreciate the real sleaziness, danger, and grime intrinsic in this singular setting, you should really take a look at some of the New York City-based horror films that were released during this era. Many have rabidly devoted cult followings, but perhaps just because horror often gets looked down upon as a “lesser” genre by most film historians, they don’t seem to ever get mentioned in most articles, documentaries, and books that I’ve encountered about New York movies of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Hell, I consider it lucky if they even spotlight blaxploitation at all, which was the other genre that thrived in this setting. But a study of NYC horror movies of this era? It’s harder to come by.
If we go back as far as 1968, we could mention Roman Polanski’s breakthrough Rosemary’s Baby, which was one of the first horror films to be taken seriously by the critical elite and given exposure by the likes of the Academy. It’s definitely a great film, no doubt, but there’s almost no trace of the seedy side of New York in it. Not even the more artsy (but nonetheless still fairly edgy at the time) Warholian, free-love-and-acid element was present. The two main characters in the film live in a luxurious penthouse on Central Park West whilst the husband is a struggling actor and the wife doesn’t even have a job. As far as being an authentic glimpse at life in New York goes, it’s somewhere around Friends. Just with a bit more emphasis on satanic pacts.
For a horror film that portrays New York more in the sort of way where you might feel like you need to take a shower afterwards, it would perhaps come as no surprise that the Italian filmmakers of the era definitely took advantage of this unique environment. Lucio Fulci’s famous 1979 film Zombi 2 (released in North America as Zombie and in the UK as Zombie Flesh Eaters, but that’s another story, I suppose) is for the most part not set in New York City, but it is bookended by two haunting sequences that signal the doom that the rest of the film ushers in is headed there. The film’s final shot depicts a pack of zombies lumbering across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, because of course if you were a decrepit corpse with an insatiable hunger for human flesh in 1979, that’s where you would best fit in.
However, it’s a later film of Fulci’s that truly deserves a special mention for its portrayal of New York as Living Hellscape, and that’s the 1982 giallo/slasher The New York Ripper. The most controversial film of Fulci’s career (it remains extremely divisive to this day), it follows a detective on the trail of a deranged serial killer who speaks in a demented Donald Duck voice and preys on women throughout the city. Nearly everything about this movie oozes sleaze, to the point that even the detective — who is ostensibly the film’s protagonist — is pretty much a piece of shit. The attacks on the female victims are brutal and many have argued gratuitous, leading to accusations of misogyny that extends even beyond what the slasher genre as a whole has often been criticized for. But even aside from the violent content of the film, the whole movie just feels particularly sleazy. Grindhouse theaters, live sex shows, bondage in cheap hotel rooms, drugs, suicide…all could be effective on their own, but wrapped up in the setting of early ’80s New York as viewed by Fulci, and it’s a grimy experience all around.
I would go so far as to say The New York Ripper is an essential film in any discussion of the seedy side of ’70s and ’80s New York, even for those who — quite understandably — might not be able to stomach it. Because the truth is that even a great movie like Midnight Cowboy doesn’t necessarily feel as gritty as what it’s depicting. It’s still shot from the outside looking in. Fulci — though obviously an outsider himself — somehow made his movie feel like a product of the environment rather than a mere observation of it. It’s tremendously flawed, doesn’t always make complete sense (not that that was ever really a priority for Fulci), and teeters between Eurotrash artfulness and full-blown, down-and-dirty exploitation. But of course, how else would you really be able to capture the feel of such a hellish place? If for nothing else than the sheer griminess and real unpleasantness that this movie conveys, it’s absolutely a crucial part of the story of New York cinema of the era, horror or otherwise.
In a way, maybe it’s a bit poetic and perhaps even prophetic that there’s this undercurrent of equating innocent cartoons with violence and pornography in The New York Ripper. The victims are alternately seen attending live sex shows or in one case watching cartoons in a theater, and as mentioned before, the killer adopts a Donald Duck impression as his speaking voice. Without spoiling any key plot points (the movie is at least partly a giallo, after all, so there are quite a few narrative twists), even when the killer is in an exposed state, he cannot seem to restrain himself from quacking like Donald Duck, implying that the voice has become a sort of involuntary part of himself and not just a mere guise to conceal his identity. I very much doubt this was Fulci’s intention — in fact, most interviews Fulci has given indicate that he wasn’t remotely interested in any symbolism or deeper meanings in his work — but one wouldn’t have to try too hard to develop a convincing theory that the film does indeed imply a sort of connection between a Disney-fied, mass media-based society and a dark cesspool of sex, drugs, and violence. If made today, I bet some people would probably even claim that the Donald Duck voice was a direct satirical comment on how the family-friendly, corporate-sponsored, modern image of New York is a facade for the seedy history that lurks beneath the glossy, gentrified exterior. I mean…maybe. It would probably still just be dismissed as vile garbage by most people.
Horror fans can’t seem to talk about Fulci without inevitably bringing up his more technically polished contemporary and compatriot Dario Argento, so we need to discuss his New York City film from this era as well. Released in 1980 to a mostly tepid response (but fortunately reevaluated to a point of considerable acclaim since), Inferno was the second film in Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, falling between the absolutely iconic Suspiria and the decidedly less so Mother of Tears. The New York of Inferno is nowhere near the moral wasteland of The New York Ripper, but it’s notable for how Argento also portrays the city as a kind of hellish dystopia, albeit one that’s much more colorful and pretty to look at (actually, I think this movie might be even more visually sumptuous than Suspiria, if you can believe it).
Come to think of it, Inferno might not be too different from Rosemary’s Baby in its depiction of New York only in that it’s portrayed as a labyrinth of shady conspirators where nobody can be trusted and there’s occult darkness lurking around every corner…but Argento wanders further and much more frequently outside the confines of a luxury apartment to convey this. Again, that’s not a knock on Rosemary’s Baby, but is just to say that Polanski is going for claustrophobic paranoia, showing a woman growing increasingly alienated from the city around her, whereas Argento is going for atmospheric dread, showing a woman being haunted by a whole city seemingly closing in on her. In what is probably the most famous scene in the movie (give or take the breathtaking underwater opening sequence), a body in a Central Park pond is devoured by hundreds of rats for what feels like minutes. It’s a somewhat surreal scene that could be said to halt the narrative of the film in a way, but it’s essential to the nightmarish atmosphere that Argento was going for. Obviously it’s a huge stretch of the imagination to think that an entire army of rats would descend upon a body almost immediately after hitting the water, but like he did in Suspiria before it, Argento is filtering the admittedly loose storyline through the lens of a fairytale to create a feeling of other-worldly but also somehow elemental terror. And Inferno is a movie in which New York City is a fairytale horror land akin to the deep, dark forests of so many fairytales of old.
There are plenty of other NYC-set horror films from this era well worth discussing, but I don’t want this to turn into a full-length book on the subject, so I have to pick and choose a little bit. Of course there’s Maniac, which is a character-based slasher that often gets categorized alongside The New York Ripper for its sleaze-and-slaughter-in-the-city vibe. There’s C.H.U.D., which doesn’t present quite the hellscape that these other films do but nonetheless explores the possibility of the toxic sewers of the city leading to the birth of humanoid creatures. There’s The Driller Killer, which I briefly mentioned earlier and stands as one of the truly great New York movies of any era as far as I’m concerned. There’s Street Trash, which may hold the record for both highest volume and largest variety of bodily fluids in a movie. And while it’s not a horror movie, the almost post-apocalyptic feel of The Warriors, with its emphasis on rickety, graffiti-adorned subway cars and desolate nighttime neighborhoods ruled by face paint-wearing gangs armed with baseball bats, portrays New York as a setting comparable to that of Mad Max, which was released the same year. Several of Larry Cohen’s films are great examples of New York horror of the era, such as God Told Me To and Q, the Winged Serpent.
But if there’s any director within the horror genre who made quintessential New York pictures during that time period, then surely it’s Frank Henenlotter. His 1982 debut feature Basket Case, shot on a shoestring budget of around just $35,000, is largely set in and around a dingy Times Square hotel (such a thing no longer even exists, it should be stated) where a young out-of-towner is staying with his mysterious basket that he carries around everywhere. The opening scenes showing him walking past all the grindhouse and porno theaters on 42nd Street are really a perfect encapsulation of that whole era. I’m not entirely sure the people he passes on the street are hired extras, since it’s quite possible given the budget and Henenlotter’s penchant for exploitation cinema that they just went ahead and filmed those scenes without a permit and allowed anyone who happened to be hanging around to enter the frame. One scene even takes place inside one of those grindhouse theaters, and when Duane falls asleep during the movie (as was common behavior), he immediately gets robbed by one of the other people just kind of hanging out in the theater and only vaguely watching the movie (as was also common behavior).
Henenlotter’s films are in part love letters to that era, except that unlike a few recent movies that have tried for a similar effect, they have the benefit of actually being made during the era. Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy were dark portrayals of a city in moral decay, while The New York Ripper and Maniac followed that decay to its logical conclusion by taking it to full-on horror territory. But Frank Henenlotter was one of the few filmmakers at the time who didn’t necessarily see New York City as a terrifying place of danger and depravity, but rather as a gloriously sleazy playground for disaffected weirdos to get into trouble. He was maybe the only one at the time making films that depicted the then-present day New York as a sort of golden age for the city. It’s since become idealized as such in some circles, but he was one of the few who portrayed it that way as it was actually happening.
In his next film, Brain Damage, New York’s drug culture is satirized as a darkly comic monster movie where everyone is just looking for either their next fix or their next fuck. And having touched upon the druggie element, Henenlotter then doubled down on the sex with the brilliant Frankenhooker, which updates the classic Frankenstein story to the setting of the 42nd Street prostitution scene. The film was released in 1990 at the tail end of Times Square’s era of sleaze, and it stands as perhaps the last great depiction of that scene before it was cleaned up and appropriated by conglomerates to become what it is today. It’s also the only movie I can think of that features exploding prostitutes, and that’s worth the price of admission alone.
A huge missed opportunity came in 1989 when Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan was made. Despite what the title promises, only about the final 20 minutes of the movie take place in Manhattan, with the rest mostly set on a boat. And even then, a majority of the Manhattan scenes weren’t shot on location, so there’s precious little of Jason Voorhees actually stalking the streets of New York. What we do get is a brief shot of Jason wandering through Times Square and kicking over a boombox (which has been turned into a meme recently), but that’s really the only highlight. Imagine what we could have gotten from an entire movie of Jason in 1989 New York. Would it have been another notable entry in the phenomenon of New York as Hellscape that so many movies were so fond of portraying during that era? It’s hard to say, but it undoubtedly would have at least provided an interesting time capsule for the locations.
As it is, Jason’s trip to Manhattan is really just a collection of a few obvious landmarks spliced into phony sets that don’t remotely resemble the version of New York that other films were depicting at the time. Which, when you think about it, could describe a lot of people’s visits to New York nowadays. That New York is gone. It’s a much safer, cleaner city now. I’m not necessarily complaining about that. I’m not saying I’d prefer to live in a dangerous hellscape of a city where being robbed at knife point is a regular occurrence and the sidewalks are covered with various types of bodily fluids at all times. I’m just saying that version of New York City — for as hellish as it may have been — provided an excellent setting for some of the greatest films of their era (as well as some of the greatest music, but that’s another topic entirely). To be sure, there are still things to be scared of in the city — not so much violent junkies and pimps threatening to stab you, but definitely fedora-wearing college kids threatening to give you a negative Yelp review. That’s pretty fucking scary too. But despite what I may have implied in this article, I don’t mean to glorify the days of danger and sleaze (well…okay, I’m fine with glorifying sleaze). I merely wanted to highlight a time in New York’s history when it was almost inherently a setting fit for a horror movie. And as a horror movie fanatic, I don’t particularly want to live in a horror movie, but I sure as hell love watching them, and this era of New York definitely provided the necessary landscape for some truly fantastic ones.
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