Spooky season in the Big Apple is as Americana as it is in small towns!
At the risk of sounding like an elitist, I have to say, Halloween hits a little differently in New York City. Of course, the actual most wonderful time of the year is special no matter where you go. However, from the costume parade down in the Village to the cinematic celebrations to partake in at countless city theaters to the endless blocks of homes to trick or treat at out in the boroughs, the spooky season in the Big Apple is as Americana as it is in the small towns.
While it is true that the festivities are large and the candy to be claimed is expansive, perhaps the ingredient that makes Halloween in NYC particularly special is the city’s relationship with genre films. The city is the subject and setting of many genre favorites dating all the way back to the golden age of Hollywood. Some of these films captured a certain majesty to New York, while others painted more grotesque images of the massive metropolis. Either way, these depictions would resonate with denizens and cinematic tourists for years.
Then there is the legacy of the Deuce, NYC’s infamous red-light district, that was home to the grindhouse, which is as much a part of the tapestry of the horror fandom and community as the drive-in is. These theaters were monuments to mayhem and sleaze with regular sermons dedicated to gore and ghouls playing constantly on their silver screen altars.
Halloween 2020 is certainly shaping up to be a weird one for both born and bred New Yorkers like myself and people around the world. The ongoing pandemic has halted most of the activities that make this everyone’s favorite holiday, and, with the ever eroding landscape of physical movie theaters, who knows how long we’ll have to see an annual spookshow in a proper moviehouse in the next few years to come.
Regardless, Halloween is simply too fun to waste, so, in the spirit of the season, I offer you a list of nerve-splitting New York City spookshows, and the hallowed (though never quite clean) ground upon which these flicks could be found. Grab a bacon, egg, and cheese on a roll, a coffee for a dollar, and enjoy!
King Kong (1933)
Perhaps King Kong ain’t so scary, but it sure is thrilling, and it sets the framework that creature features have followed ever since, especially of the giant monster on the loose variety. You also won’t find a genre film that portrays the quintessential magic of New York City as well as the 1933 original tale of the Eighth Wonder of the World does.
What makes the King of Skull Island’s rampage so astounding is not solely the rampage itself, but its environment. The majesty and mystique of Kong is comparable only to that of New York City. This makes the city almost an opponent for the giant monster rather than a simple stomping ground, which culminates in easily the most iconic scene in genre film history with King Kong atop New York’s Empire State Building.
One of the sites of King Kong’s NYC premiere in March 1933 was the Radio City Music Hall, and, like the film’s legacy, it is still standing today with a mighty strong legacy of its own.
If you were in New York in 1933 and wanted to see what all the fuss over a monkey movie was all about, you would have been able to for under a dollar!
You might as well have kept walking if you wanted to go opening weekend, though, because the 6,200 seat Radio City Music Hall was completely sold out for the first four days of its presentation of King Kong. Everyone wanted to get a glimpse of Carl Denham’s giant monster!
No, Godzilla is not scary. Many don’t even consider it a Godzilla movie. However, the title says Godzilla, and while, like King Kong, it isn’t scary, it does star a monster, and ANY monster movie belongs on a Halloween list.
This iteration of the King of the Monsters does not share Kong’s majesty. Godzilla’s rampage through Manhattan is an attack rather than the result of human interference, so the city is not Godzilla’s opponent, Godzilla is the city’s, which dramatically changes the dynamic because the military forces and government officials prove they are powerless against the monster. So, it comes down to real New Yorkers to save the day.
That’s as New York as it gets, my friends!
Godzilla is such a New York film. Landmarks are name-dropped in cheesy, very touristy fashion, but it proves far more fun than you’d think, such as when Godzilla tricks the military into blowing up the “goddamn Chrysler Building,” in the words of the film’s mayor. The film’s most genuine portrayal of New York comes from its cast of characters, who have long been derided for no real good reason. In terms of a popcorn monster flick, they’re top-notch.
For example, Animal (Hank Azaria) and Lucy (Arabella Field) are not caricatures of New Yorkers, they’re New Yorkers, born and bred. Their attitudes, mannerisms, and even body language all scream Queens to me. These are folks I’d find at the Jackson Hole on a Sunday afternoon waiting on their deluxe burger and cheese fries.
Then there’s Audrey played by Maria Pitillo, who I will go on record and say is actually quite good in this film. I like her performance more than Jean Reno’s, that’s for sure. Audrey is like so many people living in NYC—a transplant who has come to this city to follow her dreams, even when it seems impossible, and it’s one of the loveliest, most sincere depictions of this class of New Yorker I have ever seen.
I know these people, and I think that identification goes a long way towards a more positive reevaluation of this long hated outing for the Kaiju King.
The summer release of Godzilla was whirlwind. The marketing was as much a juggernaut as the monster itself, and it was wildly successful. At least in my neck of the woods it was. If you were like me in 1998, a seven year old Godzilla obsessed kid from Queens, there was only one place you were going to see this new cinematic adventure of the big guy: the UA Astoria Sixplex.
This was a true neighborhood theater. A tad worn out over the years, sure, but it retained the charm of a vintage movie house, even when it was converted into a multiplex. It didn’t matter what else was playing at the UA Astoria on May 20, 1998, though, because that was the opening of Godzilla, and that’s all the people wanted to see. The line stretched back from the box office and wrapped around the block. It was quite a sight.
And, who was first in line? No, it was not me, but my mother, long suffering from my endless Godzilla fandom, who waited on line for hours to make sure I got tickets while I was stuck in school. Thanks, Mom!
Basket Case and Brain Damage
There is a touch of sadness to the nostalgia of theaters like the UA Astoria. I have fond memories of patroning that theater, but always lament the culture and lifestyle that seems to fade when another neighborhood business closes. The desire to preserve something of a New York fading away has been a driving force behind filmmakers such as Frank Henenlotter.
Henenlotter’s film work took a 17-year long backseat to his rescuing, restoration, and rerelease of countless Times Square cult classics of the exploitation genre. For the director, this dedication was not just to the films themselves but the community of the Deuce that was snuffed out by the city government by the early 1990s. The neon lights, the theater marquees, the sex, and shlock shows at all hours of the night were sacred to Henenlotter, and he has always worked to preserve and celebrate all this.
Before the Deuce disappeared, though, Henenlotter contributed his own art to the tapestry of NYC’s grindhouses. Of his filmography, 1982’s Basket Case and 1988’s Brain Damage are certainty standouts. Both were shot on location, utilizing the grit and grime of 80s NYC as backdrops to these mad monster films, and each color their stories with different aspects of the city’s infamous red-light district.
Basket Case includes many nicely done shots of theaters and peepshows that were prevalent before the cleanup of Times Square, but, like Godzilla would do, brings out the flavor of New York through its depictions of its denizens.
The motel where Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) must hideaway with his beastly brother Belial is populated by people you’d typically find staying overnight in the Deuce. Less than reputable folks who enjoy their privacy and want to keep a low profile are Duane’s neighbors, which creates an authentic atmosphere and really brings the city alive.
Brain Damage’s relationship with the Deuce is quite different from Basket Case’s. One gets the sense that Henenlotter knows something is profoundly wrong with his beloved NYC in this film because while Basket Case concerns a young man who brings his troubles with him to New York (as many have surely done), Brain Damage concerns a young man whose trouble is found in the city.
There is little doubt that the addiction that Brian (Rick Hearst) suffers at the hands of the creature, Aylmer (the great Zacherley) is playing off the very real epidemic of drug addiction in the Deuce that rose to a fever pitch at the time of this film’s production. In the end, Brian succumbs to his monster, which is a depressingly accurate foreshadowing of the Deuce’s ultimate demise.
Both Basket Case and Brain Damage were shlock movie marvels that also contained quite a lot of love (if not also regrettable melancholy) for a New York that would ultimately be unsustainable. These exploitation love letters would be found once upon a time at the heart of the Deuce, Cine 42.
This theater played a variety of indie films and second-run Hollywood features but was best known for its round the clock showtimes of Kung-Fu flicks and gross-out horror gorefests, so these films were right at home on the Cine 42 screens. Then, after the films, moviegoers would emerge back out onto 42nd Street, bathed in the neon Henenlotter so desperately celebrated and protected.
If Frank Henenlotter’s films were love letters to NYC and the grindhouses, then Maniac is a hateful manifesto. William Lustig’s seminal slasher starring Joe Spinell oozes with sleaze with a relentlessly bleak atmosphere that beats the viewer into submission.
This is Lustig’s New York. It is trying to kill you, and its agent is Joe Spinell’s Frank Zito, an unassuming man who looks like any random Mets fan at Shea Stadium (or, I guess, Citi Field). This is what makes him so dangerous. His perverse bloodlust is hidden beneath a facade.
It would seem that Lustig also believes this to be true of New York, a city thought to be the place people go to make their dreams come true when, in fact, there is a deep darkness hiding below the surface that will eventually get each and every one of us. It’s unsettling no matter how many times you watch this 1981 cult classic. For those daring enough to sit through Maniac in the dark room of a Grindhouse with all sorts of New Yorkers, you’d do worse than the Lyric Theater.
The Lyric was located in the heart of 42nd Street, not very far from Cine 42, and played all sorts of horror flicks and second-run Hollywood pictures. Today it is a Broadway theater that has seen much success with the stage productions like Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
What made the Lyric so desirable was how safe it was compared to other theaters in the Deuce. It was well-kept, relatively cleaned, and the more mainstream fair offered usually deterred the rougher members of the community. Though, like Frank Zito, you never know who you might be sitting next to!
Seeds (Seeds of Sin)
If you aren’t familiar with Andy Milligan, prepare to have a bad time. Seeds is nasty business. It is as loud, abrasive, miserable, demoralizing, and utterly devoid of happiness as the infamous ghastly one himself. Writer/Director Andy Milligan was not well-liked by his peers in life and has not enjoyed the same reverence as other ultra low budget trash auteurs like Ed Wood or John Waters in death. It is public record that Milligan was a real bastard, and it is true that he lacked a certain eye for filmmaking.
However, his films are endlessly watchable for their transgressive, guerrilla approach and their intense, genuine melancholy.
No, Andy Milligan couldn’t shoot a scene properly, but he knew a thing or two about the darkness in humanity’s hearts, and revelled in exposing that darkness and shoving it down his audience’s throats. It is why his films were the crown jewels of the NYC grindhouse scene for so many years before they disappeared like the grindhouses themselves.
Shot on Staten Island, like many of Milligan’s films, Seeds is a peculiar flick existing in the middle ground between the director’s two cinematic occupations: the horror and sexploitation genres. It concerns a family reuniting for Christmas at their homestead, though I couldn’t tell you why. If you think your family is dysfunctional, try watching this one fall apart at the seams because, as the tagline says, these characters were sown in incest and harvested in hate.
The siblings and their respective spouses all hate each other, or love each other “too much,” and dear ol’ Mom doesn’t even want her children home for the holidays, to begin with. She’s much too busy screeching at her house servants and using drugs.
Of course, she does find time to bully her youngest son, punching holes in his mental defenses by using his sensitivity and homosexuality against him, so she does have some fun on Christmas while her unwanted guests are about. Oh, and someone is picking off the family members one by one in brutal fashion, though I don’t know who’d hold a grudge against this fine family.
Yes, Seeds is about the horror of the family if nothing else. It certainly reads as the director’s most personal film. There is sincere pain in Milligan’s script, and his photography is bewildering and shallow like the headache one gets after crying for hours.
At best this is a case of no technique is technique because while this “style” will eventually plague the director’s later films, here it is actually accentuating the horror that Milligan is so desperate to convey in his fairly concise script. What comes of that is easily the best made yet possibly least known film of a director whose work is already (rather regrettably) fighting for relevance.
Seeds and the rest of Andy Milligan’s films were a staple of the grindhouses. They were actually insanely popular at one time. The theater that ran them the most often was, without question, the aforementioned Lyric, which was often filled with patrons who gleefully ate up Milligan’s films—films that exploitation film expert, Bill Landis, once wrote were “as base, authentic, and revealing as men’s room graffiti.”
The Last House on Dead End Street
This entry is cheating. Straight up. This film doesn’t take place in New York City and was shot upstate, but the link the Last House on Dead End Street has to the city and the Deuce is worth noting. (So, in this instance, NY State is as good as NYC.)
Last House centers on a young director who hates pornography and violence in the media, so, logically, he forms a Manson Family band of misfits who work as his film crew while he produces snuff films wherein innocents are humiliated, tortured, and brutally dismembered in scenes that come across as nothing more than drug-fueled fever dreams to you or I.
The surreal, acid fluidity to the Last House’s death scenes are apropos because only $800 of the film’s $3,000 budget was actually spent on the production itself. The remaining $2,200 was spent on drugs by producer, writer, and director Roger Watkins, a deranged individual who stunk of sleaze and the grindhouses. Like Andy Milligan, Roger Watkins was part of the concrete that formed the Deuce. It was his home, but unlike Milligan, Watkins seemed to hate 42nd Street.
This was his first film, and I can only imagine it is highly autobiographical given Watkins’ disdain for the extreme violence and pornography that was rampant in the Deuce. Extreme violence and pornography was that community’s bread and butter, but it turned Watkins off, which is ironic considering the director’s eventual move into the porn industry. No matter how much he detested this community and its occupations, he could never get away from it.
Maybe that is why Watkins made Last House. Maybe he wanted to shove his hatred for this underground society like an open sore down its denizen’s throats. There is certainly something to the Watkin’s theme of sex and violence in the media, and the cynicism and apathy some believed these could inspire in viewers, especially younger ones.
Yet any message to be gleaned from Last House is buried beneath the director’s mania, which was not lost on grindhouse audiences. Even they were revolted by this film’s nihilism and brutality. It was, and remains, an uncomfortable experience, though one that may be tailored for veteran horror fans looking to push the envelope of their tastes.
Could your stomachs handle the Last House on Dead End Street? If you believed so, then your doorway into this cinematic asylum was found at the Rialto Theater.
Before being torn down during the Times Square redevelopment project to make way for the ugly Reuters Building, the Rialto was notorious for its marathons of gore films that remain legendary today for their run in the Deuce like the Last House on the Left, I Drink Your Blood, the Toolbox Murders, and the films of Herschel Gordon Lewis.
This grindhouse was located just outside the subway like the Lyric and Cine 42, so it was not as seedy as the theaters further blanketed in neon within the Deuce, and you could easily escape the frights on screen and off if you needed to!
New York Ripper
New York Ripper is what you get when someone conceives their idea of a place based on what they’re told about it. Lucio Fulci is a fine director, and his shot-on-location city slasher is quite the exercise in grueling gore and horror, but it just doesn’t feel like it captures New York as a film like Maniac does. But, it’s a city screamer, nonetheless.
It’s very likely Fulci took inspiration from Maniac or even Taxi Driver while making Ripper. The influence of those films is especially apparent in scenes that take us to the red light district or the seedier parts of the boroughs. In these instances, Fulci attempts to capture the city’s grime alongside the blood on his lens. He doesn’t quite capture it as much as he documents its existence in the perverse world of his tale, but it is interesting to see someone’s interpretation of the Big Apple, and this Italian horror favorite is required viewing given the film’s well-earned, disreputable notoriety.
New York Ripper and other exhibitions in European sleaze and carnage were in regular rotation at the Liberty. This was where the Deuce started getting REAL seedy, and REAL foreboding.
Even if you were interested in checking out the new Fulci or Argento, perhaps you thought twice about seeing it at the Liberty at night, but often, it was the only theater in town that played films from this part of the world, so you might have just taken the chance on a matinee.
Tromeo and Juliet
I couldn’t make a list about New York City horror and not include a Troma movie. If I did, I’d have to give up both my New Yorker and horror fan cards, and that is because Troma is New York (no matter where they say Tromaville is).
The studio that has been disrupting media for over 40 years with films like The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ’em High has been doing it all from NYC. The grit, ingenuity, and brash attitude of their films is the same flavor you’ll find on any New York street. In other words, Troma movies go hard, and Tromeo and Juliet are no different.
Set in modern-day Manhattan, Tromeo and Juliet is a fairly faithful adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic play of young, star crossed lovers that also happens to include plenty of punk rock, kinky sex, and gore—all very Shakespearean things.
The adaptation is faithful nonetheless because director Lloyd Kaufman illustrates his uncanny gift for interpreting Shakespeare. Tromeo is as much about young people finding solace and beauty in a distressing and ugly world as the original play is. This theme proves poetic for people who become disillusioned with New York. Whether you were raised in or relocated to the city, it is easy to get lost among the madness and grow despondent. Lloyd Kaufman and his crew of city misfit at Troma understand this, empathize with it, and offer art to ease these anxieties. They just do it with penis monsters.
Troma struggled to get into the theaters after the 80s, with many of their releases going straight to tape. Tromeo and Juliet made it to the big screen, though, if only for a short while. It opened at the Embassy 2, 3, 4 Theater.
The Embassy and Troma were like kindred spirits. While Troma is truly the last of its kind, an independent studio dead set on their exploitation film messages, the Embassy was also of a dying breed—the grindhouses. Yes, the Embassy, with its art deco interior design, was one of the last Times Square theaters to close before the redevelopment.
Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan
The eighth installment in the Friday the 13th franchise made such a big stink about Jason Voorhees chopping up bodies in NYC like chopped cheese, yet he doesn’t visit Manhattan for very long at all. If you’re looking for some NYC horror that is an easily ingested good time, though, then Jason Takes Manhattan is your ticket.
The movie is mostly lead-up to what amounts to only a few minutes of city carnage, but it is memorable. This is another exercise in seeing the city interpreted on the big screen by filmmakers who have been informed about New York rather than experienced it, as was the case with New York Ripper.
What gives Jason Takes Manhattan the advantage over Ripper, though, is how fun that interpretation is. Jason’s rampage through the city is short but silly and makes for a good time, and at times it’s actually authentic.
The film’s standout scene sees Jason kick over the boombox of a group of lounging teen punks who act all big until the Crystal Lake killer gives them a show. I swear to you, I have seen this scene played out in real-time before down in Times Square. Being a big mainstream slasher franchise flick, Jason Takes Manhattan had a huge opening across the city, including at the Criterion Center.
The Criterion was a largely mainstream movie theater located adjacent to the Deuce. It was still a “Times Square theater” since that area was always sketchy in those days, but the Criterion was in prime location safety-wise. More commercially located than its red-light district counterparts.
It was a nice big theater that enjoyed a glossy reputation right up until its demise in 2000 when it was gutted to make way for the legendary Times Square Toys R US, which itself was gutted in 2015 to make way for, of all things, a Gap.
As sad as it is for me when parts of New York disappear to be replaced, these NYC horrors remain, and they’re in heavy rotation in my Halloween festivities. Right between the costume parties in Ridgewood and trick or treating in East Elmhurst, where the old folks give anyone with a costume some candy, no matter their age.