This is the perfect time of year to revisit classic scary movies—Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream—but something about walking home to the train instead of climbing the stairs out of your parents’ basement in the ‘burbs takes some of the spook out of the experience. The suburbs are scary, sure—where else can you walk around in a mechanic’s jumpsuit and a horrifying mask without anyone looking twice at you?—but there’s no shortage of things to be scared of in our more populated, less wooded environs. So here, presented with no claims to comprehensiveness, are 16 horror films that will make any late-night walk to the subway a little creepier.
Red Hook (2009): Best Movie about Being Afraid of Brooklyn
This movie is so obscure it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, which is impressive, since it came out in 2009. A freshman at the University of New York City is still adjusting to life in the Big City, but agrees to a fun scavenger hunt that somehow takes her and her classmates to Red Hook, where (SPOILER) they can’t get a cab! JK, it’s way murderier than that.
The Midnight Meat Train (2008): Best Movie to Convince You to Take an Über Instead
This movie is based on a short story of the same name by Clive Barker, and/but is by all accounts terrible. The so-called “Subway Butcher” murders poor, unfortunate, third-shift souls on the subway in the middle of the night, but (SPOILER) it turns out he actually works for the police, and is officially responsible for feeding a race of reptilian creatures who live in the subway tunnels, which he does by murdering unsuspecting humans. So. If you ever wondered how the subway gets so dirty… blame Bradley Cooper.
Mulberry Street (2006): Best Movie about Whatever Disease Rats Will Eventually Give Us All
Mulberry Street is a zombie movie for New York City: instead of the walking undead, people infected with a bizarre infection turn into bloodthirsty rat people. This effectively combines New Yorkers’ fear and hatred of rats with New Yorker’s fear and hatred of one another. Could there be anything scarier?
American Psycho (2000): Best Reminder that Investment Bankers are the Worst
American Psycho is an unassailable classic of urban horror, and not only because investment bankers are still the scariest thing about New York. Set in Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko days, the film still resonates—people do still rent videotapes, after all. The biggest differences are the cut of Patrick Bateman’s suit and the Robert Longo on his walls; everyone’s collecting Koons now, darling. In the 2020 remake, Bateman will live on Bedford and North 11th. He’ll still be an i-banker, though.
The only non-American film to make this list, Killer Condom is a German horror comedy based on a comic book, and also features a gay detective and an establishment called Hotel Quickie. The condom in question is not a “killer” so much as a “maimer,” biting off the penis of anyone trying to use it. Any film student worth her salt could probably draw out an analysis of gay sex and emasculation, or a comparison to The Very Hungry Caterpillar, or a debate on the feminism of Killer Condom versus that of Teeth, but any of that would be way less funny than just a picture of the Killer Condom itself.
Vampire in Brooklyn (1995): Best Worst Movie That Also Kind of Deals with Immigrant Identity Politics
This is a Wes Craven movie that stars Eddie Murphy and Angela Bassett, which you probably have never heard of. Don’t feel bad; it’s a bad. Eddie Murphy is a vampire from the Caribbean who comes looking for Angela Bassett, who is a half-vampire of Caribbean-vampiric descent. Eddie Murphy’s whole deal is pretty manipulative in trying to get Angela Bassett to accept her vampire identity, but eventually (SPOILER) she does, and there are a lot of penis-size jokes along the way. Worth watching? Maybe. Mostly for the obscure reference cred.
Candyman (1992): Public Housing Isn’t Scary; It’s What’s Haunting Public Housing
Set in the infamous Cabrini-Green Homes public housing project in Chicago, Candyman is the urban legend that’s actually urban—no teenagers necking at makeout point, no haunted witch house. Candyman is a ghost who can be summoned, “Bloody Mary”-style , by repeating his name five times into a mirror. In life, he was a painter and the son of a former slave, and was murdered for his relationship with a white woman. He has a hook for for a hand, and haunts the Cabrini-Green complex. Candyman plays on our fears of history and of public housing, and is a rare example of a horror film that both takes place in a city and stars people of color in the majority.
The People Under the Stairs (1991): Best Movie to Remind You Why You Hate Your Landlord
Set in Los Angeles, The People Under the Stairs is sort of wacky, and maybe more thriller than horror, but a worthwhile watch for those times when you want something a little creepy but don’t want to have to sleep with the lights on with a chair against the door. The family of our young hero, Poindexter Williams, a.k.a. “Fool,” is being evicted from their home in Los Angeles by their money-hungry and exceedingly creepy landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Robeson. He tries to rob them, and in the process finds a situation far more dire than he could have imagined. And anyway, who can’t get into a movie where the landlords are the bad guys?
Frankenhooker (1990): Best Movie to Make You Afraid (Kinda) of Pre-Giuliani New York
After his beautiful fiancée has a “freak accident” involving a lawnmower (sure), Jeffrey Franken tries his hand at reanimation, combining what’s left of her body with body parts from prostitutes, because those are available, he creates Frankenhooker. (Well, technically, it’s “Franken’s hooker.”) To his chagrin, she starts hooking instead of fiancé-ing, and also kills the men she sleeps with. Not as good as the book.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986-90): Best Movie to Make You Suspicious of Every Person Around You
This slasher pic is so gory it wasn’t released until four years after it was set to be released. Set in Chicago, Henry is an ex-con who commits a string of senseless murders across the city with his prison buddy and roommate, Otis. The sheer baselessness of the murders, as well as their goriness, makes this an especially scary film in a city of almost nine million complete strangers. This movie will make you even more nervous than you already were about that guy who sits down too way close you on the bus.
After his wife dies from being electrocuted by a coffee machine while standing in a puddle of milk, a psychologist (Martin Sheen) moves from Minnesota to New York with his son to start a new life. He becomes a police psychologist, and when a rash of ritualistic murders sweep the city, he and his colleagues begin to suspect Hispanic brujería cultists are behind it. Because it’s definitely not the Catholics.
Street Trash (1987): Meltiest
This is not a movie about literal trash on the street, as the name might suggest; it’s about street trash in the figurative, offensive sense. A liquor store in Manhattan finds some random old booze in his basement, which has for sure gone bad, and decides to sell it to the local drunks anyway—drunks don’t care, right? Well, they melt, and pretty hideously, thereby solving/exacerbating the city’s homelessness problem. The movie also features a rousing game of catch with a fairly obvious dildo. Fun!
The Stuff (1985): Best Movie to Cure Your Addiction to Drugs and/or Fro-Yo
Also known as Larry Cohen’s The Stuff, this tale of a popular new edible foam substance that possesses the brains of people who eat it and turns them into zombie-like drones is an allegory of drug addiction. Or it’s a commentary on the rise of frozen yogurt that was way ahead of its time.
C.H.U.D. (1984): Best Movie to Make You Question a Move to Gowanus
Not since watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will you think so much about just what lives in New York City’s sewers. C.H.U.D. stands for “cannibalistic humanoid underground dweller,” and refers to creatures who used to be human but who were transformed by radioactivity in New York City’s sewers. They subsist primarily on homeless people who live underground, which seems cool with everybody, but then they take a police chief’s wife and dog and it’s not cool anymore.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968): Best Movie to Make You Afraid of the Neighbors
Probably the best horror movie set in New York City in terms of quality and shelf life, Rosemary’s Baby is a lesson in getting to know the neighbors: Don’t do it. They are Satanists, and they will impregnate you with the spawn of the Devil without your knowledge.
Wait Until Dark (1967): Best Use of Alan Arkin
This film starts in Montreal and ends up in New York City, with Audrey Hepburn in the starring role as a blind and unsuspecting potential heroin mule. Alan Arkin plays three roles. Originally based on a play by Frederick Knott and with a Henry Mancini original score, it may be the classiest of this list, as well as the oldest. Pairs well with: wine, ceviche fish.
Honorable Mentions: Cloverfield/Day After Tomorrow (fear of natural disaster/climate change)