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Top 10 Cinematic Nightmares Set In New York

by Mary Fetzer
fact checked by Jamie Frater

New York City: the home of gritty, groundbreaking, independent film. Unlike Los Angeles, New York offers filmmakers more artistic freedom with their work. Here, they are not bound by the pressure from major Hollywood studios; and while budgets may be lower, the results of financial restraints are often rewarding. Many hip, young directors draw inspiration from this exhilarating, fast-paced city and use it as the backdrop for some of the most nightmarish and anxiety-inducing films ever made.

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10 Requiem For A Dream

Requiem For A Dream – Trailer

This 2000 psychological drama from director Darrren Aronofsky doesn’t hold back in its portrayal of the devastating consequences of addiction. Featuring standout performances from Jennifer Conelley, Jared Leto, Ellen Burnstyn, and Marlon Wayans, this modern day fable follows four addicts living on Coney Island whose lives spiral out of control as they will stop at nothing to get their fix. This film is an examination of just how strong a hold drugs and other stimuli have on those who fall prey to their allure.

The late, great Roger Ebert described Aronofsky’s ability to portray the various mental states of his addicts as “fascinating.” Of the movie’s “worthless” NC-17 rating he said, “Anyone under 17 who is thinking of experimenting with drugs might want to see this movie, which pays like a travelogue of hell.”[1]

9 Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Groundbreaking for its time, this 1968 psychological horror film written and directed by Roman Polanski is a haunting chronicle of a woman’s pregnancy. Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes) are a young couple who have just moved into their first apartment in New York City. Before long, Rosemary becomes pregnant. Alone and confined to their apartment, she becomes increasingly skeptical of an elderly couple living next door. As Rosemary’s paranoia grows, she becomes convinced that they are part of an evil cult that wants to take away her baby and use it for their rituals.

Polanski’s screenplay was based on Ira Levin’s 1967 novel of the same name. In 1980, a “quiet, pensive, and insecure” Levin said of his childhood horror inspirations, “I don’t recall being scared at all. Now, I’m terrified,” according to a Vanity Fair article calling Rosemary’s Baby “the most cursed hit movie ever made.”[2]

8 The Devil’s Advocate

Devil’s Advocate (1997) Official Trailer – Al Pacino, Keanu Reeves Drama Movie HD

Keanu Reeves stars as Kevin Lomax in this supernatural thriller/horror film from 1997, directed by Taylor Hackford. Kevin is a defense lawyer living in Florida with his wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron). The couple relocate to New York City after Kevin is offered a high-paying job at a law firm, led by the charismatic John Milton (Al Pacino).

While Kevin is swept up with work and indulges in the many perks of the job, Mary Ann starts to experience frightening visions and begins to unravel. As his wife’s mental health deteriorates, Kevin realizes that his boss may, in fact, be satan, himself.

Fun Fact: Donald Trump’s private apartment at Trump Tower–featuring gold decor and a view of Central Park–was used as the home of Kevin’s client, Alex Cullen (Craig T. Nelson).[3]

7 Fatal Attraction

Fatal Attraction – Trailer

Adrian Lyne’s iconic 1987 thriller is a tale of love, lust, and obsession. Dan (Michael Douglas) is a happily married Manhattan lawyer, living and working in New York City while raising a daughter with his wife Beth (Anne Archer). Everything changes when Dan meets Alex (Glenn Close), an editor for a publishing company. The two have a casual weekend affair while Dan’s wife and daughter are out of town. Alex, however, wants more than just a fling and manipulates Dan into spending more time with her.

When his family returns, Dan stops spending time with Alex, who has become obsessed with him. Dan makes it clear that he does not wish to continue the affair, but Alex refuses to accept that. She becomes increasingly aggressive and begins to stalk him and harass his family. As her behavior escalates, Dan realizes that his top priority is no longer to try and hide the affair but to protect his family whose safety is now at risk.

Producer Sherry Lansing wanted Barbara Hershey for the role of Alex, but Hershey was unavailable. Also on Lansing’s wishlist were Melanie Griffith, Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, and Debra Winger.[4]

6 Dressed To Kill

Dressed to Kill Official Trailer #1 – Michael Caine Movie (1980) HD

This 1980 neo-noir slasher film was written and directed by Brian De Palma. New York City prostitute Liz (Nancy Allen) witnesses the brutal murder of housewife Kate (Angie Dickinson). While the police suspect Liz to be the murderer, the true killer seeks to kill Liz, as she is the only witness to the crime. Kate’s son is the only one who believes Liz, and the two of them team up to uncover the truth about his mother’s murder.

Making the film in the city was “pretty terrific” for De Palma, who’s from New York. “It’s so amazing to shoot all over the city and in different places. Of course, they did the interior of the museum in Philadelphia, but the film was shot in New York, so that was really cool.”[5]

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5 American Psycho

Morning Routine – American Psycho (1/12) Movie CLIP (2000) HD

Christian Bale is Patrick Bateman in this 2000 black comedy psychological horror film co-written and directed by Mary Harron. A handsome, young New York City investment banker by day, Patrick’s life revolves around maintaining his appearance and social status and striving endlessly to be the most respected among his coworkers. By night, however, Patrick indulges in his sinister desire to torture, kill, and sometimes even consume any helpless victim who may be unfortunate enough to cross his path.

What starts out as the portrait of the day-to-day life of a narcissistic serial killer turns out to be a psychological whirlwind as reality begins to blur, and Patrick attempts to cover up his tracks that may or may not have even been left behind in the first place.

Because the studio thought Bale might not be famous enough to play Bateman, there was a moment where it looked like American Psycho would become an Oliver Stone film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. But activist Gloria Steinem reportedly steered DiCaprio away from the project to protect his Titanic appeal among young female fans. In a weird turn of events, Steinem married David Bale five months after the release of American Psycho and became Bale’s stepmother![6]

4 Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut (1999) Official Trailer – Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman Movie HD

1999’s Eyes Wide Shut was the last film ever made by Stanley Kubric, one of the most renowned directors in cinematic history. This erotic mystery psychological thriller tells the story of upperclass New York City couple Bill (Tom Cruise) and Alice (Nicole Kidman) Hartford. Bill is a medical doctor, and Alice is a stay-at-home mom to their daughter. One night, after smoking some weed, Alice tells Bill that she once had sexual fantasies about a man that were so strong, she would have abandoned their family.

This revelation sparks something in Bill, who had previously claimed to have never been the jealous type. Bill is tormented by this information, obsessively visualizing the scenario in his head. He embarks on a late-night adventure through New York City where he attends a masked party of a secret society. The next day, after returning to his normal life, he discovers that a woman whom he met at the party has been found dead.

“Life goes on,” one character says cynically. “It always does until it doesn’t.” Kubrick died four days after completing the film.[7]

3 Black Swan

BLACK SWAN | Official Trailer | FOX Searchlight

Darren Aronofsky’s iconic psychological horror film from 2010 is a nonstop roller coaster ride that never lets up. Every aspect of this film showcases impeccable writing, filmmaking, and performances across the board. Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, a dancer at a New York City ballet company who still lives at home with her overbearing mother, played by Barbara Hershey. The innocent and naive Nina is elated when the company’s artistic director Tomas (Vincent Cassel) chooses her to play the highly coveted role of the Swan Queen in the company’s upcoming production of Swan Lake.

The role of the Swan Queen, however, requires the dancer to portray both the virginal White Swan, which Nina perfectly embodies, and the evil, sensual Black Swan, for which fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) is more suitable. As a rivalry emerges between the dancers, the competition and pressure to not only keep her role but to give a perfect performance sends Nina on a downward spiral of self-destruction into madness.

Aronofsky had considered combining ballet into the plot of The Wrestler, making it the story of a love affair between a wrestler (the epitome of “low art”) and a ballerina (the epitome of “high art”). But the director realized that wrestling and ballet were too big for just one film.[8]

2 Jacob’s Ladder

Jacob’s Ladder (1990) – Official Trailer

This 1990 psychological horror film was directed by Adrian Lyne. War veteran, Jacob (Tim Robbins), awakens in a New York City subway after returning home from Vietnam. He is now working as a postal clerk and living in brooklyn with his girlfriend.

Jacob is mourning his old life and the death of his child while simultaneously experiencing vivid flashbacks and hallucinations. His world starts to fall apart around him as people and things begin to morph into the most disturbing and horrific images.

Lyne considered several big stars to play the leading character. Richard Gere, Dustin Hoffman, and Al Pacino were all interested in the role. Don Johnson and Mickey Rourke each turned it down.[9]

1 Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver Trailer (HD)

Robert De Niro stars as Travis Bickle in this 1976 psychological drama, directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Paul Shrader. Travis is a loner and insomniac who works nights as a New York City cab driver. After meeting a campaign worker named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), Travis hatches a plot to kill a presidential candidate. Narrowly escaping a campaign event, to which he brought a gun, Travis then turns his attention to a 12-year-old prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster), whom he feels obligated to save.

Fun Fact: Since Foster was only 12 years old during filming, she was not permitted to participate in the most explicit scenes. Her old sister Connie, who was 19, agreed to be Jodie’s body double.[10]

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fact checked by Jamie Frater