New York City is easily one of the most recognizable cities in the entire world. Home to millions of people, despite only being a few miles long and wide, it is a city that has some of the finest dining, finest entertainment, and finest accommodations that can be found anywhere. It wasn’t always this way, though. Only a few decades ago, when New York was more notorious than it was famous: it was a cesspit, filled with crime and disease. Through the 1970s up until the early 1990s, New York City was one of the most dangerous cities in the country. A downturn in the economy, the advent of the crack and AIDS epidemics, and the “white flight” out of the cities caused New York to be a city with dangers around every corner.

Times Square of the 70s & 80s was lined with grimy “grindhouse” theaters that showed low-rent exploitation films and pornography.

Even with that level of turmoil, some good came out of it. The music genre that is known today as rap/hip-hop was born out of the borough of Brooklyn and punk rock found its footing in the numerous seedy bars that dotted the city. Another one of the many great things born from the sludge of New York was a cavalcade of visionary filmmakers. The auteurs such as Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Stanley Kubrick all started their careers in the Big Apple. These directors found their footings in the streets of the city, honing their early craft in the empire state. These are well known, established, and celebrated directors; auteurs who dug their way up through the trash and sewage, and moved their ambitions, and locations, towards bigger and broader things.

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Then there are those directors who stayed in the city, making it their cinematic playground, working and moving through the grime and muck of the pre-Giuliani New York. While directors like Scorcese and Allen had their films distributed nation-wide, the directors talked about here focused on getting their films into the “grindhouse” theaters of the city. These “grindhouse” theaters specialized in pornographic and exploitation films, films made on shoe-string budgets that exploited perversities and blood lusts. These theaters ran from 42nd street all the way up to Times Square throughout the 1970s and 80s.

We are here to shine a spotlight on those directors; those who didn’t see the city as a stepping stone, but as a place to hunker down and explore. They created new monsters out of the horrors that surrounded them and made careers out of examining and exploiting the rotten core of the big apple.

Larry Cohen

While not as centered in the city as the other directors on this list, Larry Cohen has made quite the impact on exploitation and genre cinema in New York. Cohen started working in the film industry in the 1960s, writing for shows such as THE DEFENDERS and COLUMBO. Cohen’s first directorial effort was the 1972 film BONE, an exploitation film about a thief who breaks into a wealthy family’s house in Beverly Hills. The film, starring a pre-ALIEN Yaphet Kotto, is filled with racial undertones that still resonate in the current day.

While Cohen might have started his directing career in Beverly Hills, he quickly went back to his New York roots with the film BLACK CAESAR. Filmed in Harlem, BLACK CAESAR follows the exploits of Tommy Gibbs (played by Blaxploitation regular Fred Williamson) who rises from a low-level thief to a criminal kingpin. BLACK CAESAR is considered a seminal film in the Blaxploitation cinema movement of the 1970s; these were exploitation films which centered on African Americans and Cohen was happy to ride the wave of their success. Cohen’s next film was the sequel to BLACK CAESAR, HELL UP IN HARLEM. Another staple of the Blaxploitation movement, this film follows Williamson’s character as he tries to track down his ex-wife, who has been kidnapped by the mafia.

Moving away from the cinematic movement he helped create, as well as moving away from the five boroughs, Cohen’s next film, IT’S ALIVE, took him back to Los Angeles. The film follows the Davis family, who, after giving birth, find that their newborn child is a violent, hideous creature. While initially a box office bomb, a new advertising campaign allowed the film to become a moderate success, being rereleased in 1977 with a new box office take of $7.1 million ($34 million adjusted for inflation).

During the period between IT’S ALIVE’s first box office bomb and its resurgence, Cohen returned to New York to direct the exploitation film GOD TOLD ME TO. Released in 1976, it is one of the more bizarre projects in Cohen’s filmography. The film starts with a gunman on a water tower in New York, picking off pedestrians. When finally stopped by the police, the gunman only says “God told me to.” Soon, other murderous incidents occur around the city, each perpetrator repeating “God told me to.” Without giving too much away, GOD TOLD ME TO is a film that twists and turns in directions that are bizarre and unique, a staple of many of Cohen’s scripts.

While Cohen found himself working out of New York for many of his other projects, such as the two sequels to IT’S ALIVE and the social satire THE STUFF, Cohen returned to the city once more in the 1980s for his creature feature Q: THE WINGED SERPENT.

Q followed a detective on the tracks of a mythical flying serpent who started picking off sunbathers on the roofs of New York skyscrapers. Featured prominently in the film is the Chrysler building, a highly recognizable building in the city. Cohen had his actors fire live rounds from the roof of the building, raining shells down on people below, causing a panic. Instead of attempting to stop the chaos, Cohen sent one of his cameramen to go down to the streets and film the genuine reactions.

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The Chrysler story encompasses who Cohen was as a filmmaker; he has never been afraid to get his shot, to get what he is looking for and what he needs, and to get the picture shot no matter what. While he worked outside of the city several times over his career, he has always made his way back to his home city to help add to its cinematic legacy.

William Lustig

Larry Cohen not only helped start the Blaxploitation movement, but he also had a hand in launching the career of William Lustig, who went on to create one of the most controversial genre films of all time. Like many directors of the era, Lustig started his career as a director of pornography, directing the films THE VIOLATION OF CLAUDIA (1977) and HOT HONEY (1978). In 1980, Lustig released his first ever non-pornographic feature film, MANIAC. Unknown to him at the time, it would go on to become one of the most controversial horror films of all time.

Written by Larry Cohen, MANIAC is loosely based on the “Son of Sam” killings that terrorized the city only a few years earlier, when David Berkowitz shot and killed six and wounded seven from the summer of 1976 to the summer of 1977. The film MANIAC follows killer Frank Zito as he stalks the streets of New York, killing and scalping women in the night. Released unrated in 1980, it was lampooned by critics for its unflinching violence and stomach-turning gore.

The most notable of those criticisms came from Gene Siskel, who, with Roger Ebert, made MANIAC one of their marquee films in their crusade against cinema violence. The poster for MANIAC, showing killer Frank Zito covered in blood, holding a bloody knife and scalp, and sporting a noticeable erection, was banned. Lustig went from being a small-time pornography director to being lumped into a group of filmmakers (some of them included in this list) who were seeing their films banned and their moral judgment questioned by critics and politicians alike. Since its release, MANIAC has seen reevaluation and is now considered one of the hallmarks of grind-house cinema.

The infamous MANIAC poster.

Lustig, undeterred, followed up MANIAC with another New York City-based film, VIGILANTE, a film loosely based on the infamous Guardian Angels of New York. This film follows a group of industrial workers who form a vigilante group to eradicate a dangerous gang who have infected their neighborhood. VIGILANTE, like several of the films mentioned in this article, was an exploitation film created for the grindhouses. Exploitation films were films focused on exploiting violence and sex and were meant to satiate the usual crowds of a grindhouse theater (perverts and degenerates). This new exploitation market gave talented directors like Lustig and Cohen the ability to have total control of the explicit material in their films, without fear of the rating board.

After VIGILANTE, Lustig worked again with Larry Cohen and created MANIAC COP. The film follows a killer dressed as a police officer as he goes on a rampage through the city. The film is in the classic Lustig vein, as it is filled with mean-spirited violence and looks at the grimier side of life in the Big Apple. Lustig followed it up with a bigger budget, more action-centric MANIAC COP 2 in 1990.

In addition to being a filmmaker, Lustig is also the CEO of Blue Underground, a company that specializes in obscure, exploitation, and genre cinema restorations. His company has released Blu-Ray restorations of many of the “42nd Street” films that played alongside his own, such as the works of Larry Cohen and Abel Ferrara.

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Lustig may have bowed out of the director’s chair in the last couple of years, but his contributions to New York City cinema, as well as exploitation and horror cinema, will continue inspiring future genre filmmakers.

Abel Ferrara

While Cohen and Lustig were willing and happy to stay at the schlockier end of genre cinema, Abel Ferrara started in exploitation and worked his way towards the artier end of cinema, all while staying within the five boroughs.

Just like Lustig, Ferrara started his career as a porn filmmaker, making four pornographic films, as well as starring in three of them. During the years he was filming these, he started work on his first feature, the exploitation classic THE DRILLER KILLER.

Filming on weekends, dodging police as he illegally filmed on the city streets, and working with a crew comprised of friends and non-professionals, it took Ferrara several years to finish DRILLER KILLER (interestingly, Ferrara starred in the film because then he knew he could always depend on the lead actor being on set). Released in 1979, it was immediately criticized for its use of graphic and sleazy violence, going as far as to be banned in the UK as one of the “Video Nasties.” Admittedly, that mostly occurred because the VHS cover for the film was that of a man having a drill graphically shoved into his skull.

The first shot of DRILLER KILLER.

Despite that criticism though, DRILLER KILLER was an accurate snapshot of New York at the time. Like Lustig’s MANIAC, DRILLER KILLER was shot on a shoestring budget, and many real people, not actors, were used for reaction shots. The film shows the city as it settled into its grimy, crime-ridden era when the city’s living conditions were at some of their lowest. It is a snapshot of a more dangerous time.

Following DRILLER KILLER, Ferrara made MS .45, a revenge film that follows a rape victim who dons a nun’s habit and goes to the streets, killing rapists with a .45 caliber pistol. While it was in the same exploitative vein as DRILLER KILLER (featuring a vicious rape scene as well as including explicit violence), MS .45 started to show Ferrara’s eye for the cinematic, as the griminess of DRILLER KILLER was replaced with a more refined filming style.

After three films filled with sex and violence, Ferrara took a hard left turn with CHINA GIRL. A modern day adaption of ROMEO & JULIET, CHINA GIRL follows the romance between an Italian boy and a Chinese girl, and the violence that erupts between two rival gangs as their love blossoms. Ferrara was able to show his more conventionally artistic side with CHINA GIRL, no longer filming the grime of the city, but focusing on the beauty that can be found in the Big Apple.

Following CHINA GIRL, Ferrara tried his hand at a big budget crime film with KING OF NEW YORK. Released in 1990, KING OF NEW YORK follows the exploits of a recently released former crime kingpin as he claws his way back to the top of the crime world. The film is notable as the first of many film collaborations between Christopher Walken and Ferrara, as well as becoming a cult hit with the then exploding hip-hop scene in New York, especially Walken’s character Frank White. Infamously, rapper Notorious B.I.G. use to refer to himself as the “black Frank White”.

Harvey Keitel as corrupt cop LT in BAD LIEUTENANT.

After KING OF NEW YORK lackluster box office take, Ferrara went back to his sleazier roots, releasing BAD LIEUTENANT to an unsuspecting populace. Released in 1992, Ferrara returned to the grimy side of New York, following a corrupt detective as he investigates the gang rape of a nun. The film is filled with violence and nudity and is reminiscent of the harsher, nastier exploitation cinema that Ferrara started in. This was not the Ferrara that had made CHINA GIRL; this was an angry film, focusing on the moral corruption and violence that still plagued the city, even as parts of the city started to be gentrified.

After LIEUTENANT, Ferrara tried his hand at back-to-back bigger, more mainstream affairs with a remake of THE BODY SNATCHERS (with a story credit to Larry Cohen) and DANGEROUS GAME, a Madonna-led sexual thriller. Not finding much success in the mainstream, Ferrara returned to what he knew best, the streets of New York, with his art house film THE ADDICTION. The film follows a young grad student who is bitten by a vampire and must adjust to his new lifestyle, learning to live life as a vampire. Unlike his other New York City-based filmography, THE ADDICTION is less focused on the city as a character, and more on the development of its vampire student. The use of black and white film allows the city fall back into the colorless background, and our focus to remain on the afflicted.

Ferrara continues to direct, but his films have focused less and less on New York City, possibly because he no longer recognizes the city the more gentrified it becomes. Ferrara has returned to modern day New York in documentary only, with MULBERRY STREET and CHELSEA ON THE ROCKS released in the past ten years. Still, Ferrara’s work has left an undeniable print in New York City and exploitation cinema.

Frank Henenlotter

Rounding out this list with easily one of the strangest filmographies, New York City-based or not, is Frank Henenlotter. While Cohen was more of an action and fantasy director, Lustig an exploitation director, and Ferrara an art director in an exploitative skin, Henenlotter is a whole other creature unto himself. A love of slapstick humor, technicolor locations, and crudely built but lovably absurd creatures are the staples of a Henenlotter film.

Henenlotter hit the ground running with the grindhouse classic BASKET CASE. The film follows a man who arrives in New York carrying his deformed, basketball sized formerly conjoined brother in a basket. The brother, a creature known as Belial, is on a mission to kill the doctors that performed the separation, having never wanted to be separated from his brother in the first place.While going through their hit list, the normal looking brother finds love in the city.

The eyes of Belial peeking out on the poster for BASKET CASE.

Like many of Henenlotter’s films, it is a film that needs to be seen, not read about. Two sequels followed BASKET CASE (BASKET CASE 2, where the creature Belial finds love with another creature, and BASKET CASE 3, where Belial and said creature have a child. Just like the first one, both of these are better seen than described).

BASKET CASE was shot on a shoe string budget, and it shows in its cheaply made creature of Belial. Being a strong visionary director, Henenlotter was able to use this as a strength, making the creatures cheap, dirty look fit in with the dirty city around it.

Showing that his love for crude puppets wasn’t just a phase, Henenlotter followed up BASKET CASE with BRAIN DAMAGE, a film that follows an extraterrestrial being named Aylmer that attaches itself to a hapless slacker, injecting him with a very powerful, and very addictive, hallucinogenic.

Now fully hooked, the slacker is forced to stalk the night, finding victims for the creature to feast on. The creature also speaks in an upbeat, almost radio personality like voice, joking and laughing through all the murder. It is a film that takes the insanity of BASKET CASE and revs it up by a hundred.

Actress Patty Mullen as the FRANKENHOOKER, on a subway train that wouldn’t exist today.

In 1990, Henenlotter released his most “commercial” narrative film to date, FRANKENHOOKER. Shot on location, FRANKENHOOKER follows a creature that is created when a medical student attempts to revive his dead fiancé by attaching her head to the body of a Manhattan, sex worker. It is most notable to non-genre fans from the Bill Murray quote:

“If you see one movie this year, it should be FRANKENHOOKER,”

and is a film that steers away from the grotesque violence of Henenlotter’s earlier work, and moves closer to slapstick comedy.

After FRANKENHOOKER, Henenlotter released BASKET CASE 3 and then didn’t release a film for nearly twenty years, before releasing BAD BIOLOGY in 2008. BAD BIOLOGY follows two sexual deviants who are on a crash course towards each other, and the tragic results that occur when the finally meet. It is not in the same vein as the previous Henenlotter films but was met with fair, if not lukewarm, reception.

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Since then Henenlotter has become a documentarian, putting out films in the sexploitation genre, gore maestro Herschell Gordon Lewis, and a documentary on the street artist Banksy.

What separated Henenlotter’s films from his contemporaries is his approach to the city of New York. While Lustig and Ferrara demonized the city for its moral disintegration, Henenlotter celebrated it, basked in it, and rolled around in the grime and enjoyed himself.

His films weren’t focused on the crime and violence of inner city life; they used this as a backdrop to create his crazy and absurd films about murderous, yet wise talking creatures. While other filmmakers were focused on how the city was falling apart, Henenlotter’s films were more excited that, the more the city broke apart, the more it resembled a jungle gym.

The Times Square of today, while much safer, is completely different. Gone are the grindhouse theaters, replaced by billboards and tourist attractions.

The New York City of today is nothing like it use to be. Once it was a city so dangerous and corrupt, President Ford refused to bail it out of its financial woes. After the deep decline of the 1970s and 1980s, New York started to prosper again in the 1990s, becoming a beacon of stability into the 21st century. It is a city that not only survived one of the worst terrorist attacks of all time but continued to prosper after it. While the city today is a much safer one than before, it is a city that no longer resembles its previous self. The films these auteurs created are a time capsule of an era of the city that no longer exists, and as such, they are as much a part of its history as the buildings and streets that make New York City what it is today.

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