High-rise tower blocks have been a setting staple in action blockbusters throughout history through such films as Die Hard (1988) and the Towering Inferno (1974), though the horror genre has gotten plenty of mileage out of the batophobia-inducing megaliths too. Even the legendary Evil Dead series which has mostly kept to its cabin-in-the-woods roots is now moving its demonic antics into the concrete skies with the upcoming Evil Dead Rise. High-rises are often crowded, tightly packed and dizzyingly high up, leaving room for plenty of horrifyingly tense horror cinema. Below are some of the best high rise horror films to utilize a skyscraper or tower block as their setting, and a look at why exactly this choice is so terrifying.
Demons 2 (1986)
Lamberto Bava’s sequel to his 1985 horror thrillride Demons demonstrates exactly why tower blocks are a nightmare waiting to happen. A demon invasion makes its way into an apartment block through a film being broadcast one saturday night, and a few survivors must fight their way through the block to safety. Produced by the legendary Dario Argento, Demons 2 indeed lacks a bit of the joyful wackiness of its cinema-based original, which is by rights an imperfect classic, and sadly ends up devolving into a reskinned b-grade zombie movie before long. Bava seems to be crafting a sequel as quickly as he can here, with scenes reminiscent of Romero’s original trilogy and the then-just-released Gremlins. The gore and practical effects which made the original what it was are still present, though the vivid colour palette of Demons has been replaced with a lot of dominating blues and greys which sap the energy out of several scenes. Perhaps if its predecessor wasn’t such a cult classic, Demons 2 would have stood a better chance, as it still serves as a great example of nail-biting high-rise horror.
[•REC] & [•REC]² (2007/2009)
REC is a Spanish found footage horror film co-written and directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. Both REC and its sequel take place in an apartment block during a zombie outbreak. While the first relies on the found footage of a news reporter picking a very unfortunate night to cover her local fire station, the sequel utilises shots from SWAT team cams and some intruding youths to craft an even more tense and terrifying ride. The claustrophobia is very apparent here, with hordes of ferociously fast zombies taking up corridors and whole stairwells at a time. Doubly horrifying is the introduction of lockdown to the building, wherein characters realize that not only will the undead kill them if they stay, but the authorities will kill them if they try to leave. This makes the feeling of imprisonment much more acute, and makes the towering backdrop all the more effective
Poltergeist III (1988)
Poltergeist 3 was co-written and directed by Gary Sherman, and is the second sequel to Tobe Hooper’s legendary and massively influential 1982 classic. It was the final feature of Heather O’Rourke before she tragically died at the age of 12, adding even further to the already-present ‘Poltergeist curse’ that had been plaguing cast members of the franchise since its first entry. After being repeatedly tormented by supernatural horrors, Carol Anne moves in with her relatives in a tower block in Chicago in order to undergo therapy. However, the ghostly evil appears to have followed her as she begins to experience terrifying visions, as well as spectral figures in the mirrors of the relative’s high-rise apartment.
Attack The Block (2011)
As its name suggests, Attack The Block takes place in a London apartment block and centres around the gang of youths that live there as they take on a vicious alien invasion. The charismatic teens trawl the streets and their beloved block evading police, rival gangsters and the otherworldly horrors that hunt them. Director Joe Cornish dials into a perfect blend of action, horror and comedy, doubled with plenty of satire on class and ethnic barriers, all aided by the sprawling urban setting and lively, if not a little unhinged, characters who live there.
Bernard Rose’s Candyman terrified audiences the world over in 1992 with its bleakly horrific depiction of the real-world superstition known widely as ‘Bloody Mary’. According to the lasting urban legend, one must say the name of their malevolent force in question five times in front of a mirror, and the thing will awaken and kill them.
Fascinated by local urban legends, Helen (Virginia Madsen) investigates the myths and superstitions surrounding the one-armed Candyman, writing a thesis on how the residents of the Cabrini-Green ghetto use his legend to deal with their surroundings. However, she confronts her worst nightmare when a series of murders, dangerously close to the Candyman’s modus operandi, start taking place around her. Jordan Peele’s 2021 remake expanded on the lore of Candyman in an interesting and often exciting way, though never managed to be as deliriously scary as the ‘92 original breezed its way through being. Playing more on themes of police brutality and ‘ghetto gentrification’, Candyman 2021 tries to add a lot of recent topics to the mythos, more than may have been necessary when considering the classic themes which are just as prevalent.
Cloverfield tore theatres a new one back in 2008, changing the game completely for the found-footage subgenre and for monster movies in general. Utilising the shaky-cam technique, director Matt Reeves created a monster movie with such sparse shots of its titular monster that a tension and mystery was retained around the monolithic creature and its origins right up until 2018’s legacy-destroying sequel The Cloverfield Paradox.
In 2008’s Cloverfield, a group’s surprise leaving party for their friend is disastrously interrupted by an explosion in downtown New York, which it is soon revealed was caused by a gigantic rampaging monster. The party’s survivors must flee across New York, documenting each atrocity as it occurs. Technically the film takes place in several tower blocks, including the survivors traversing the roof of one collapsing tower to another which allows for some dizzying shots of the city below.
Adapted from the 1991 novel from Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho concerns investment banker/serial killer Patrick Bateman and his homicidal exploits around Manhattan. Starring Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto and Chloë Sevigny, the Mary Harron-directed chiller is as sadistic as it is confusing, with Bateman’s unreliable first-person account of a disjointed plot involving brutal killings as well as equally intense conversations about business cards. Much of the plot takes place in Bateman’s high-rise apartment complex and the other establishments he inhabits around the suffocating Manhattan streets. The cold megalophobia of the film’s setting adds a new layer to Bateman’s madness, as well as adding to the exposure of the more low-key insanity of the society he lives in.
Land of The Dead (2005)
Land of the Dead was written and directed by George A. Romero, and is the fourth of Romero’s six Living Dead movies. As zombies begin to inherit most of the world, survivors of the apocalypse have built a walled city to protect themselves. However, the living dead are evolving more by the day, and a plan to overthrow the city leadership is in the works. Land of The Dead features a very on the nose portrayal of a modern political climate, with the rich and powerful living in Fiddler’s Green, a luxury high-rise, while the rest of the population are left to fend for themselves in the slums below. Fiddler’s Green eventually becomes the target of not only the zombies but also the working class, in a finale that shows exactly why tower blocks are the perfect setting for a metaphor on civil unrest.
High Rise (2015)
Another film to utilise the Snowpiercer-esque visualisation of class hierarchy through its setting is Ben Wheatley’s 2015 dystopian thriller High Rise. Based on the 1975 novel of the same name by British writer J. G. Ballard, High Rise takes place in a luxurious tower block in the 1970s. With a wealth of modern conveniences at their fingertips, the residents of the building grow gradually less dependant on the outside world, allowing them to live each day without even leaving. As the infrastructure becomes brittle and tensions begin to rise, the block is soon thrown into chaos as a full class warfare erupts. Without a clear protagonist in mind, viewers must wade in the moral ambiguity of one atrocity to the next, deciding for themselves who, if anyone, can be considered a hero in it all. Like Snowpiercer in a skyscraper, the violence and debauchery this societal breakdown results in is as entertaining as it is brutal, though with no clear moral alignment the plot of High-Rise can become confusing.
Based on the chilling Stephen King short story of the same name, 1408 stars John Cusack and Samuel L Jackson and centres around a grand old hotel in New York that is said to be haunted. Mike Enslin (Cusack) is an established horror author who stays in apparently haunted places and documents his finds. After overexposure to pseudo-supernaturalism, Enslin is becoming bored of his work until he hears about the legendary hotel and room 1408. He is soon trapped in the room with seemingly no escape.
Being trapped in such a high floor of a hotel is played out effectively, with Enslin hanging out of windows and trying to scale across the outer wall to the next room. The setting adds another dimension to his imprisonment and retains a hopelessly bleak air as Enslin’s mind is pushed to breaking point.
Joe first knew he wanted to write in year six after plaguing his teacher’s dreams with a harrowing story of World War prisoners and an insidious ‘book of the dead’. Clearly infatuated with horror, and wearing his influences on his sleeve, he dabbled in some smaller pieces before starting work on his condensed sci-fi epic, System Reset in 2013.Once this was published he began work on many smaller horror stories and poems in bid to harness and connect with his own fears and passions and build on his craft.
Joe is obsessed with atmosphere and aesthetic, big concepts and even bigger senses of scale, feeding on cosmic horror of the deep sea and vastness of space and the emotions these can invoke. His main fixes within the dark arts include horror films, extreme metal music and the bleakest of poetry and science fiction literature.
He holds a deep respect for plot, creative flow and the context of art, and hopes to forge deeper connections between them around filmmakers dabbling in the dark and macabre.