Haunted houses may get all the attention, but apartment buildings can give off some mighty terrifying energy, too—whether it’s in the form of something that follows you in, or something that pounces once you’ve signed your lease. Here are 11 movies featuring apartments you’re glad aren’t part of your rental history.
Dario Argento’s 1980 jewel-toned phantasmagoria, the second in the “Three Mothers Trilogy” that begins with Suspiria, follows its protagonist, music student Mark, from Rome to New York City in search of his troubled sister, Rose. Rose’s obsession with the hulking apartment building where she’s been living soon becomes Mark’s, especially since she’s nowhere to be found once he arrives. However, she has left some worrisome clues behind, including details about the structure’s sinister original purpose as a custom-built manse for the witchy “Mater Tenebrarum,” and a series of riddles that inspire Mark to start ripping up floorboards in search of the truth.
His quest leads him through the building’s confusingly winding layout and menacing decor—blood-red walls, heavy drapes, ornate staircases, candelabras, windows constantly being blown open by gusts of wind, hooded figures with very bad intentions, and free-roaming packs of savage cats—and into his darkest nightmares.
Also in New York City, symphony musician Dana Barrett has a very nice apartment in “the Shandor Building” (in real life, it’s located at 55 Central Park West, and sadly, there’s not actually a Gozerian temple on the roof). The views are awesome, but the nerdy guy down the hall is a little pushy—and there’s definitely something supernatural going on in the kitchen. Specifically, the fridge.
Chicago’s real-life Cabrini-Green public housing project formed the backdrop for Bernard Rose’s 1992 cult classic about a ghostly, hook-handed killer whose powers are fueled by the strength of his own urban legend. The decaying apartment towers are purposefully lensed to highlight the danger they contain, as seen through the eyes of the film’s white, upper-class protagonist, who barges into a community where she’s not welcome to do research for her grad-school thesis. But until she experiences it firsthand in her own posh condo, she’s unable to comprehend the sheer terror of living somewhere where a bloodthirsty boogeyman has the power to punch through the walls, materializing out of bad dreams to take lives in the real world. Of course, you know by now to avoid saying his name into the bathroom mirror at all costs.
We revisited the 1977 thriller The Sentinel last year as part of a round-up of movies that combine horror with the world of fashion. And while the main character is indeed a model, her life of glamorous photoshoots takes a turn when she moves into a vintage Brooklyn apartment building that’s hiding a diabolical secret.
Living above a hellmouth would be inconvenient enough—between the kooky neighbors who invite you to weirdly intense cat birthday parties [Editor’s Note: I don’t know, sounds fun to me. -Jill P.], the unsettling sounds you hear in the middle of the night that could only be coming from the (empty) unit above you, and the physical disorientation you start feeling even when you’re not at home—without learning that your tenancy involves a non-negotiable clause that you’re stuck there...for life.
After Ring and Ring 2, both of which were swiftly remade by Hollywood, Japanese filmmaker Hideo Nakata made Dark Water, based on stories by Koji Suzuki, who also wrote the Ring novel series. Both Dark Water movies—because of course, it got its own NYC-set remake—are about recently divorced mothers (Hitomi Kiroki in the original, Jennifer Connelly in the remake) with precocious young daughters who move into gloomy old apartments. The moms both discover their persistently leaking ceilings are more than just an annoyance, they’re the first hint of a supernatural mystery that’ll soon entangle them...permanently.
Some lessons to be learned here: sometimes the rent is suspiciously affordable for sinister reasons; sometimes what initially seems like a “simple” repair can spiral into something frustratingly intrusive; and if you notice that your building manager is John C. Reilly, run.
The most popular entry in controversial director Roman Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy” (alongside surreal, claustrophobic nightmares Repulsion and The Tenant), Rosemary’s Baby famously follows a young Manhattan couple (Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes) who move into their dream apartment in the Bramford (played by the Dakota, future site of John Lennon’s murder) just as they’re planning to start a family, only to find out that the historic building’s existing occupants are all members of the same Satanic witch cult.
Of course, it takes the whole movie to expose the Satanic part, but the tension begins building as soon as the pregnant and paranoid Rosemary senses something malevolent about the “eccentric” elderly couple next door—and learns too late that if a previous tenant has made it a point to barricade a specific closet, one should always check to make sure there isn’t some kind of unwanted secret-passageway situation going on.
This is the Poltergeist sequel that nobody ever talks about, with good reason. But this distant third entry in the series—which was released just months after the tragic death of 12-year-old star Heather O’Rourke in 1988—does take us from the Los Angeles suburbs to the heart of Chicago, where ghost magnet Carol Anne (O’Rourke) moves to live with her aunt and uncle (Nancy Allen, Tom Skerritt), who somehow aren’t aware of the extensive supernatural ordeal she’s recently endured.
Unfortunately for all involved, the Beast has no trouble infiltrating their high-rise apartment complex (portrayed by the distinctive skyscraper formerly known as the John Hancock Center), where site-specific horrors transpire in and on elevator shafts, parking garages, swimming pools, and window-washer lifts, and the Poltergeist ghouls—who’ve long since moved past TV sets—use the building’s many gleaming mirrors as passageways and tools of mind-fuckery instead.
The trashy sequel gets all the love, but special effect artist-turned-director John Carl Buechler’s O.G. Troll movie—often noted as the film debut of a post-Saturday Night Life, pre-Seinfeld Julia Louis-Dreyfus—has its own charms. Goofy dad Harry Potter (obviously, the movie pre-dates the arrival of that other one; here, he’s played by Michael Moriarty, cult-beloved star of The Stuff and Q: The Winged Serpent) and his family move to a small apartment building in San Francisco, where the usual close-quarters conflicts, like annoying fire alarms and noisy neighbors, suddenly seem tame once the building’s magical invaders start making their presence felt.
The first step is kidnapping Harry’s young daughter and body-swapping her with a troll in disguise, the perfect cover for an apartment-by-apartment campaign to transform the building into a battleground in the ancient storybook war between humans and fairies. Good thing there’s a kindly witch living upstairs (played by Lost in Space’s June Lockhart) who’s there to keep the balance—but not before Troll showers us with musical numbers, interpretive dance, a wacky cameo by Sonny Bono as a horny swinger, the sight of Louis-Dreyfus as a wood nymph, and lots of genuinely disturbing puppets.
After his pregnant wife is murdered in the hallway of their crumbling apartment building by a gang of what appear to be feral children clad in grimy hoodies, Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) must figure out how to navigate his crushing grief while being a single father to his infant daughter. He soon comes to suspect that the attack wasn’t random, especially when he meets a crusty old priest who maintains that the kids who’re terrorizing the area have been transformed by infection, poison, or worse into vicious, mutated, not-quite-human creatures.
There are lots of gruesome things in the Glasgow-set Citadel—the debut film from writer-director Ciarán Foy, who went on to make Sinister 2 and Eli—to make you shudder (exhibit A: many white-knuckle moments of “baby in peril”). But those tower blocks, populated by scurrying little monsters who are very much the product of the can’t-be-bothered society that’s cruelly discarded them, are ominous as hell.
A baby-faced teen named Leonardo DiCaprio makes his first big-screen appearance in this energetic entry in the proudly cheesy sci-fi horror series. The action shifts from rural Grover’s Bend to Los Angeles, where a widowed dad and his two kids unknowingly bring a certain breed of nasty, furry aliens along when they return to their run-down apartment building after a road trip. The ravenous creatures do everyone a favor by decimating the building’s greaseball maintenance guy first, then the greedy landlord—but as their rampage continues, the few remaining tenants band together to fight for survival, with a key assist from scrappy series regular Charlie (Don Keith Opper).
When Babak Anvari’s 2016 chiller Under the Shadow begins, the situation is already nearing unbearable for a young mother named Shideh (Narges Rashidi) in 1980s Tehran, where her activist past has blacklisted her from returning to medical school. Things are made even bleaker by the fact that her husband did become a doctor, and is now being put to work on the dangerous front lines, even as missile strikes begin to barrage their own neighborhood. This means that Shideh and her rambunctious daughter have to remain closed up inside their apartment for safety reasons—which becomes a major problem when an evil spirit hellbent on adding to their torment manifests in their midst. The circumstances are more to blame than the apartment itself, but as Shideh’s ordeal worsens, the modest space steadily becomes shrink-wrapped in more and more layers of agony.
- The Barcelona apartment building in 2007 found-footage horror movie [REC], which becomes ground zero for a rapidly-spreading zombie virus
- The Macau apartment tower plagued by hopping vampires in 2013 stunt-stravaganza Rigor Mortis
- The Chicago building in 1988's Child’s Play that demonstrates why you should never, ever bring a possessed doll into a confined space like an apartment, especially one located on a very high floor
- The generic Los Angeles complex in gruesome 1978 slasher The Toolbox Murders, where residents are stalked by a bloodthirsty killer
- Montreal’s high-rise Starliner Towers in David Cronenberg’s 1975 Shivers, where a parasite transforms the infected into violent sex maniacs
- The San Francisco apartment in 2005 rom-com Just Like Heaven, where bewildered subletter Mark Ruffalo is accosted by the “not dead yet” ghost of previous occupant Reese Witherspoon
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