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Scale the Best Films Taking Place in a High-Rise

Written by on May 13, 2016 

high-rise tom hiddleston

What is it about towering apartment buildings that fascinates filmmakers, especially those working in horror, sci-fi, and fantasy? It’s easy to imagine these eyesores of urban development — especially those with secured entrances and exclusive tenants — harboring sinister secrets inside their walls.

High-Rise, director Ben Wheatley adaptation’s of J.G. Ballard‘s eponymous sci-fi novel, more than fits into this strange subset of films, as it focuses on dystopian class warfare inside a monolithic beast of Brualist architecture. With the film now in theaters (and on VOD), we look at other other films that imagine the incredible, horrifying, or supernatural happenings in and around these deceptively unassuming structures.

Apartment Trilogy (Roman Polanski)


Has any set of films turned the usual drudgeries of apartment living — climbing up your stairs for the umpteenth time, dealing with troubled amenities, and trying your best to acknowledge neighbors’ existence without getting the least bit involved in their lives among them — into such strong vessels for portent? Perhaps no living filmmaker understands the dimensions and ensuing possibilities of photographing closed quarters as well as Roman Polanski, whose “Apartment Trilogy” (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant) is suitably suffocating, scene-for-scene dialing up the anxiety of its high-concept plots through such banalities. Special notice to the final installment, The Tenant, which should forever change the way you gaze into a neighbor’s window. – Nick N.

Attack the Block (Joe Cornish)

Attack the Block

While not all of Attack the Block takes place in a high-rise apartment, the film’s most memorable setpieces can be found in Wyndham Tower. From Hi-Hatz’s weed room to John Boyega’s run-for-his-life, slow-motion sprint down the hall, Joe Cornish does a sublime job in placing us inside this location and giving a sense of where our ensemble is in their struggle against the pitch-black alien forces. Aside from all the extraterrestrial mayhem, Cornish offers a perfectly fine-tuned ensemble with countless details to sell their surroundings. Allow it, bruv. – Jordan R.

Candyman (Bernard Rose)


Actor Tony Todd carved out his own place in horror history as the villain in director Bernard Rose‘s harrowing Gothic tale. Based on a story by Clive Barker, the 1992 film traces an investigation by a woman (Virginia Madsen) on the hunt for Candyman, a vengeful Bloody Mary-type spirit with a hook for a hand. But Todd’s nightmare-inducing performance, which is enhanced by inventive practical effects, is no match for the heinous reality of Cabrini-Green, the run-down Chicago public housing development in which the film is set. Though shooting never actually took place in the failed project (it was eventually demolished), Rose goes to extreme lengths to depict the abject poverty that plagued its African-American residents. As the female protagonist’s search for Candyman intensifies, she’s drawn deeper into Cabrini-Green, where crime and drug use infect the shadowy, graffiti-lined corridors of its various mid- and high-rise apartment complexes. Its bleak setting, paired with Candyman’s origins as a 19th-century black artist killed for loving a white woman, reverberate with still deeply relevant subtext — which, understandably, drew criticism upon its release (filmmaker Carl Franklin called it “irresponsible and racist”). – Amanda W.

Citadel (Ciarán Foy)


Few films depict the devastating, cyclical damage caused by urban drug epidemics quite like the debut feature from Irish filmmaker Ciarán Foy (Sinister 2). Shot in Glasgow, Scotland, it follows a young father crippled by agoraphobia after being widowed by a gang of monstrously deformed teenagers who infest the crumbling apartment complex where he and his wife once lived. When the assailants kidnap his baby daughter, he’s forced to overcome his fear and confront them on their turf, only to discover the chemical origins behind their condition. The underrated horror thriller is made all the disturbing as a catharsis for Foy, who based the film on a traumatizing attack he suffered at the hands of hammer-wielding teens. The deeply personal work boasts intense performances (James Cosmo especially chews the scenery as a mad priest) and villains who, with their wrinkly hands and inhuman features, resemble adolescent versions of David Cronenberg’s abominations from The Brood. Then there’s the titular tower. Though few scenes play out in the central structure, it looms ominously as a symbol of the protagonist’s overwhelming anguish, and of the inescapable aftereffects of rampant addiction. – Amanda W.

Delicatessen (Jean-Pierre Jeunet)


Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s strange, wonderful, Terry Gilliam-inspired dystopia explores the same high concept classist terrain as High-Rise, finding perhaps a bit more heart in its sadism. In an apartment building at the end of the world, a revolution bubbles up while a romance blossoms between a new tenant and the landlord’s daughter. Beautifully photographed by a young Darius Khondji, Delicatessen has stood the test of time as a homage that strikes its own, impressive path. – Dan M.

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