City of the Damned

AS NEW YORK WAS DECLARED the COVID-19 pandemic’s epicenter, the ghost of Dorothy Parker began turning up in my bedroom at daybreak. “What fresh hell can this be?” Parker whispered, an earworm I could not stop hearing. They say the cure for an earworm is to listen to the song in its entirety; in my case, I thumbed through the morning’s headlines like a drowsy automaton until a fuller, worsened picture of our city’s new netherworld emerged.

“What are some films in which New York is portrayed as hell?” I asked my boyfriend. Perhaps such movies would provide an admittedly demented form of exposure therapy, presenting a worst-case scenario and dulling our anxieties about the present. “There’s this trashy horror flick from the ’70s,” he replied, though he remembered little else about it. We watched it: The Sentinel (1977) stars Cristina Raines as Alison, a fashion model who seeks independence from her controlling fiancé (Chris Sarandon). According to the film’s warped logic, this is her first mistake. Alison moves out of their sprawling Manhattan apartment and into a palatial, ivy-covered brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. Never mind that the building’s top floor contains the gateway to the underworld. Or that her neighbors are fugitive demons. Alison’s apartment, a bargain at $400 a month, features intricate woodwork, pocket doors, and a fireplace. Which is just as well, since by the end she learns she has been conscripted by the Catholic Diocese to guard over hell’s egress forevermore.

Michael Winner, The Sentinel, 1977. Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) and Miss Logan (Ava Gardner). Universal Pictures
Michael Winner, The Sentinel, 1977. Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) and Miss Logan (Ava Gardner). Universal Pictures

The Sentinel led us to revisit Ghostbusters (1984), the screenplay for which was inspired by Alison’s new job in Brooklyn Heights. In Ivan Reitman’s Reagan-era classic, New York’s ornate prewar architecture once more evokes the city’s darker, supernatural undercurrents, beginning at the main branch of the New York Public Library and ending at 55 Central Park West, the latter reimagined as a doorway to another dimension.

In The Devil’s Advocate (1997), the third film of our miniature festival, the devil (Al Pacino) need not escape from the underworld to New York; he already lives there. He’s called John Milton (sigh). As in the other films, property assumes a principal role. Satan baits hotshot defense attorney Kevin (Keanu Reeves) with an apartment in luxe but tasteful Carnegie Hill (1107 Fifth Avenue). And one of their most important clients is a real estate tycoon accused of killing his wife, stepson, and maid. The mogul lives in a gilded Liberace dreamscape—at 725 Fifth Avenue, Donald Trump’s real-life penthouse.

Home is supposedly the safest place for us all during the pandemic, but for many it has exacted a high toll, as has been widely reported: strained relationships, prolonged isolation, agonizing anxiety; and, for people stuck in abusive relationships, real danger. Our modest sample of auteur classics got one thing right: Hell is New York real estate—a truism whose overuse doesn’t make it any more endurable.

Sarah Resnick’s writing has appeared in the Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays anthologies.