Summer Horror in the City

Forget the Bahamas, horror fans. This summer, New York is your paradise.

That’s because three of the city’s highbrow cinema presenters are offering ambitious and adventurous horror movie series with scares enough for everyone, from squeamish newbies to hardened connoisseurs.

The biggie is “Horror: Messaging the Monstrous,” which runs for a whopping 10 weeks at the Museum of Modern Art. With more than 110 features and short films, the series digs deep into sociopolitical horror cinema, with sections devoted to gender, race, sexuality and additional concerns.

The other programs are equally enterprising. Film at Lincoln Center and Cinecittà, the esteemed Italian film studio, are partnering on “Beware of Dario Argento,” a 20-film retrospective of Argento, the horror movie master best known for “Suspiria.” The director himself will be at select screenings.

And the Museum of the Moving Image is hosting “Films of the Dead: Romero & Co.,” an 11-film series dedicated to zombie movies by, and inspired by, the maverick horror filmmaker George A. Romero, who died in 2017. It’s a companion to “Living With ‘The Walking Dead’” (June 25-Jan. 1, 2023), an exhibition about the origins and impact of the AMC series. A second film program, “White Zombies: Nightmares of Empire,” follows in August.

Caryn Coleman, a guest curator on the MoMA series, said it should be no surprise that all three organizations are turning to horror to “process the world.”

“We’re certainly in a collective moment of turmoil, so it seems right on target for New York to be hosting horror programming as both a tool of discussion and celebration,” she wrote in an email.

To make your decision-making less scary, here’s one horror lover’s guide to what to watch.

Museum of Modern Art, moma.org

What happens when a female director (Amy Holden Jones) and a feminist writer (Rita Mae Brown) team up to make a movie about a deranged murderer with a power drill who kills high schoolers on the night of a sleepover? You get this crazed classic from the golden age of slashers, a film that continues to inspire new generations of female horror moviemakers.

Wes Craven wrote and directed this rape-revenge film about two young women who are brutalized by psychopaths. This one’s a don’t-miss movie only for folks with a strong constitution and a morbid curiosity about a game-changing but troubling exploitation film. Consider this: Howard Thompson, reviewing for The Times, called it “sickening tripe,” and said he walked out before the film ended.

A terrific rediscovery in the series is this horror-fantasy film from New Zealand. Directed by Garth Maxwell, it stars Alexis Arquette and Sarah Smuts-Kennedy as twins who reunite as adults after being separated and raised in broken homes. In his Times review, Stephen Holden called it a “superior” genre film with “hallucinatory power and psychological refinement.”

The writer-director James Bond III stars as a young man who visits New York to see a friend (Kadeem Hardison), but instead falls under the spell of a succubus (Cynthia Bond). A supernatural investigator (Bill Nunn), a medium (Melba Moore) and a preacher (Samuel L. Jackson) all try to keep the evil at bay. For a low-budget horror comedy, the film takes a surprisingly frank look at Black Gen Xers and presents questions of friendship, sex and faith.

Film at Lincoln Center, filmlinc.org

Argento’s trippy psycho-thriller stars Jennifer Connelly as a young student at a Swiss girls school who discovers she has supernatural powers to control insects. Donald Pleasence is the scientist who helps her use that power to find a killer. The big screen is the best way to experience the film’s spectacular flesh-dissolving bug attack.

Argento’s directing debut, for which he also wrote the screenplay, is a stylish prototype of Italian giallo. Set in Rome, it’s a thriller about an American writer who gets entangled in a murder mystery after he witnesses a woman stabbed by an intruder inside a gallery. The gore is mild compared to Argento’s later films. But giallo’s visual signatures – plunging razors, menacing lighting, a killer in chic leather – are abundant.

One of the films I’m excited to see is Argento’s latest, his first movie since the poorly received “Argento’s Dracula 3D.” Ilenia Pastorelli stars as a prostitute who struggles to adjust to a new life after being blinded during her escape from a killer. True to Argento form, the movie looks as sleek as it is deranged.

Museum of the Moving Image, movingimage.us

When Romero’s black-and-white groundbreaker comes to the big screen, just go. Romero championed the oppressed, and for his first feature film he cast Duane Jones, a Black actor, as the man who protects a group of strangers trapped in a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse under siege by the flesh-chewing undead. Movies that view horror through a social justice lens, especially when it comes to American racism, bow to this one.

Shinichiro Ueda’s film is an absurdly gory horror-comedy about a film crew shooting a zombie movie that’s interrupted by actual hungry zombies. Instead of cutting and running, the director forces his cast and crew to keep rolling. What happens next is a meta-marvel of slapstick, butchery and, surprisingly, heart.

I have a soft spot for this talky doomsday story, written and directed by Romero. Set in a dystopian future America – one of Romero’s favorite places to visit – it’s about a group of literally underground scientists and soldiers (with fragile egos) who battle the zombies left above ground after an apocalypse. Tom Savini’s gruesome special effects gave me the heebie jeebies back in the day, and still do.

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