It’s hard to perceive personal space unless it’s violated. And when humans are shoe-horned together into tight spaces, as is the case in a subway, our default individualism abuts often discomfiting collective situations. German sociologist Georg Simmel noted a century ago that the rise in urbanization coincided with “an intensification of nervous stimulation.” And there’s nothing that makes passengers more nervous than being a captive subterranean audience to a gauntlet of belligerents, crazies, frotteurists, muggers, or buskers banging out “Despacito” on an accordion. Public transit would be ideal if everyone had their own subway train. But that’s basically a car.
Horror movies, of course, exploit common fears. And there’s nothing more mundane than the morning and evening commute. Three phobias converge deep beneath the concrete bowels of the major metropolis: crowds, being trapped, and the dark. And you can throw in fear of terrorism, too, an existential threat that didn’t exist when early subways began rolling down the tracks.
When it comes to mythology, the concept of a malevolent underworld has been with us since we organized such tales into cohesive belief systems. Lurking beneath every big city, there’s a dark, isolated, rat-infested subterranean lair. It’s something that’s easy to forget as you pass through the turnstile from one realm to another. But it’s worth considering that these “gates of hell shall not prevail” against us! Here are ten scary subway horror films that will have you seeking higher ground, if not a higher power.
Death Line: Industrialization spurred underground development in London and the London Underground first opened in 1863 to accommodate the 750,000 factory workers who arrived in the city centre from the railroads. Times pundits warned that passengers would face “dark, noisome tunnels, passages inhabited by rats, soaked with sewer drippings, and poisoned by the escape from gas mains.”
Death Line, distributed as Raw Meat in the US, exploited the lore of the London Tube. Donald Pleasence plays Calhoun, a Scotland Yard inspector who's called in when a man goes missing in Camden, and urban legends begin to circulate about cannibals living in abandoned London Underground tunnels who feed on commuters.
As if transit riders didn't have enough to worry about, what with "signal failures" and everyone's favorite and vaguely foreboding euphemism: "incident at track level" (or better still in this era of uber-paranoid public safety, "unauthorized person at track level”).
The Midnight Meat Train: A title like The Midnight Meat Train is gorehound catnip—causing laughs and revulsion in equal measure (viewers are split as to what the movie itself does). Bradley Cooper plays a vegan amateur photographer, lurking about underground trying to capture the gritty urban milieu... and all this, before Instagram. Unfortunately, Vinnie Jones is down there, too, hell-bent on murdering people and making them permanently late for work. Much of The Midnight Meat Train was filmed at Los Angeles County Metro Rail stations, where it’s not difficult to imagine abandoned stops and an absence of passengers, as, according to the LA Times, the Metro system has been shedding ridership for decades.
Demons: In Lamberto Bava's luscious gut-muncher Demons, two students are taking the Berlin Metro, where they encounter a man on the subway platform wearing a glittering silver half-mask. For anyone with an ounce of street savvy, this would mean slowly backing away, or turning 180 degrees and going basically anywhere. Instead, they have a brief encounter with the strange figure (played with wonderful menace by Italian horror director Michele Soavi). He offers the twosome free tickets to a mysterious film screening at a decrepit local cinema. They take him up on the offer, and we know how this film ends.
Possession: Staying in Germany, we come to 1981's Video Nasty Possession. Is it art-house? Is it exploitation? An international spy (Sam Neill) returns to Berlin and suspects his wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani) of having an affair. He starts doing a stakeout mission and finds something creepily Lovecraftian about her conduct. In the film, Anna is shown experiencing a terrifying miscarriage in a desolate Berlin Metro tunnel, first splashing her bag of groceries against the wall, mostly so the milk can splatter oh so artistically.
Fright Night Part 2: For "rhyming title" completists everywhere (once they're done with Cellar Dweller, The Driller Killer, and The Gruesome Twosome) Fright Night's sequel is marginally better than the 25% Rotten Tomatoes rating will lead you to believe. Charley (William Ragsdale) has escaped the vampire scourge long enough to see a sequel. And he’s seeing a psychiatrist to cope with what the doc sees as delusions, but which are unfortunately all too real. In one scene, with flickering lights making for a nice, dizzying backdrop, a vampire attacks three teens on a subway car, empty except for a poor transient the bloodsucker's already feasted on.
Maniac: Frank is a loner with mommy issues and a harem of mannequins in his dismal basement apartment in The Big Apple, where he stalks his victims. There's a terrific scene at NYC's 59th Street-Columbus Circle where lumbering Frank sets his giant spectacle sights on a nurse who's just gotten off her shift. While the laser synth music pulsates, she finds herself trapped in a subway station bathroom (never a good spot to be at the best of times, let alone when there's the titular fellow on the loose).
End of the Line: In this Canadian low-budget horror movie, a religious cult goes after subway commuters stuck in a tunnel. That's quite a Freudian nightmare. A skittish psychiatric nurse named Karen is riding the rails when she's spooked by a menacing figure who resembles a psychotic Roger Federer, which some might call a "backhanded" compliment (thanks, folks). According to writer/director Maurice Devereaux, one day of filming took place at Toronto’s Lower Bay station, a “ghost station” used for TV and for film shoots such as The Matrix.
Murder by Phone: It’s easy (and accurate) to call this Canadian telepathic horror film "Scanners for Dummies." In Murder by Phone, aka Bells, people are killed remotely… by phone. The first victim is claimed in Toronto's Museum subway station when they answer a public pay phone (horror film characters are notorious for doing stupid things, but this is up there. Don't they know those things are caked with all sorts of gross bacteria?) Anyway, this phone gives off an electric charge and zaps the victim to death, one could say permanently de-platforming her.
Creep: On the way home from a party, a woman falls asleep at Charing Cross Road and is locked in the station. Franka Potente (Run Lola Run), is soon stalked by... well, this movie is called Creep for a reason. And the source of her fear is that time-honored staple of horror: the freakish product of a secret research lab.
An American Werewolf in London: John Landis makes use of the steep elevators and tight confines of the London Underground with a wonderfully disorienting wolf attack. It's incredible to think that in 1981, three of the very beast lupine terrors of all time were unleashed in the multiplexes: Wolfen, The Howling, and this Landis-directed classic.
Honorable Mention - Mimic: Speaking of mutants, Guillermo del Toro gets all buggy in his Gothic sci-fi hybrid, Mimic. A bit like 1988’s The Nest, Mimic is a cautionary tale about what happens when we mess with Mother Nature. And it’s another movie that makes use of the terrors beneath the mean streets of New York City when two kids looking for insect specimens, poking about where they don't belong, meet their maker.
[Christopher Lombardo is a daily subway commuter in Toronto and co-author of Death by Umbrella! The 100 Weirdest Horror Movie Weapons. He is also co-host of the Really Awful Movies Podcast.]