50 Films That Capture the Dark Side of New York City


Directed by Frank Henenlotter, 1990

I can’t speak for the others, but 42nd Street introduced me to a world of films I probably otherwise wouldn’t have gotten to see, and proved that there was a venue for these kinds of films to be shown. I started going there when I was 15. I would cut high school, take a train to Manhattan, and then walk to 42nd Street and try to see as many films as possible.

Let me describe the street to you in those days. Theater, next to theater next to theater, on both sides of the street from 7th to 8th Avenue. Yes, some theaters continued down past 6th Avenue and up 8th Avenue, but the concentration of theaters, the action, the excitement was between 7th and 8th. In between the theaters were hot-dog stands and pinball arcades and stores–clothing stores, army and navy stores, but mostly what were then called Back-Date-Magazine Stores. Stores that sold old issues of Life and Look and Time. And, of course, adult paperback, tit magazines, nudist magazines, and even some adult books. Very much the prototype of today’s porno shops.

And the theaters were embellished with elaborate displays out front. In addition to the garish one-sheets and photos, a little plywood arch was erected along the sides of the lobby and above the entrance to it so you saw a collage of stills promising sex and violence – some with painted blood added and cleavage with black tape covering the nipples. You had to enter that archway to buy tickets and enter the theater. It was more like a carnival tent than a movie theater. And passing by, all day long, all night long, a parade of people coming and going and occasionally stopping to stare.

(I don’t remember ever seeing hookers on the street. You’d see them on 8th Avenue and in Times Square itself, but I don’t ever remember seeing them on 42nd Street. But you did see men dressed as cowboys. I didn’t figure that out at the time but they were gay hustlers, all looking like the cowboys in the Marlboro cigarette commercials.)

And the films shown there were… well, almost everything. Everything except the fancy smancy Hollywood A film of the moment. That was at a fancier theater around the corner. But on 42nd Street were double features of Hollywood A films and B’s, kung-fu, horror, westerns, foreign imports, sexploitation, action, you name it.

So obviously, the street held many lures for my impressionable teenage mind. By the 80’s, those Back-Date-Magazine stores became full-blown porno shops and the first hardcore magazine and films were sold there on 42nd Street. And by then, porno films were playing theatrically on the big 42nd Street screens.

Frank Henenlotter