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Blight on the Big Apple: Movies Based on True Crimes in New York City

The truth behind the city's grit and glamor. 

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  • Photo Credit: Touchstone Pictures

New York, New York—the city that never sleeps, legendary for its grit as much as its glamour.

But what if it’s not the hectic pace of life in the five boroughs that keeps the city awake, but rather a stark dread that someone or something terrifying might be lurking just out of sight in the sprawling urban landscape, waiting for an opportunity to pounce? 

From serial killers to stone-cold assassins, you can never be sure just who might be sitting next to you on the subway or standing in line at your local bodega.  

With its stunning architecture and iconic locations, New York is no stranger to cinema; in fact, it’s frequently a supporting character—if not an outright star—in frothy rom-coms and moving dramas.

But aspiring Carrie Bradshaws beware: There may be a lot to love, but there’s far more to the city than its many charms. Take a bite out of the Big Apple with these movies based on some of New York City’s most notorious true crimes.

Taxi Driver (1976)

Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle—the deranged titular taxi driver famous for asking that shady creep in the mirror, “You talkin’ to me?”—wasn’t a complete work of fiction:

According to screenwriter Paul Schrader, Bickle was based in part on a would-be assassin named Arthur Bremer, who kept detailed diaries leading up to his attempted murder of Presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972, as well as Manson Family member Squeaky Fromme’s failed assassination of President Gerald Ford. 

Interestingly, Taxi Driver itself would go on to play a role in an attempt on yet another President’s life: After seeing the Scorsese film, John Hinckley Jr. developed a dangerous obsession with the young Jodie Foster and shot President Ronald Reagan in a deliriously misguided bid for her attention. 

Without a Trace (1983)

One of the most tragic high-profile kidnapping cases in New York history was the disappearance of Etan Patz, a six-year-old boy who vanished in 1979 while walking to his school bus stop in SoHo.

The case remained unsolved for decades until a suspect was finally tried and convicted of Etan’s kidnapping and murder in 2017. 

This film, about a similarly vanished young boy, is loosely based on the case, but with an ending that is—spoiler alert—decidedly less bleak. 

The Preppie Murder (1989)

Forget Patrick Bateman: This made-for-TV movie offers a sensationalized account of the real-life murder of Jennifer Levin, who was strangled during a sexual encounter in Central Park by Robert Chambers, a clean-cut prep school type (dubbed the Preppy Killer by the media) who claimed the murder was the unfortunate result of rough sex gone awry.

William Baldwin portrays Chambers with the requisite dead-eyed smarminess, while a pre-Twin Peaks Lara Flynn Boyle plays Levin. 

Summer of Sam (1999)

David Berkowitz—better known by his chilling, cryptic moniker Son of Sam—is probably the most famous serial killer in New York City history.

Between 1976 and 1977, Berkowitz terrorized the city, shooting couples in parked cars seemingly at random and sending taunting letters to the press bragging about his crimes and professing his allegiance to his neighbor’s “demonic” dog, Sam. 

Spike Lee uses these murders, as well as the oppressive heat of a New York City summer plagued by citywide blackouts and the birth of punk rock, to create a feeling of ever-spiraling anxiety in viewers.

More than a mere serial killer movie, Summer of Sam is a true cinematic experience from one of the city’s most quintessential filmmakers. 

The Iceman (2012)

You can’t talk about crime in New York without touching on organized crime, and Mafia movies are a subgenre unto themselves.

But this is no Godfather or Goodfellas; instead, Michael Shannon plays Richard Kuklinski, a self-professed assassin who claims to have murdered hundreds of people for profit, as well as participating in such high-profile hits as the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. 

Although most of Kuklinski’s wilder claims remain uncorroborated, he was convicted of five counts of murder prior to his death in 2006. And the nickname? That comes from his attempt to dispose of one of his victims by literally putting the body on ice.  

The Long Island Serial Killer (2013)

This movie focuses on a case that’s particularly fascinating because it seems to be in the process of finally being solved by investigators. 

Between 1993 and 2011, the remains of nearly a dozen people—mostly sex workers who used Craigslist to connect with potential clients—were found in the vicinity of Gilgo Beach in Long Island. 

When this movie, also called The Gilgo Beach Murders, premiered more than a decade ago, there were no publicly known suspects in the case, but in July 2023 police arrested Rex Heuermann and charged him with the murders of several of the Long Island Serial Killer’s victims.

Watch this film as a precursor to Heuermann’s pending trial. 

American Horror Story: NYC (2022)

No stranger to urban strife, seasons of Ryan Murphy’s cult favorite horror anthology series have already centered on LA and New Orleans, so it’s natural that New York has its turn too. 

While this eleventh season is characteristically chaotic, drawing on many different sources of sinister inspiration, its central storyline—a serial killer stalking Manhattan’s gay clubs and bars in the early 1980s—is based on a real-life predator who stalked New York’s LGBTQ+ community in the ‘70s, while law enforcement turned a blind eye due to homophobia and bigotry. 

In 2001, Richard Rogers (also known as the Last Call Killer) was finally charged with two counts of murder and eventually sentenced to life in prison for his crimes, although the true number of his victims—suspected to be much higher than the two he was charged with—remains unknown.