A lot of films are made in Los Angeles; the second most populous city in the US is the epicenter of the Entertainment Industry, home base to the biggest and most prolific production studios. But Los Angeles is also the setting of many films; sure, it helps to set your movie in the same place you’re filming, but in some cases, the “City of Angels” becomes almost like a character as well.
Los Angeles has a recognizable skyline, and the boardwalk at Venice Beach has become the quintessential California strand. But as anyone who spends any time in L.A. can attest, it’s not your average American city. The sprawling geography necessitates a pervasive car culture; the air feels toxic and the streets in many communities are mean. The Entertainment Industry’s effect on the city cannot be understated; L.A. continues to draw thousands of new residents every year as dreams of Hollywood stardom prove too difficult to resist.
Not only are the following 15 horror movies set in L.A., the city transcends mere setting in each of them, sometimes becoming a de facto protagonist or antagonist. Welcome to the Jungle!
Starry Eyes (2014)
Starry Eyes follows Sarah (Alex Essoe) an aspiring Hollywood starlet chasing her dreams while working as a waitress. When an opportunity for stardom presents itself, she realizes that fame comes with an exceedingly high cost—nothing less than a complete transformation of self. Starry Eyes is about the lengths people will go to achieve prominence in the Entertainment Industry. There’s a surrealist, arthouse aesthetic that will resonate with fans of David Lynch.
Hellraiser: Inferno (2000)
Craig Sheffer plays morally-challenged Detective Joseph Thorne in Hellraiser: Inferno, the fifth installment of the Hellraiser Franchise. This stand-alone harkens back to hard-boiled noir films that were popular in the 1960’s, where Los Angeles is presented as a city teeming with drugs, violence, sadism, and devastation. While pursuing a serial killer known only as “The Engineer”, Detective Thorne risks entering a realm of eternal suffering.
Scream 3 (2000)
The 3rd Chapter of the Scream franchise is a tongue-in-cheek meta-movie that seeks to further blur the line between fiction and reality. It takes place on the set of “Stab 3”, where the most recent incarnation of Ghostface has sinister designs for the film’s cast and crew. Hidden in the subtext: Yet another examination of the lengths some people will go to “make it” in Hollywood.
The Island (2005)
The Island is thematically linked to a stereotypical obsession with youth and beauty often associated with the Entertainment Industry, and Los Angeles in general. In a not-to-distant future, Hollywood’s social elite create adult clones of themselves to use for “spare parts” as they become necessary. The horror arrives when the unsuspecting clones realize their intended purpose.
L.A.’s famous downtown skyline becomes the backdrop for a massive alien invasion in this epic sci-fi thriller. As always, there’s something cathartic about seeing the mighty city reduced to rubble (especially for those of us who used to live in L.A. but managed to escape). It’s essentially a reimagining of the Bible’s Sodom and Gomora, when a sinful community is wiped off the map as karmic retribution for collective transgressions.
The Eye (2008)
The American remake of the J-Horror classic The Eye is set in Los Angeles. Where else would blindness be more terrifying than the uncaring streets of L.A.? What other city holds as many secrets, manifesting as lost souls doomed to slog through a never-ending purgatory? Los Angeles is a difficult place to survive even with all faculties intact.
Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)
During her ongoing saga to take down the corrupt Umbrella Corp, Alice (played by Milla Jovovich) finds herself trapped atop a huge prison complex in the city formerly known as Los Angeles. Panoramic shots reveal a decimated L.A. that’s barely recognizable, a corpse of its former vibrant self. The fact that the city is overrun with zombies is also fitting in a sardonic way, as LA residents are often compared to the kind of rabid, cannibalistic creatures found in films like 28 Days Later.
The Purge (2013) and The Purge: Anarchy (2014)
Is there a more perfect setting for an annual night of consequence-free mayhem than Los Angeles? The city’s violent history proves it’s a tinderbox always just a spark away from exploding into riots. The political subtext buried in the films also fits L.A. perfectly; it’s a city long plagued by class disparities, disenfranchisement, and corrupt governmental manipulations. In the world of The Purge, a neighbor may smile at you one minute, then attempt to plant a machete in your back a few hours later.
This is The End (2013)
Watching some of Hollywood’s best young actors enduring Hell on Earth is more satisfying than it has any right to be in Seth Rogan’s apocalyptic horror comedy, This is the End. Let’s face it, we love it when celebrities get knocked off their pedestals—and into a fiery abyss! It’s yet another send-up of L.A.’s celebrity and fame-obsessed culture that’s brilliantly self-aware and thick with satire.
Lord of Illusions (1995)
Paranormal Detective Harry D’Amour (played by Scott Bakula) may be based on the East Coast, but Lord of Illusions finds him in Los Angeles investigating a resurrection cult with possible ties to a famous stage magician. The film, based on a short story by Clive Barker, explores L.A.’s occult subcultures while also addressing the concept of celebrity worship.
Night of the Comet (1984)
The city of Los Angeles is decimated after a strange comet is observed in the night sky; most of the city’s residents have deteriorated into red dust and those who survived have become cannibalistic zombies. Two stereotypical “Valley Girls”, who endured the comet phenomenon intact, do what any other local teens would do in this situation: They go to the mall. It’s definitely a condemnation of the kind of materialism that runs rampant in L.A. (and, to be fair, many other American cities, where a culture of consumption has become the norm).
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
While “every town has an Elm Street”, the original Nightmare is set in Los Angeles, where a picturesque suburban landscape masks unimaginable terror. The franchise returns to L.A. 10 years later for the meta-sequel, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, where another insidious aspect of the Entertainment Industry is exposed: Robert England (who plays Freddy Krueger) and Heather Langenkamp (who plays Nancy Thompson) find themselves unable to escape the legacies of their horror movie personas.
They Live (1988)
If it seems like everyone is Los Angeles is an alien, maybe it’s because they are! That’s the idea behind John Carpenter’s invasion horror They Live. Donning a pair of special sunglasses reveals the world as it truly is, and LA is overrun with terrifying entities promoting a culture of obedience and consumption. Half dystopian nightmare, half B-movie campiness, They Live is 100% entertaining. Carpenter’s scorching satire is an underrated cult classic and L.A. is the perfect setting.
Barton Fink (1991)
A lauded New York playwright, seduced by the prospect of fame and fortune, moves to Los Angeles to work for a major movie studio. He’s quickly disenchanted when ordered to produce soulless Hollywood drivel. Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen admit that the Earle Hotel, where much of the movie takes place, was inspired by The Overlook from The Shining. Barton Fink illustrates how lonely and isolated life in L.A. can be, which is highly ironic considering how populous the city actually is.
Lost Highway (1997)
David Lynch has a penchant for exploring the horrors and idiosyncrasies of Los Angeles in uniquely disturbing ways, as is best exemplified in 1997’s Lost Highway. Famous musician, Fred Madison (played by Bill Pullman) finds himself in a dangerous love triangle when a murderous mobster sets sights on his wife. Madison is pursued by a camera-wielding man in black before a shift in reality offers him a second chance for love—or eternal madness.
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