10 great tower block films

To celebrate the release of Ben Wheatley’s towering new adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s cult novel High-Rise, we champion 10 more tall tales set in skyscrapers and high-rise apartments.

10 March 2016

By Dylan Cave

High-Rise (2015)

You’d think that tower blocks and cinema are visually incompatible. Reaching towards the heavens, high rises emphasise the vertical whereas movies, resplendent in anamorphic widescreen, love the horizontal. The perspectives don’t really fit. What is the most dynamic way to photograph giant stationary towers in a format described by Fritz Lang as designed “for snakes and funerals”?

Yet high-rise buildings have a fine lineage in film, not least in Lang’s own Metropolis (1927). Skyscrapers and apartment blocks might pose a photographic challenge but narratively they’re a scriptwriter’s dream. The self-contained communities of shimmering glass towers reflect society at large, the miniature social networks housed within them, a microcosm of human interaction, status and vulnerability.

This month Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley’s eagerly anticipated High-Rise is released in UK theatres. It’s a faithful adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s acclaimed 1975 novel that satirises the idealism of modernist architects such as Le Corbusier and Ernő Goldfinger. The film’s depiction of a utopian tower block that swiftly descends into bacchanalian chaos and debauchery powerfully captures Ballard’s bleak view of human nature and civilisation, also featuring a terrific cast, exquisite production design and Wheatley’s macabre brand of humour.

To toast the release of High-Rise we present 10 movies about tower blocks. These films expose the visual and psychological impact of the high-rise building on the human psyche, while also using them as excellent locations for thrills and terror. The focus here is on the movies that have tower blocks at their absolute core. Alas, it means that some famous skyscraper set pieces are absent. There is no North by Northwest (1959) title sequence here, nor Mission: Impossible IV’s Tom Cruise on the side of the Burj Khalifa. There’s not even King Kong atop the Empire State building. 

Instead, it’s 10 stor(e)ys of high-rise and humanity.

Safety Last! (1923)

Directors: Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor

Safety Last! (1923)

Tower block: Bolton Building, Los Angeles, (12 storeys)
Filmed at: International Savings & Exchange Bank Building (1907-54), Los Angeles

The best performers in the golden age of silent comedy knew how to draw inspired gags from design and architecture. Buster Keaton’s One Week (1920), Laurel and Hardy’s Liberty (1930) or Charlie Chaplin’s building site antics in Pay Day (1922) are fine examples. Keaton’s collapsing house stunt in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), where he narrowly misses fatal injury via an open window frame, still thrills to this day. The best silent-era high rise routine, however, remains Harold Lloyd’s iconic climb up the ‘Bolton building’ in Safety Last!

In the film, Harold is forced to climb the outside of the 12-storey building in order to win $1,000 and his fiancée’s hand in marriage. Lloyd builds a series of routines as he clambers up each floor, from pigeon attack to disgruntled decorators and an over-enthusiastic crowd of supporters. Every gag tops the last until he hangs, famously, from the hands of the building’s clock face. At only 12 floors (an extra two were added to LA’s 10-storey International Savings & Exchange Bank Building) the high rise is one of this list’s smallest but this matters little when its protagonist is hanging for dear life. The conception of the stunts, the daring execution and the powerful sense of scale achieved by Lloyd and his crew is astounding.

Metropolis (1927)

Director: Fritz Lang

Metropolis (1927)

Tower block: Joh Fredersen’s Tower of Babel & the Metropolis
Filmed at: Babelsberg Film Studio (1912-present), Germany

Ballard’s High-Rise is completely original in exploring the debauched chaos that swiftly spreads through its tower block, but the social strata laid out at the beginning of Wheatley’s film has earlier cinematic antecedents. Chief among these is Metropolis, whose giant tower blocks represent the aspirational imagination and industrial achievement of its futuristic society. However, the pleasures of this brave new world are not universal. The metropolis is a deeply unequal society, and the city towers operate a strict hierarchy. Privileged aristocrats such as industrialist Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) enjoy a luxury lifestyle in his ‘tower of babel’ while the city’s oppressed workers exist in dilapidated slums. 

The class structure within the high rise, is a powerful tool for scriptwriters and crops up in countless movies, including many on this list. In science fiction, it works to real effect in Blade Runner (1982) where the Tyrell Corporation towers above the dank streets of LA, with the head of the company cocooned in a gilded penthouse cage. And in Robocop (1987), the OCP company’s corrupt senior president has a metaphorically perfect demise, as he’s blasted through windows of his exclusive boardroom that operates high above the clouds, and descends flailing onto the anarchic streets below. These and other cinematic towers of the future, take their symbolic cue from Lang’s silent classic.

The Towering Inferno (1974)

Director: John Guillermin

The Towering Inferno (1974)

Tower block: The Glass Tower, San Francisco (138 storeys)
Filmed at: Hyatt Regency (built 1973), San Francisco

Acclaimed as the best of the 1970s disaster movies, producer Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno was a huge financial success and snapped up three Oscars on release. Sadly, its gripping premise – about 300 guests trapped at the top of a blazing tower – is let down by some sequences that now feel terribly dated. The problems occur in the storytelling rather than the filming. Major plot points, such as a helicopter accident that prevents rescue from the rooftop, simply don’t convince, and the amount of safety features that coincidentally fail is almost laughable. When you find yourself asking if it is really possible to break a window on the 138th floor with an easy-chair, you know the film is lacking something.

However, for all its shortcomings, The Towering Inferno absolutely crystallises the contradiction between the imaginative potential of the high-rise and its limits in reality. The architectural ambition of its fictional Glass Tower is celebrated by the film, but it also indulges our fears about the hazards of its actual existence. The contrast is played out through the performances of its leading stars, with Paul Newman as the successful designer of the tower and Steve McQueen as the blue-collar fireman who sorts out its mess. For all the impressive effects and heart-stopping danger, it’s their interplay that keeps the film truly alight.

Shivers (1975)

Director: David Cronenberg

Shivers (1975)

Tower block: Starliner Towers, Starliner Island, Montreal (15 storeys)
Filmed at: Nun’s Island (built 1962), Montreal

While The Towering Inferno was thrilling international audiences in the winter of 1974, over in Quebec, David Cronenberg was filming an altogether darker treatise on the terrors of the high rise. In Shivers (aka The Parasite Murders) a contagious parasite infects the residents of an exclusive apartment block, sending them into a frenzy of violent rages and sexual desire. 

Cronenberg tears down the ostentatious trappings of the aspirational tower-block community, depicting their quick descent into libidinous excess with dark humour. The parasites travel through the building using communal passageways, public conveniences and the plumbing system. This network of shared amenities and the apartments’ close proximity to each other helps the contagion to spread swiftly. In Shivers, this is the true terror of high-rises: an exclusive tower block society can become claustrophobic, closed off from the wider world and develop a skewed sense of social norms. At the end of the film, the only inhabitant left uninfected has little choice but to join his friends and neighbours, becoming part of Shivers’ crazed community.

The director’s sense of high-rise entrapment and the overpowering influence of the contained social network re-emerge in later tower-block horrors, such as [Rec] (2007).

Die Hard (1988)

Director: John McTiernan

Die Hard (1988)

Tower block: Nakatomi Plaza, Los Angeles (35 storeys)
Filmed at: Fox Plaza (built 1987), Los Angeles

Visiting his estranged wife on Christmas Eve, John McClane (Bruce Willis) narrowly escapes the hijacking of an exclusive party on the 30th floor of the Nakatomi tower. Trapped in the building and facing the hijackers alone, McClane attempts to raise the alarm to rescue the hostages and prevent their captors from stealing $650m.

Die Hard is a concept movie in the truest sense, bringing together the best elements of the heist film, hostage movie, rogue cop thriller and disaster epic. It shares with The Towering Inferno a fascination with the hazards that tower blocks can pose to life and limb, but the film’s dynamism comes from Bruce Willis’ confrontation with the organised criminals. As he struggles around the high-rise negotiating the dangers of the building’s mechanics and its sheer height, the top five floors of the tower block become an action-movie adventure playground. Die Hard’s skyscraper may be a site of physical danger, but McClane’s interaction with it isn’t fearful, it’s exhilarating!

A Short Film about Love (1988)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

A Short Film about Love (1988)

Tower block: Służew, Warsaw
Filmed at: Służew, Warsaw

In A Short Film about Love, 19-year-old Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) becomes obsessed with Magda, an older woman who lives in the flat across the courtyard of his apartment block. He steals a telescope to spy on her and begins interfering with her love life when he becomes jealous of her lovers.

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1988 feature is adapted from his Dekalog series and explores the nature of love, depicting the joy it can bring and the despair that occurs when it fails. Woven into the story is a deft illustration of the psychology of apartment block living, particularly around the limits of privacy. Tomek is at the heart of the high-rise community, working as postman and milkman and using his work to manipulate Magda’s day to day life. His obsession with Magda, although sexual, is constrained by his naivety and Tomek’s affections remain within the boundaries of propriety, his actions less so. Tomek’s voyeurism, and later physical intrusions into Magda’s life, exposes the lack of privacy that Magda has in her tower block. Overlooked and living on top of each other, is anyone in the apartment block ever truly alone?

Land of the Dead (2005)

Director: George A. Romero

Land of the Dead (2005)

Tower block: Fiddler’s Green, Pittsburgh
Filmed at: Toronto & Pittsburg

Occasionally, the tower block can dominate a movie despite relatively little action taking place within it, as in George A. Romero’s fictional Fiddler’s Green in Land of the Dead. Set in the near future, but several years after the first zombie attacks, Land of the Dead depicts civilisation collapsed into feudalism. Dennis Hopper’s corrupt businessman Paul Kaufman lives at the top of Fiddler’s Green and runs a black market economy that keeps the tower’s affluent residents in a cocoon of privilege.

Much of the action happens in the countryside that surrounds the story’s Pittsburg location, but the tower block, and the social strata it represents, informs nearly every scene in the film. Romero, who already staged a bravura tower-block set piece at the beginning of Dawn of the Dead (1978), takes pleasure in eviscerating the tower block residents at the denouement of this film. When the inevitable zombie takeover actually occurs, the Fiddler’s Green tower takes on a new significance. A beacon of aspiration in a decimated world, the tower’s promise of civilisation is attractive to all impoverished communities, humans and zombies alike. In Land of the Dead, even zombies want a taste of the high-life.

Red Road (2006)

Director: Andrea Arnold

Red Road (2006)

Tower block: Red Road flats, Glasgow (28-31 storeys)
Filmed at: Red Road flats (1962-2015), Glasgow

Kate Dickie plays Jackie, a grieving widow who works as a CCTV operator. Alone and adrift, she fills her dull days by watching the tawdry lives of the inhabitants of Glasgow’s tough Red Road estate through the security camera system. On one occasion she recognises the man responsible for changing her life and sets about pursuing him. 

Andrea Arnold’s debut feature is a masterpiece of visual storytelling, that won the director the jury prize at Cannes. It shares something with A Short Film about Love in that Jackie, like Tomek, spies on the residents of an apartment block and begins an obsession with someone that leads to her actively disrupting their life. However, the apartment blocks here take on a different function than in Kieslowski’s film. Jackie’s engagement with the characters she has previously observed on the Red Road estate signifies her slow re-emergence from grief stricken numbness and passive observation. Despite their grim reputation (they were eventually destroyed in 2015), the east Glasgow tower blocks are where Jackie finds a new lease of life.

Man on Wire (2008)

Director: James Marsh

Man on Wire (2008)

Tower block: World Trade Centre, New York (110 storeys)
Filmed at: World Trade Centre (1970-2001), New York

In 1974, the week that the Watergate scandal hit the news, Frenchman Philippe Petit broke into New York’s World Trade Centre and staged a dramatic 45-minute tightrope walk between the north and south towers. Using archive footage and dramatic reconstructions, Man on Wire tells the story of Petit’s daring stunt from conception to execution.

James Marsh’s documentary acknowledges the tragedy that was to befall the twin towers of the World Trade Centre but is most concerned with celebrating their majesty. The sheer scale of the towers against Petit’s distinct black outline is breathtaking and the stills that capture Petit on his journey between the 110-storey buildings have an ethereal quality. It makes the jaw-dropping feat of his wire walk surprisingly moving and creates a beautiful image in commemoration of the towers.

Dredd (2012)

Director: Pete Travis

Dredd (2012)

Tower block: Peach Trees, Mega City One (200 storeys)
Filmed at: Cape Town & Johannesburg

2011 seemed to be the unofficial year of the tower block movie with several films – The Raid, Tower Block, Tower Heist and Attack the Block – set in or around high-rise buildings. But they were all trumped the following year by Alex Garland and Pete Travis’s Dredd, a long-awaited return of the 2000AD character to the big screen. Abandoning any origin story or, indeed, much exposition, Dredd throws its audience into the engaging plot and virtuoso but violent action.

We follow Dredd and trainee judge Anderson as they climb the 200 storeys of Peach Trees, a tower block controlled and locked down by crime boss Ma-Ma. While the outnumbered judges make their gradual ascent to the top of the tower block, Ma-Ma and her gang peddle Slo-Mo, a new street drug that slows the user’s perceptions to a lethargic but vivid pace. Cue the drawn-out deaths of victims hurled off the top of the 200th floor – we experience their sluggish but inevitable demises in horrific detail.

As a vision of a futuristic high-rise, Peach Trees absolutely terrifies. Far from the Le Corbusier dream, or even that of Metropolis, Dredd shows us the tower block as failed attempt at civilised communal living. It is, in fact, a vision of hell.

Penthouse suite: The Crimson Permanent Assurance (1983)

Director: Terry Gilliam

The Crimson Permanent Assurance (1983)

Tower block: The Crimson Permanent Assurance, City of London (five storeys)
Filmed at: Lloyd’s Register Building, Fenchurch Street, London

A cheeky extra tier – the penthouse suite of this top 10, if you like – is a mention for Terry Gilliam’s short film The Crimson Permanent Assurance, made to accompany Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life in 1983. It tells the tall tale of a team of aged insurance underwriters who overcome their yuppie managers, commandeer the Lloyd’s Register for Shipping building and use it as a pirate vessel. Escaping London’s Fenchurch Street, they take the mini-high rise to the glass-gilded skyscrapers of the world’s modern financial districts and wage war. A terrific swashbuckler and unique tower block adventure, Gilliam’s short almost upstages the main feature it supports. At one point the main film is actually invaded by the aged pirates, the scene disrupted by the unexpected image of their sailing tower block.

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