More on J.G. Ballard, High-Rise, Brutalism and Architectural Horror

Last week, I posted about J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise, Ben Wheatley’s recent film adaptation of said novel and about Brutalist architecture in general and its connection to science fiction. I also included several links to articles discussing the book and the movie.

In the meantime, I have come across some more articles about High-Rise. Interestingly, most articles about High-Rise I have seen come from architecture rather than film sites, which suggests that this is a movie that will appeal to architecture and design freaks. Which is okay, I mainly watched Mad Men for the vintage design porn as well. And coincidentally, Elisabeth Moss, who played Peggy Olsen in Mad Men, also appears in High-Rise.

Phaidon tackles the architectural aspects of High-Rise straight away and offers a Brutalist guide to the movie and book, courtesy of architectural historian Peter Chadwick.

Meanwhile, at uncube, Jon Astbury has an extensive interview with High-Rise director Ben Wheatley. Among other things, Ben Wheatley discusses the ideas that went into designing the look of the movie and also the problems of creating a believable building.

Ben Wheatley also discusses both the Doctor Who episode Paradise Towers, which is believed to be a sort of clandestine adaptation of Ballard’s novel, as well as David Cronenberg’s movie Shivers, which came out the same year as Ballard’s novel and bears some thematic similarities. See the original trailer for Shivers here.

Another thematically similar film about a high-rise apartment block turned scene of horror is the 1983 Dutch movie De Lift (The Lift). I don’t know if The Lift had any influence on High-Rise at all – at any rate, Ben Wheatley doesn’t mention it in the interview – but it’s a great movie nonetheless. The full movie in Dutch with English subtitles is available on YouTube, by the way. There is also an American remake from 2001 called The Shaft (also directed by Dick Maas, who directed The Lift), which goes for an Art Deco look instead of the modernist/brutalist sensibility of the original. The remake is available on YouTube as well.

For another work of high-rise and elevator related horror, also see Abwärts (Out of Order), a German thriller from 1984 starring Götz George, Hannes Jaenicke, Wolfgang Kieling and Renee Soutendijk. Once again, the movie is available on YouTube and well worth watching. Abwärts was shot in the so-called Silberturm (Silver Tower), a distinctive 1970s bank building in Frankfurt am Main and once Germany’s tallest building.

Finally, for movies featuring high-rise buildings as places of horror, there’s also the 1971 disaster classic The Towering Inferno, in which a newly completed skyscraper (portrayed by 555 California Street, a brutalist office building in San Francisco) catches fire on the night of its grand opening and kills a whole bunch of famous actors, including Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain and Jennifer Jones. A pre-murder-trial O.J. Simpson was also in the movie, though I have no idea, if his character survived or not.

Like many people who grew up during the 1970s and 1980s, I have a deeply conflicted relationship to the disaster movies of that era, because I clearly remember being terrified by many of them as a kid and not least of all because they killed off all the big stars (and for me the likes of Robert Wagner and Richard Chamberlain were big stars, because I knew them from TV, while I had no idea who Paul Newman or Steve McQueen were), which simply wasn’t supposed to happen. Meanwhile, rewatching these movies as an adult often reveals how corny and predictable they really are, while at the same time turning them into interesting period pieces.

However, no 1970s disaster movie has the potential to scare my adult self with one exception: I still don’t feel comfortable watching The Towering Inferno, though the fact that the last time I tried watching it was fairly shortly after the house across the road burned down, which caused the movie to trigger some latent PTSD I didn’t know I had, might have something to do with that.

Last but not least, there is also the original Die Hard from 1988 for another movie that features a skyscraper as a place of terror. The setting in this case was the postmodern Fox Plaza in Los Angeles, built in 1987, which to generations of moviegoers will always be the Nakatomi Plaza.

Coincidentally – and I for one did not know this – Die Hard was based on the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, which in turn was inspired by the movie The Towering Inferno.

Films and books where high-rise buildings, particularly modernist and brutalist high-rise buildings, become places of horror were definitely a thing in the 1970s and early 1980s. Sometimes the horror is due to external sources (fire, terrorists), sometimes due to the people inside the building turning upon each other and sometimes it is supernatural or semi-supernatural in nature. But it’s definitely telling that even in the 1970s and 1980s, i.e. the prime period of Brutalism, when such buildings were touted as the very embodiment of progress and modernity in the Western world, people were eagerly producing stories where the very alienating nature of such buildings leads to horror. So J.G. Ballard’s novel definitely fits into the spirit of the times, so to say.

It’s also telling that the filmic versions of these high-rise horrors are quite often set in very new buildings that were only a couple of years old at the time of filming, if that. And yes, most of them are Brutalist – the postmodern Fox/Nakatomi Plaza being the big exception here.

So with a renewed interest in Brutalism, including a renewed filmic appreciation of the style, it was only a matter of time before the architectural horror movie of the 1970s/early 1980s made a return as well. The film version of High-Rise seems to herald this return.

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