10 Great Films Set in Seedy Subcultures

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A poetry major (Emma Roberts) finances her literary dreams with a gig at a sex shop in Scott Coffey’s new indie comedy, Adult World. For some critics, the story was nothing more than another “oh-poor-me take on post-collegiate struggles in the cold, cruel 21st Century.” Still, we were mostly interested in the setting, which seems ripe for colorful characterizations, as past films set in seedy subcultures have proven. Here are ten movies that ventured to the sordid underground for our amusement and fascination.

Porn Theater/ La chatte à deux têtes

While major cities sanitize their former red-light districts, and Internet porn dominates the smut market, XXX theaters are rapidly vanishing. Jacques Nolot invites us into that forgotten world in Porn Theater (aka La chatte à deux têtes), where a Parisian X-rated cinema is a den of sex, but also acceptance. Nolot captures the nightly encounters between unhappily married men, closeted men, lonely men with nowhere else to turn, and transvestites without a judgmental eye. The rituals of these communities are treated with refreshing frankness, and glimpses of conversations between theaters workers give voice to the silent acts taking place under the glow of the big screen.

Taxi Driver

Robert De Niro’s unhinged, insomniac taxi driver Travis Bickle spends his nights driving up and down New York City streets, frequenting 42nd Street’s seediest porn theaters, befriending teen prostitutes, and stalking people of interest. Scorsese depicts Bickle’s bleak and grimy world with grainy textures, low angles, and moody backdrops, mirroring the character’s descent into madness and the noise inside Bickle’s head.

The Howling

Welcome to The Colony. The residents of this creepy, secluded resort in Joe Dante’s werewolf film enjoy stalking women, watching sleazy porn flicks, shapeshifter campfire sex, tearing each other apart with their claws, and indulging their nymphomaniac homewrecker side. News reporter Karen White gets to experience the dark pleasures of the strange, lycanthropic community when she is ordered to get a little R & R at the countryside retreat.

Magdalena Viraga

Capturing a slice of East L.A.’s seedy bars, dance halls, and brothels, the inner life of a prostitute, who is blamed for the death of her pimp, is unraveled. Experimental indie filmmaker Nina Menkes takes a stark, minimalist approach to the woman’s metaphysical journey, using fragments of Anne Sexton, Mary Daly, and Gertrude Stein’s writings amid wordless passages.

Peeping Tom

By day, Karlheinz Böhm’s mild-mannered Mark Lewis works at a movie studio. By night, he stalks the backstreets of London with his camera, searching for his next victim. He’s obsessed with capturing the face of fear, just moments before death. Mark works for a seedy newsagent, snapping nude photos of women (one played by real-life British pinup star, Pamela Green). His models are prostitutes, covered in bruises, and disfigured in some way (like the woman with a cleft lip). The clandestine sessions are hardly glamorous. Peeping Tom’s sleazy side simmers with bursts of violence, similar to the tortured Mark’s twisted desires.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

The owls are not what they seem in the world of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Neither is the roadhouse bar where we find Laura Palmer getting high and dancing nude with a couple of pervy criminals. In the front room, Julee Cruise performs the ethereal “Questions in a World of Blue” for patrons. The back room is a sleazier hangout spot, and anything goes. Remember, this is the same town where the wealthiest men and pillars of the community frequent a brothel across the Canadian border, One Eyed Jack’s.

Eastern Promises

David Cronenberg leads us into an underground Russian prostitution and crime ring in Eastern Promises. The criminal secret society runs by its own laws, and the thieves’ code isn’t for the squeamish.

Anything by William Friedkin

Director William Friedkin is most at home on the fringes. A heady blend of sex, crime, greed, apathy, and corruption permeates every film — taking us from New York City’s leather bars and cruising subculture (circa 1980, in Cruising), to the noir trailer parks of Killer Joe. Friedkin continues to find new ways to peel back the skin of society’s dark underbelly, confronting us with its dark mystique.

Touch of Evil

Orson Welles’ atmospheric tale of corruption told with virtuoso camera movements follows shadowy figures in cramped interrogation rooms, claustrophobic elevators, and into the streets. The director’s extreme camera angles, stunning tracking shots, and striking lighting heighten the anxiety and otherworldliness in his story of kidnapping, murder, and an unscrupulous police force in a Mexican border town. These are the quintessential characters you don’t want to meet in a dark alley.

Hardcore

Paul Schrader wrote and directed Hardcore, which finds George C. Scott’s businessman searching for his runaway teenage daughter in sleazy sex shops, massage parlors, strip joints, and underground porn sets. Made just a few years after he worked on the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Schrader is clearly recapturing a similar world where the faceless, nameless people survive by any means necessary.