When the Movies Took Manhattan: NYC Through the Eyes of Hollywood in the 1980s

In the 1980s, movies set in New York City didn't try to gloss over its dangerous reputation.

New York City Jason In Times Square
Paramount Pictures

“The big city? Cops? Shootings? Car chases? That kind of thing?” “Well, no. No shooting stuff. It’s more like songs and dances.” — Exchange between Dabney Coleman and Kermit the Frog, The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)

“It’s like this. We live in claustrophobia, the land of steel and concrete. Trapped by dark waters. There is no escape. Nor do we want it. We’ve come to thrive on it and each other. You can’t get the adrenaline pumpin’ without the terror, good people. I love this town.” – Radio DJ, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)

“When people see New York in the movies, they want to come here.” – Mayor Ed Koch, The New York Times (1985)

Two movies released in the 1980s used the phrase “Take(s) Manhattan” in their title. The first was the latest G-rated feature starring lovable puppet characters from a popular children’s variety show. The second was the latest R-rated installment of a slasher horror franchise. Released almost exactly five years apart, they each saw their familiar – iconic even – characters visit New York City, and with slightly varying results they each made light of the rotting of the Big Apple at the time, creating pieces of virtual tourism that either dismissed or embraced the fact that the place was turning into a terrifying cesspool that no outsider should dare enter.

Turning 30 this week, The Muppets Take Manhattan arrived in the middle of 1984 on the heels of a few other mainstream hits set in New York, notably Splash, Moscow on the Hudson and Ghostbusters, the former two also being focused on characters moving to the city. It was an important election year for incumbent mayor Ed Koch, who makes a cameo in the Muppet movie. When these features were being made, actual tourism was thought to still be in a downswing following a brief peak at the end of the previous decade (following the introduction of the famous “I Love New York” campaign – an ad from which can be seen in the Muppet movie – albeit without provable connection). Crime, particularly murder, was still at a high point (though there’d be a slight dip in ‘84-’85), a problem for Koch’s reputation after two terms and a believed deterrent for visitors.

Muppets Take Manhattan

The upsurge in positive portrayals of NYC followed many years of more faithfully dark movies focused on the mean streets and the scum of the city – stories of drugs, prostitution, gang warfare, bank robberies, subway hijackings, the mob, police corruption, murder, muggings, mercenaries, the figurative prison of life in the South Bronx and a fantastically literal prison that Manhattan has become in the near future. There were a few exceptions, such as the New York-as-Metropolis of Superman and the love letters to Manhattan from Woody Allen. But the 1970s, in particular, were a time when New York’s representation was mainly owned by grittier directors like Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet as well as the crime films of the Blaxploitation genre.

“When Mayor Lindsay began his efforts to attract the movie production business, it probably didn’t occur to him or his associates that they were ushering in a new movie age of nightmare realism,” wrote Pauline Kael in her 1971 review of The French Connection, referring to Lindsay’s substantial increase in access to public property for film crews and his ending of censorship regarding what kinds of scenes could be shot in those spaces. His successor, Abe Beame, made continued attempts at wooing production, in spite of Hollywood being turned off by the city’s crime and corruption (Lumet noted in the Times article linked to above that he used to have to spend $400 a day in police payoffs, or “tips”).

Koch, a huge movie fan (and even a film critic in his later years), furthered efforts through his support of the reopening of Astoria Studios, clean-up of the NYPD and offering of accommodations and incentives to productions. There’s no evidence, however, to indicate that he influenced the more favorable content in movies made while he was in office. You’d think he’d had a hand in Splash for all its postcard-ready shots of the city’s landmarks and whitewashing of its negative traits (it’s probably a coincidence but a notable one that Tom Hanks’s character seems to be named after Woody Allen, while Daryl Hannah’s mermaid immigrant is named after an avenue known as the center of advertising). It was the perfect start, though, to a half-decade of fantastically romantic depictions of the city that never sleeps – except from Hollywood’s POV, through which it’s all dreams and nightmares.

Who could guess via the Muppets’ singing and dancing through Manhattan that in reality, it was then even more of a “horror city” than when Kael labeled it as such 13 years earlier? Sure, there’s a brief hostage situation involving Camilla and Gonzo, and later there’s a purse snatching in Central Park where Miss Piggy gets to remind us she’s no one to mess with, but especially the latter sequence portrays the crime situation in New York as a weak issue. Similar comedic downplays of serious problems facing the city would come in the following years with such movies as The Brother From Another Planet, Crocodile Dundee, Batteries Not Included, The Secret of My Success, Three Men and a Baby, Coming to America, Short Circuit 2 and Big, all of these involving a fish out of water in the Big Apple, whether foreigner or alien or robot or child.

As the decade and Koch’s mayoralty rolled on, the crime rates in New York City kept rolling upward, and mainstream movies chose to confront the reality rather than ignore it like a bunch of Tavern on the Green diners ignoring a man visibly being attacked by a demon dog in the park outside the restaurant. Gags were designed around the violence on the streets such as one in Big incorporating footage of The French Connection for a punchline that must have been informed by Kael’s review (“the police sirens in the movie are screaming outside”). But usually, it was still depicted as a minor problem that shouldn’t deter international tourists. Foreigners like Mick “Crocodile” Dundee and Coming to America’s Prince Akeem thwarted armed robbery like it was nothing. Coincidentally, these years were in fact a boom for real international visitors, though mainly because of a weak American dollar.

By the summer of 1989, aloof acceptance of New York’s evils reached its satirical high point. A sequel to the New York-as-haunted-house blockbuster Ghostbusters arrived with the notion that the city and its inhabitants are not intrinsically terrible but under the spell of a river of mood slime flowing underground. And it was criticized for sappily zapping away all the negativity through as symbolic a device as having the Statue of Liberty walk through the streets of Manhattan giving the people a reminder to be joyful and nice. Nobody wanted to buy that. New York’s edginess was now part of its appeal, with tourists presumably hoping to see hookers, homeless, drug dealers – even be mugged themselves – as if a trip to the city wasn’t complete without such “attractions.”

These thrills were part of a “horror city” not in the way Kael meant it but rather in the way they’re part of a horror movie, for our entertainment. So, it made perfect sense that a horror movie series would close out this period of New York in film. Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, which turns 25 at the end of this month, spoofed the city’s image and the way that image was both a fear and a desire for people. Jason Voorhees was an extreme, immortal serial killer, but the gag is that he didn’t seem that out of place in the dark and dirty NYC of the late ’80s. “Welcome to New York!” says a waitress, somewhat owning the reputation of her city, when a couple of teenage outsiders tell her a maniac is trying to kill them. The joke summed up the concept of the movie so much that it was a central part of its marketing.

Jason Takes Manhattan Poster

Another part of the Jason Takes Manhattan campaign was such a negative send-up of New York that at least the state government stepped in to stop it – that would be a poster where Jason is stabbing through an “I (heart) NY” advertisement (a teaser is also mistakenly said to have featured the “I Love New York” jingle, but that was, in fact, the “Theme From New York, New York”). While most of its predecessors could still be primarily seen as pro-NYC in spite of their jokes and depictions of crime, etc., the Friday the 13th sequel is pretty much all grim portrayal, including its own strange river of slime – really sewage – pumping through subterranean tunnels. Never mind that it opens with a radio DJ stating that the “terror” is something beloved by many New Yorkers. That didn’t mean potential tourists, other than fellow madmen, would agree with the wry sentiment.

It didn’t help that the movie was barely even shot in Manhattan, with the majority of its already limited scenes set in the city being filmed instead in Vancouver. But in a way that meant it wasn’t quite a contradiction to Koch’s 1985 claim that just the sight of New York in the movies is enough of an ad for tourism. Still, artificial depictions could be favorable, as implicit with the Broadway sets of Manhattan locations in the stage musical production put on by Kermit the Frog and friends in The Muppets Take Manhattan. That show and in turn the movie was nostalgic for an earlier time for New York that might never have truly existed, one of song and dance rather than shootings and car chases. Plus, anything else attempting to show New York in the 1980s as safe and clean was as fake as Jason Takes Manhattan’s slightly exaggerated grimness shot 2400 miles away.

1989 was the beginning of NYC’s worst hotel occupancy dip yet, and it was the end of Koch’s time in office. In the next half-decade, tourism was way back down, murder was way back up and depictions of the grittiness of the city were back to relative realism with mainstream movies acknowledging tragedies involving crime. Even in a fantasy, like 1990’s Ghost, and a fairy tale, like 1991’s The Fisher King, good characters are brutally killed, seemingly by randomly acting scum of the city. In the drama Regarding Henry, the protagonist is left brain-damaged by an armed burglar in a corner store. The crime film genre was also back in full force with titles like King of New York, New Jack City, Juice, and period mob movies such as Goodfellas and Carlito’s Way. Not surprisingly, a comedy like Quick Change was all about escaping from the hellhole NYC has become.

For at least five whole years, though, Hollywood likely fooled a lot of people with its magical, ultimately illusionary takes on New York. If only we could know for sure just how many tourists visited the Big Apple after being inspired by the Muppets, or even after being inspired by Jason, for those wanting the adrenaline rush. Was it they who took Manhattan, or was it the movies’ Manhattan that took them?

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.