Tenement (1985)

Much like the building it depicts, this film is cheap and offensive to the eye…

by Adam Miller

In many ways films like TENEMENT strike me as the spiritual forefathers of today’s torture porn—ruthless, aggressive, masculine—but unlike today’s horror chic, films like TENEMENT are made without a whiff of irony or sarcasm. (The only exception being the poor faculty of their production value).

A ruthless gang has invaded a run-down tenement apartment complex and its members are hell-bent on murdering every resident. The conceit of the film is that the gang members are on the bottom floor slowly pushing the residents upwards (killing a few along the way). Meanwhile the residents set up barricades and eventually fight back against thugs who invaded their homes.

No one looks human in this movie. The gang members are wholly sociopathic—evil incarnate. The residents, while ostensibly the film’s protagonists, are empty vessels for urban stereotypes. Furthermore, none of the characters are treated humanely. Most shockingly, a single mother is captured by the gangs, raped, pummeled in the face, and ultimately killed by having a broom handled rammed into her. The point, I suppose, is to show the utmost heights of “human” depravity as being utterly sadistic.

Perhaps there is room for this kind of musing on human nature, but what compounds the problem is the fact that every character in the film is destitute. There are no middle or upper class characters in this movie, not even any WASPs per se (the closest we get are a white woman and her drug-addicted boyfriend). As a result, a white, middle-class audience need not necessarily read themselves into the depravity depicted, even though any Marxist analysis would at least partially indict the manifestation of slums as the inhuman barbarianism of capitalism.

Even if one doesn’t buy into Marxist thought, the depiction of only members of the lower class struggling through the film’s rigged “game of survival” is strikingly to the genre of futuristic survival sports films (THE RUNNING MAN (1975), DEATH RACE 2000 (1975), and ROLLERBALL (1987) for example). In those films, the dregs of society also have to survive against sadistic murderers, but those films also consistently depict the evil, white, corporatists who run the show (and who often get their come-uppance).

TENEMENT uses its low-class characters/stereotypes to supposedly make a point about human nature, but by implicitly depicting its characters as not “normal” people, it exploits them for the film’s bloody needs.

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