Welcome to Scene of the Scream – a monthly column investigating the settings in which horror takes place. Locations are a crucial part of the genre – from gothic castles to suburban high schools, where the horror happens often has a big influence on the story itself. Each month this column will explore a real or fictional location in the horror genre or set design from a particular film, and look at their influence on the themes and characters that inhabit them.
Mary Harron’s dark satire American Psycho (1999) explores the excesses and moral bankruptcy of Wall Street and high society New York of the late 1980s, following the social life and psychopathic crimes of corporate banker and serial murderer Patrick Bateman. The set design and locations in the film reflect the themes of amoral greed and obsession with status explored in the film, and embody the character of Bateman – the emotional void at the heart of the film.
Bateman‘s apartment is a picture of expensive, tasteful minimalism – an aspirational space that (strangely, given the film’s overall tone) has inspired magazine style pieces on how to replicate for yourself this “vision of modernist Eighties chic.” We first see it on screen as Bateman goes about his morning routine, and the first couple of shots are of just the apartment itself, tracking through the empty rooms like a real estate agent’s promotional video. The color scheme is entirely black, white and silver, and the furniture made from glass, leather and chrome – an exaggeratedly hyper-masculine aesthetic. We immediately get a sense of Bateman‘s character (or lack thereof) from his surroundings: obsessively neat, ordered and devoid of warmth. Production designer Gideon Ponte has noted that their decision to use pure white on the walls was unusual: “typically in film, you never use white; you normally drop it down a couple of tones” . The result is “sort of jarring – it’s not easy on the eye”, and so has the effect of making the viewer feel uneasy in this space, and around the character of Bateman.
The contents of the apartment reflect the culture which Bateman inhabits, and suggests the values important to him and his associates. The furniture consists of expensive pieces by iconic designers: Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chairs, a Roche Bobois sofa, Paolo Piva table and a single Charles Rennie Mackintosh Hill House chair, which is displayed in a corner like a sculpture. The sheer amount of expensive designer items tells us that the occupant has a great deal of money, and seemingly a refined, understated taste in furnishings. However, the whole space has an untouched, showroom feel to it, as lacking in real personality as a hotel suite. Ponte says that he and set designer Jeanne Develle deliberately avoided putting too much in the space, as that would “make it feel too homey.”
The choice of furniture seems to come from a desire on Bateman‘s part to be seen to have money and taste, rather than from any real admiration of the beauty or craftsmanship of the pieces themselves. The shots of the apartment are reminiscent of the scene in Fight Club (1999) when the narrator’s home is shown with all the items from IKEA highlighted, that he buys purely through habit. Bateman‘s home is much the same, just on a higher budget – the style choices intended solely to help the owner blend in with a certain social class. As director Mary Harron describes it, the apartment looks “like a page in Architectural Digest.” This conformity is shown to be a fundamental part of Bateman‘s character – his obsession with fitting in demonstrated by his enthusiastic appreciation of the message in the Huey Lewis & the News song “Hip To Be Square.”
Ads are Scary
Nightmare on Film Street is independently owned and operated. We rely on your donations to cover our operating expenses and to compensate our team of 30+ Contributors.
If you enjoy Nightmare on Film Street, consider Buying us a coffee!
“The contents of the apartment reflect the culture which [Patrick] Bateman inhabits, and suggests the values important to him and his associates. “
The artwork in Bateman‘s apartment functions as yet another demonstration of his wealth, and also gives the audience hints as to the true nature of Patrick Bateman through their meaning. These artworks explore themes of artificiality, alternate identities, mass-production and question ideas of reality and authenticity. The framed black squares in the hallway are prints of Allan McCollum’s “Surrogate Paintings” – pieces made as stand-ins for artwork that are, “universal signifiers… while lacking any inherent meaning of their own”. There is a large picture of a man on horseback – Richard Prince’s ‘Untitled (cowboy)’ – a photograph of part of a Marlboro cigarette advert.
Described as “a meditation on an entire culture’s continuing attraction to spectacle over lived experience”, this fits with the shallow, surface nature of Bateman‘s life. In the living area there are photographs by artist Cindy Sherman from her “Untitled Film Stills” series. Sherman is known for her self-portraits assuming different identities – this art reflecting Bateman‘s own double identity, and the way in which his life is in many ways an inauthentic performance. The centrepiece of Bateman‘s art collection is a couple of huge prints from Robert Longo’s “Men In The Cities” series – these drawings show smartly-dressed people standing oddly off-kilter, seemingly in the process of falling. These pictures foreshadow Bateman‘s own arc – although polished and put-together on the surface, he is unbalanced, and will soon begin his own fall into chaos.
Location, and specifically characters’ home addresses, are used as status symbols throughout the film to explore their obsession with success and wealth. In the scene near the beginning when Patrick Bateman introduces himself in voiceover, it is significant that he begins by mentioning his address first of all – “I live in the American Gardens building on West 81st street” – before even giving his name. Where a person lives is often used as a means to tell their social class: neighborhoods can be described as “sought-after” or “on the wrong side of the tracks.”
The desirability of Bateman‘s address is commented on multiple times: when he tells Kimball where he lives, the detectives responds “Mmm, nice. Very nice”, to Bateman‘s rather smug satisfaction; sex worker “Christie” notes that “you have a really nice place here”, and Jean comments that “it’s so elegant, what a wonderful view.” The shallowness of Bateman‘s personality is shown by how much he ties up his identity with place in which he lives, and his insecurities are revealed when he perceives that someone has got one up on him in the property game. When he goes to Paul Allen‘s place after the murder, Bateman describes a “moment of sheer panic when I realize that Paul’s apartment overlooks the park, and it’s obviously more expensive than mine”.
This same pettiness is also shown when Bateman is at Paul Allen’s flat with Elizabeth and “Christie” – she says that it’s “nicer than you’re other apartment”, to which he peevishly responds “well, it’s not that nice.” Bateman‘s pride in his apartment as an extension of his own self is shown in the scene where he murders Paul Allen. In preparation of the bloodbath, Bateman has put dust sheets over his elegant furniture, and laid newspaper (appropriately, from the style section) down on the floor in what Mary Harron describes as an “unbelievably elaborate, fetishistic sort of jigsaw puzzle.” Bateman carefully protects the symbols of his status – his expensive clothes and elegant furnishings – but is unconcerned about allowing his face to become spattered in blood.
Unusually for a film set in Wall Street, actual work hardly features in American Psycho. We never see Bateman or his colleagues doing any work – the discussion in the conference room scene revolves almost entirely around the men showing off their practically identical business cards. In contrast to the hyper-energetic workplaces in films such as Wall Street (1987), the Pierce & Pierce offices seem almost serene. This lack of enterprise is reflected in Bateman‘s own office. It is bland and monochromatic, with several signifiers of emptiness present: a stack of blank CDs by the stereo, an empty vase on the side, an unused pad of paper on the desk. Other characters are uninterested in the business world – when Bateman asks “Christie” and “Sabrina” if they want to know about his job, they reply “No, not really”; the model at the club notes that most of the guys she knows who work in mergers and acquisitions “really don’t like it.”
“Bateman’s own home reflects the surface personality he shows to the world – apparently successful, with taste and elegance, but with ‘no personal artifacts, no personal photos, no history,’ ultimately devoid of humanity – as Bateman himself states: ‘simply not there.'”
Rather than gaining their status through work, Bateman and his colleagues acquire social value through the places to which they have access. There is a theme throughout of characters feeling anxiety about being able to get into certain restaurants, and the need to “have reservations someplace” at all times. The stockbrokers constantly express dissatisfaction with the places that they go – the place in the opening scene, for instance, dismissed as a “chick’s restaurant”. The ultimate goal for Bateman and the others is to gain access to a restaurant called Dorsia, which is seen as the centre of fashionable society – a place to be seen. The fact that Bateman can’t get reservations there is a blow to Bateman‘s pride – he lies about being able to book a table there to Jean, and when Paul Allen complains about the Mexican restaurant they are in, saying “we should have gone to Dorsia, I could have gotten us a table.” Bateman snaps back “No-one goes there anymore” – attempting to undercut the place’s social value. While being interviewed by Kimball, Bateman reels off a list of Paul Allen‘s usual haunts, including the New York yacht club; when Kimball asks if Paul owned a yacht, Bateman responds that “he just hung out there” – again showing that the locations in their social are used merely as empty status symbols.
Like the characters in the film, who dress almost identically and are frequently mistaken for each other, the locations in American Psycho are similarly interchangeable, like showroom displays with no true significance or character below the surface. We see Bateman and his social circle on a never-ending cycle of visiting different prestigious establishments, whilst never really engaging with their surroundings. Bateman‘s own divided psyche is represented by the two apartments he inhabits. Paul Allen‘s apartment becomes the embodiment of Bateman‘s underlying psychopathic nature, with bloodstained walls and body parts strewn about – the “physical representation of Bateman’s mind and consciousness.” Bateman‘s own home reflects the surface personality he shows to the world – apparently successful, with taste and elegance, but with “no personal artifacts, no personal photos, no history,” ultimately devoid of humanity – as Bateman himself states: “simply not there.”
For more Scene of the Scream, make sure you’re following us on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook! And for all the best horror discussion you can find online, stay tuned to Nightmare on Film Street.