The Terrifying Tour
By Jasen T. Davis
While Halloween occurs only once a year, horror films are something we can celebrate every season . . . as long as we don’t die before the arrival of that next blockbuster. An oozing chunk of the gruesome delight in watching all of that screaming on celluloid is the thrill of witnessing your own town host all of that terror . . . if you dwell within a place Hollywood finds fearsome.
The scary news is, when it comes to terror Los Angeles gets more film than the thriving metropolis known from here to hell as the Inland Empire. Maybe it’s because of the cancerous smog, the deadly traffic, or just the constant, eerie Kafkaesque dread of being face-to-visage with LAPD. Occasionally though, all of the omens line up and some lost, mad soul does decide to shoot something sinister amidst the haunted hills and dusty domiciles of the Inland Empire and its surrounding neighbors, where even the blandly bright suburbs have gutters that can stream scarlet, thanks to monsters, malefactors or everyday murder.
Hell Night, Redlands, San Bernardino County
Films about teenagers and co-eds going someplace awful to get brutally slaughtered one-by-one are a proud tradition in American horror. Whether it is camping near Silverlake or ending up in the wrong house in Texas where chainsaws are standard-issue, wacky kids are always going to somehow end up on a chopping block somewhere when it comes to entertaining the masses. Everyone appreciates it when someone improperly adventurous dies.
A group of teenagers are challenged to spend the night in a gigantic mansion, only to be murdered by the survivor of a massacre that happened there decades before. Filmed all over Southern California for a horror-hungry public who weren’t content just seeing Linda Blair possessed by the devil, Hell Night was made not only in Los Angeles and South Pasadena but also throughout the County of Redlands within the Inland Empire.
It’s unusual how the Inland Empire hosts so many movies about homicidal maniacs. When crazy meets cutlery, the blood usually flows if there are unaware victims nearby, and the screams sound better against the quiet, rough hills and suburban sprawl Redlands is heir too. Even the name of the place sounds lethal, as if the ground itself was carmine from slaughter. Someone needs to write a script for a slasher flick called Redlands.
Hell Night is replete with affordable fears and fun kills, but watching one psycho just whack a bunch of young, dumb trespassers gets kind of lame, quick. I’m sure every foreboding, dilapidated mansion deserves a mass murder, but in an age of pepper spray, smartphones, MMA training, a proliferation of firearms and a militarized police force armed with APC’s, it is hard to imagine a lone suburban maniac successfully stabbing so many ignorant kids to death uncontested without anyone calling 911.
Invaders from Mars, Palomar Observatory, San Diego County
Invaders from Mars, made in 1953 and directed by William Cameron Menzies, is a cosmic sci-fi thriller that is radioactive with paranoia since it was made at the height of the Cold War. Decades ago every adult knew that if WWIII happened it would be nothing but nukes from Rhode Island to Russia, and until then every American citizen was a secret communist spy, sent from the USSR to infiltrate and destroy.
In this silver screen screamer, evil Martians invade a small town and start to mind control the populace, brainwashing their leaders into cold, sadistic drones trying to enslave humanity for their monstrous green masters. Before they succeed the good guys find out, the bad guys get taken out, but the space age menace remained, spawning numerous 50’s flicks that promised moviegoers everything in the universe couldn’t wait to journey across the cosmos to slay us all.
Palomar Observatory is a part of San Diego worth stitching on to any piece of cinematic excellence. Before the place was hit by Invaders from Mars film noir got there first in the form of 1947’s Nightmare Alley, a brutal story about one man’s sadistic greed and the mayhem he leaves in his wake. Not exactly a cauldron of gore, through.
In 1977 this beautiful section of San Diego County ended up on the big screen again, thanks to 1977’s Crater Lake Monster, a tale about a dinosaur that wakes up from suspended animation and tries to destroy and devour a city. The legendary David Allen supplied the claymation magic that made the monster, but after watching space marines fight acid-spraying xenomorphs in Aliens or seeing Godzilla stomp Tokyo concave, the fear you’d normally feel is far, far away.
The Hills Have Eyes, Victorville, San Bernardino County
In 1977 a fun-loving family went camping in the desert, only to encounter a fiendish pack of violent, radioactive cannibals. Wackiness ensued. Wes Craven, the writer and director of this gritty, bloody beast, made cinematic history with an almost plausible story about a road trip gone so horribly wrong well before he created A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Shot in the brutal, rocky landscape anyone in Victorville can find if they wander into the wilderness miles from their backyard, it doesn’t take long for the film to fill you with fear as our hapless, lower middle-class family realizes they aren’t alone in the lonely, dusty hills they camped out in. By the violent end they are fighting for their lives against gruesome thugs that look like they wandered in from The Road Warrior.
Apart from the wonderful casting choice of using the big, bald, terrifying Michael Berryman as Pluto, the meanest-looking mutant in the movie (Berryman’s career is the envy of any professional . . . he’s also in The Devil’s Rejects, directed by the immortal Rob Zombie), some of the sorcery of this film is its realism. Anyone who has camped out in the boonies knows that there just has to be evil people out there, licking their chops, and they’d be your bogeyman, if unleashed.
The real horror, however, is observing the family debase themselves in an orgy of violence to beat their aggressors. As mom, dad and the kids start to get their murder on, too, there’s a feeling by the end of the creation that although the monsters have been fought and brutally beaten down, new ones have replaced them.
Slaughterhouse, Lakeside, San Diego County
This cool little chopper hits the road red for fans that that demand large men with cutlery turning small ones into hamburger. Slaughterhouse, filmed in 1987 within Lakeside (also in the county of San Diego) is about a small business owner who goes insane when evil bankers threaten to take his property. Instead of filing a civil lawsuit he tells his muscle-bound, 300+ lb. mentally challenged son to turn the opposition into crimson coleslaw with anything heavy and choppy that will do the job.
While this movie is dreadfully acted, a little bit awful and rather low budget, the fact that Lakeside ended up in this bucket of gore is not surprising. A cyclopean, rural domain containing several bodies of water (including Lindo Lake and Lake Jennings), and vast stretches of brooding forests sliced into sections by running rivers, those deep, dark environs are also stalked by woodsmen who like it wild, scary and far from safety.
Rick Roessler, who also wrote Slaughterhouse, made a monster that transplanted the Inland Empire into the blood-streaked mausoleum of cinematic history while at the same time introducing a villain with a motivation more intricate and fathomable then, “I’m a killing machine.” If evil bankers were attacking and your kid was roughly the size, shape and mental intent of Jason Voorhees, wouldn’t it be fun seeing them end up like meat on a hook, instead of watching our politicians keep them off of it?
Inland Empire, Los Angeles County
While David Lynch (the director of masterpieces such as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Lost Highway) is always lurking on the bleeding edge of modern cinema, Inland Empire, created in 2006, has one very serious hang up: the film wasn’t made in the Inland Empire at all, despite its name.
While it is a psychological horror film (which means it’s more like Angel Heart or Psycho instead of Scream or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) about a young woman relentlessly pursued by an evil, murdering ghost haunting a cursed screenplay, Inland Empire should be called something else because it was made in Los Angeles, Hollywood and Poland. Imagine if Chinatown took place in Sacramento. It may as well be called Southern California, sans San Bernardino. Thanks a lot, Lynch.
Paranormal Activity, San Diego County
Unliving proof that low budget can still equal big box office bucks, 2007’s Paranormal Activity is a work replete with dread because of the fact the horror happens in a suburban home, not in a graveyard, mansion or mausoleum. Directed by Oren Peli and shot in the thriving metropolis of San Diego, the film contains scares anyone living in the modern era can relate to because the demonic nightmare happens in a seemingly normal house. When the familiar becomes frightening, nowhere feels safe.
A young couple is haunted by an evil spirit, eventually leading to insanity and murder. The documentary nature of it merges with the sensation that what you are seeing really happened, as supernatural occurrences surmount, dark shadows move in the corners, and something wicked comes their way until fear and madness gives way to gore. Pass the popcorn, please.
Not that it’s the first time suburbia got it’s slay on in the cinema, but when Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg teamed up for Poltergeist (if a cute little blonde girl tells you, “They’re here,” leave!), the fear came from having an electrically-charged sledgehammer of big-budget special effects pound your psyche into oblivion. By contrast, the more sedate Paranormal Activity has still waters that run deep, lulling you down into the calm before a corpse reaches up from the murk to drown you.
The young couple in the story doesn’t always see the unnatural darkness lurking dangerously behind them, but the audience does. As their doubt dies when they realize the terror is real, a small part of your mind wonders if this is film footage left over from a real demonic attack. The fact it takes place in a house like yours, instead of the skull-like domicile in The Amityville Horror, makes it uncertain if going home is safe at all.
Why aren’t there more horror films made in the Inland Empire? It has to be way cheaper than it is in Los Angeles or San Francisco. Wouldn’t you like to see a werewolf roaming the marble halls of the San Bernardino courthouse, or witness vampires feasting under a freeway overpass in Fontana? Here’s to hoping the Inland Empire has a cinematic future far ghastlier than before.