Keeping it Real, Or Why Location Is Everything

Posted on

Sometimes, the old adage “they don’t make ’em like that anymore” has some real truth to it. Not in a generational superiority sense, but because movies sacrifice (some of) their authenticity once they substitute genuine locale environments for convenient, business-friendly locations. This practice isn’t exclusive to modern filmmaking, but it feels more common now. And that’s a shame.

I’m not saying it can’t work. Nor am I saying that quality always comes down to “actual location or GTFO.” One of my all-timers, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut recreates New York City almost entirely on soundstages and it works perfectly within the context of that picture, painting a metropolis that’s easily recognizable and relatable while looking just a little “off.” A little deserted, a little too clean, a little… dreamlike.

I’m talking about movies that could benefit from more validity. Recently, I was having a conversation with my pal Adam Cesare about DC’s Shazam!, which I greatly enjoyed. Adam liked it too, with one major reservation. That dressing Toronto up to play Philadelphia took him out of the action each time characters were meant to be wandering the Philly streets. It felt to him like a missed opportunity, robbing the picture of some low-hanging verisimilitude.

To be honest, I hadn’t realized the exteriors in Shazam! were fake Philly, but as we discussed it, I understood his point right off. Last year, I thought director Eli Roth had trouble selling his Death Wish remake as Chicago-set (most of it was shot in Quebec). I’m not blaming him or his crew for decisions that are budgetary and incredibly common, but it hurt the picture in my estimation. And by comparison, Peter Berg’s Patriots Day and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed get so much mileage out of Boston’s personality that it’s impossible to imagine them being made in another city (though Massachusetts is friendly to Hollywood, so maybe Paul Kersey should’ve set up shop in Boston this time around).

But let’s back up. How often do you find yourself watching an old film that isn’t particularly good, but holds your interest anyway? It happens to me quite often and sometimes that little extra “something” is simply the feeling and flavors conjured by authentic locations.

At some point during these last few years, as I’ve soaked up a hundred or so regional oddities courtesy of video labels like Vinegar Syndrome and Code Red, I realize just how big a selling point “authentic” has become. And I know I’m not alone. More than any other audience on the planet, horror fans often double as cinematic archeologists. We enjoy basking in the sights and sounds of bygone eras. Sure, a film’s subject matter is what draws us in, but some of these movies really excel at those tertiary details. And like I said,  sometimes that’s enough.

Because those details matter. And as a little aside, here’s some anecdotal proof: One of my favorite blog posts from the last few years is this Dinosaur Dracula piece that examines the contents of Alice’s refrigerator at the beginning of Friday the 13th part 2. That’s it. Just a breakdown of things you can see inside her refrigerator. And as a kid, I remember watching Friday the 13th part III and listening to my brother-in-law remark how much he missed Olympia Beer. Granted, these examples have nothing to do with locations, but they illustrate our perpetual curiosity to look backward. Even when we’re talking about a time that isn’t exclusively *our* nostalgia, there’s just something alluring about glimpsing some corner of the world as it used to be.

Last year, I revisited a picture that I loved as a kid and hadn’t seen since–The Reincarnation of Peter Proud. J. Lee Thompson’s sordid little supernatural thriller had gripped me as a boy, and I remember watching in spellbound silence as Michael Sarrazin gradually learns the truth behind a series of plaguing nightmares. Watching in 2018, I was relieved the movie held up. I love its imagery, its measured pace, and the general frostiness of it. Of equal interest this time was the picture’s depiction of western Massachusetts. Real location shooting that covers areas I’ve visited. And what a joy to see this familiar part of the world as it was before I was alive.

And even when a film isn’t very good, that sort of bona fide location stuff can sometimes be enough to save it. I think of the “sort of” horror anthology Screams of a Winter Night in those terms. It’s a janky thing, and even worse when you slog through the two hour extended version. And yet there’s something about it. Early on, our characters stop at a Louisiana gas station so rural no Hollywood production could create it. Our characters mingle with some very authentic locals and we get the sense as audience members we’re a long way from civilization proper. This sequence doesn’t make the film any better, but it does open that proverbial window into another time. And Screams of a Winter Night has lots of things like this. Spooky back roads, abandoned warehouses, graveyards (in the extended cut), etc. The movie rallies, ending on a supremely spooky note, but it takes forever to reach it and by then, it’s the sprawling minutiae that’s done all the heavy lifting.

Then there’s really good movies I want to hang around inside of. One of my favorite recent film discoveries is Jim Mallon’s Blood Hook (available in an excellent Blu-ray through Vinegar Syndrome). A phenomenal slasher shot on location in Hayward, Wisconsin and on some of the surrounding lakes. Its setting is an annual fishing competition that consumes the area, giving this movie a strong sense of regional identity. Blood Hook is absolutely drenched in it, from that platform elevator-equipped lakefront home, to a grimy bait-and-tackle shop, and that giant landmark fiberglass muskie. There’s plenty to like here, a good cast and a funny script that never winks at the material, but the biggest bit of fun is coming into a world that’s otherwise completely foreign to most of us.

And let’s also include the great coastal city pictures from the 1970s and early 80s. Anything shot and set in New York City makes the list. Ambience is arguably the star of films like Night of the Juggler, Death Wish, The Exterminator, Maniac, Cruising, etc. And the same can be said of Los Angeles in Foxes, Death Wish II, Savage Streets, Vice Squad, and so on. The mean streets glimpsed feel downright alien now. What’s with all those porno blocks? And who are the people inhabiting them? New World Pictures distributed a series of films about a “high school student by day, Hollywood hooker by night” called Angel that’s loaded with so much Hollywood Boulevard verity that I can’t help but recall each of those pictures fondly, despite their shortcomings. This stuff simply resonates in a way that dressed locales can not.  

What happens when you don’t have access to locations at all? One of my favorite subgenres is the summer camp movie. But have you ever seen just how dire things get when a camp-set movie does not have an actual camp to use? You get something like Camp Blood and its sequels (which, upon research, I discovered has fourth, fifth, and sixth installments that happened long after I checked out).

Released in 2000, it was nice to see low budget slashers returning to summer camp, no matter how cheap the offering. Upon watching the first (of three) shot-on-video (SOV) clown slashers where some California forest doubles a real summer camp, my enthusiasm was gutted before the credits finished. Kind of a con job when a movie called “Camp Blood” has zero camps in it. I mean, Camp Blood probably wouldn’t have been any better had it been shot at Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco, but we’ll never know. And it isn’t just low budget SOV flicks that do this. Sleepaway Camp III pales in comparison to the first two (despite being shot back-to-back with II) because it mostly trades the traditional campground and lakefront setting for a series of indistinguishable forests.

But, hey, plenty of good films manage to stage the United States in other countries. Getting back to my earlier conversation with Adam, we also aligned on this summer’s killer alligator movie, Crawl. It’s a picture we’re both looking forward to, but can’t help but feel is missing a golden opportunity by trading the state of Florida (where it’s set) for the shooting location of Belgrade, Serbia. In twenty years we won’t be looking at this killer alligator flick as a regional time capsule. That fact may be an unavoidable facet of modern filmmaking, but it’s also too bad.

There’s no shortage of regional exploitation out there, and right now there’s probably more home video labels committed to reviving as much of it as possible. And while that’s fantastic news, it’s kind of a bummer that we’ve got to largely forget about that tradition, moving forward. Indie filmmakers are doing their thing, but with budgets that rarely afford the breadth and scope necessary to canvas large corners of their world. And so we look to the past, admiring the way things used to be done. Because in this instance, they kind of don’t make them like they used to.

Leave a Reply