Any corporate person will tell you the most important thing about a business is location, location, location. But in the horror genre, location can bring stories to life in remarkable ways and resonate as a character in the film. When it comes to Horror Locations, some movies rise above in big bad ways.
Top Ten Horror Locations
Can you imagine if Jack (Jack Nicholson) and family were at a motel off the beaten path instead of the Overlook in The Shining? No, I can’t either. There’d be no crazy maze with all its changing entrances, no intense sense of isolation, and Danny (Danny Lloyd) would just roll around in the parking lot. I guess the creepy sisters would hang out in a sandbox.
The important item is that the Overlook isn’t only haunted, it’s other worldly. Once we see the outdoors, and then peek inside, it’s clear the pink and gold ballroom couldn’t fit. There are doors and stairs to nowhere, windows are in place where it’s impossible for them to exist, and pathway’s change. The greatest thing to add to the unease is that element of pure isolation – and when the snow hits, forget it. The family’s cut off. It’s them and the Overlook. Stephen King may have written the famed novel, but Stanley Kubrick made the Overlook even more menacing in how he presented the property. This is one of Horror Locations‘ most bizarro settings.
What once seems like a getaway for a family to reconnect turns out to be a sinister experience that instantly exploits their existing craziness. It’s clear their issues, from child abuse and anger, to detachment and “shining,” fuel the paranormal fire until it erupts in murder.
In the end, the Overlook becomes a fun house out of an amusement park. The only difference: You’re not supposed to survive the ride.
Isn’t Venice Beautiful?
After you watch Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Know, you may never look at Venice the same way again. Considered to be one of the world’s most beautiful cities and known to travelers as “The Bride of the Sea,” it’s hard to imagine such a venue on a Horror Locations list. But director of photography, Anthony B. Richmond makes every canal, every bridge, and every alley look like a passage to Hell.
Even in the daylight, the city takes on a sense of foreboding, where bridges and canals that once seemed like welcoming passageways, now serve as veins and arteries ready to bleed. The Baxters (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland), didn’t come to the city for terror, they wanted to get away and pick up the pieces after their daughter’s death. But Venice brings them no peace: Laura can’t convince John that their daughter’s trying to speak to them from the grave, and John has one hallucination too many that he misinterprets with every blink of his eyes.
All the while, Venice serves as a dark pool ready to absorb them under the waters, just like the pond did to their daughter back home.
Of All the Cities in All the World
It could have landed anywhere, but the giant alien in Cloverfield came up from the depths off the shore of New York’s Coney Island.
New York’s vital to the film because the monster isn’t just toppling buildings and stomping souls, he’s taking out icons. The first piece of destruction is the head of Lady Liberty that sails down the street with Hud (TJ Miller) and friends looking on, then the Brooklyn Bridge gets cut in half, and guess what? Not even the subways are safe. And don’t even think about taking an early morning stroll in Central Park.
Matt Reeves may bring us a creature feature of adult proportions in a major American city, but the release date came just seven years after 9/11. When Hud and his buddies hide out in a shop as a cloud of dust and debris passes by, it’s reminiscent of the real horror that took place in 2001, which only adds to the tension and suspense. Whether you like the hipster Millennials or not, once we have that first image of an exploding building in our mind, followed by that white cloud, it’s hard not to root for any character to get the hell out of there.
But in this journey, the dawn may not bring a new day.
Life’s a Rubik’s Cube
Familiar locations work wonders because we expect them to be innocuous, so when horror ensues, we get that jolt from experiencing “the other.” But imagine waking up in a lame uniform on the floor of a colored room with hatches in the center of each bulkhead. Each room’s a different color, you have no food or water, you’re with some other scared strangers, and you have no idea what the hell’s going on.
This is Cube, Vincenzo Natali’s 1997 independent feature that left many a sci-fi and horror fan with an uneasy feeling. Because it’s not just the fact that there’s a series of rooms to nowhere, but most of them sport horrible death traps. To survive them and somehow find an escape route, the group must focus on their strengths and work together as a team to make it out alive.
Well, that sounds simple enough, but the rooms are silent, and other than different room colors, the move from one cube to the next creates monotony. And with thirst rising and hunger taking its toll, the trapped souls will undoubtedly start to make mistakes.
Cube serves as one of the unique Horror Locations, and it works because the kidnapped occupants have no frame of reference to work from.
Trapped in a room within a room leads to tension, fear, and desperation – and there may be no way out.
Take Your Skills to the Mall
Thanks to the internet, many may have given up on shopping at malls, but in the 1970s, finding everything you needed from different stores under one roof proved to salute consumerism like no other capitalist idea. George A. Romero knew this all too well, so with his Dawn of the Dead sequel, he forced a group of strangers trying to survive a zombie apocalypse inside the walls of a mall.
And what a great hiding place! There’s food, clothes, beds, and just about everything one could ever want. Except you can’t leave. The zombie horde’s outside waiting to cut you down so you’re trapped in a sort of gilded prison. Plus, there’s a mad biker gang that needs a beat down. So much for the fun and excitement of being locked in a mall. (If there was a movie mashup with Chopping Mall, robot guards on the prowl would have added maybe a bit too much to the mayhem.)
The mall becomes a prison instead of a fortress for the human hangers-on, but where to go?
When a few survivors leave what they once thought was a sanctuary, they may never find a home again.
Nothing like a beautiful, emerald farm in the land of Éire. Unless your farm has a breeding experiment that goes horribly wrong.
In Isolation, Billy O’Brien’s use of an off the beaten path farm as a backdrop for terror really amps up that uncanny feeling when even docile cows can become your worst enemy. Ossie Davis, before her stint as a mother in trouble in Babadook, plays Orla the vet who tries to help farmer Dan (John Lynch) with a pregnant cow in distress. It’s not just that the new calf bites Orla, but experiments with Bovine Genetics Technology have gone haywire and the result is the movie Alien on a farm.
Thanks to veteran cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, Dan’s farm looks like a dark brooding Hell, and cows never looked so creepy. It’s enough to make one think that pure unadulterated terror rests behind every barn stall, and for all we know, tractors may become self-aware and run one down. Ryan’s work proves that lighting and the atmosphere it creates lends so much to Horror Locations.
Even if anyone makes it out alive, the charm of the farm may never return.
A Quaint Little Island
In The Wicker Man, Summerisle looks like that perfect getaway off the coast of Scotland. Nice people, rustic charm, fresh air, and a bizarre rites festival to bring the world we know to its knees.
Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) comes to the island community via helicopter to find a missing girl – a girl the townspeople say never existed. But Howie’s a constable that doesn’t give up easily, and does his best to work around the smiles, the kindness, and the cheer to find her. Just one problem: The island’s namesake, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) seems to get in his way at every turn.
The horrific beauty of The Wicker Man rests in turning the tropes of the genre on its head. Director Robin Hardy kept the atmosphere light yet bizarre, and most of the terror occurs during the day amongst shiny, happy people.
But is there evil behind every smile, or has Sergeant Howie found himself in a society where the rules of normalcy are a bit different?
Either way, whether he finds the girl or not, there’s a good chance he’ll be next on the “missing” list.
It’s an Atomic Blast!
Ah, the 1950’s. Happy Days. As long as you didn’t live near ground zero when the US government ripped up the Nevada dessert with nuclear tests.
And in The Hills Have Eyes, two families collide: The mutant remains of atomic bomb testing survivors and a “normal” family on vacation. The latter makes the mistake of getting off the main road only to end up stranded in an old nuclear testing area.
The setting is the dessert and its surrounding hills. All is barren, exposed, and one’s life is up for grabs. The odd reality is that this vast wasteland evokes a sense of heightened isolation. There’s no place to run, no place to hide, and the only witness to the carnage is what remains of the Air Force’s testing site. After all, that mutant family is akin to indigenous people who have no clue that a more advanced and orderly world exists outside their own.
This isn’t some backwoods cannibal story, but one where writer/director Wes Craven asks us to forget where we are and the rule of law, and poses the question: Doesn’t a mutant family have the right to survive on their own terms?
The problem is that the dessert isn’t kind to humanity in any form, and loves to keep secrets, which makes it one of the best Horror Locations. It may be a miracle if anyone makes it out at all.
Final Frontier of Death
In Ridley Scott’s, Alien, the mining crew of the Nostromo followed protocol and made one big damned mistake. They landed on a rock, picked up an alien entity, and brought the bugger back with them.
The crew’s 70 million miles from Earth. And in space, no one may be able to hear you scream, but there isn’t much traffic either. Stuck on a ship that will take forever to get to the Outer Rim to contact Antarctic Traffic Control, they must face their chrome-toothed opponent and kill it before their vessel becomes one giant tomb. Take about one of your “really out of the way” Horror Locations.
Since the Nostromo’s a mining vessel, this isn’t some lovely well-lit space craft. It’s a blue collar truck in space hauling ore with the barest accommodations. The ship’s dark, stark, and claustrophobic. Even the flight deck has the crew on top of each other because more room means less ore and that means less profit for the company.
It’s a fight in tight quarters to defeat the beast before that long trip home.
But will anyone escape when there’s nothing but the cold, vast vacuum of space to keep them company?
A Thousand Miles from Nowhere
As far as Horror Locations go, for the men at Outpost Number 31, it’s the first goddamned week of winter of their discontent. They’re not happy, they’re dulled by their Antarctic surroundings of endless white ice and cold winds that never stop bringing the chills that can go to seventy below. Plus, the station has come alive with something weird and pissed off that’s not of this world. The radio’s down. The choppers and other vehicles have been hacked. The sled dogs are dead. They’re completely cut off and facing an enemy that can change at will – and may be the person standing right beside them.
John Carpenter brought the cold and then some with a landscape that glowed blue, gray, and ugly in The Thing. And with Ennio Morricone’s suspense laden and minimalist score, the sense of doom’s pervasive.
It’s safe to say all hope’s lost, and if anything can survive the bitter temperature and the tumult, it’s most likely the Thing in furry form.
So that’s the top ten – off the top of my head. But this is only round one. Other great Horror Locations have much to say, from the alien underworld in Crawl or Die to haunted house in The Changeling and beyond, so expect to see a “part two” sometime soon.
Share your favorite’s, and maybe they’ll find themselves on the next list…
Billy Crash (aka William D. Prystauk)
He loves great, in depth characters and storytelling in horror, and likes to see heads roll, but if you kill a dog on screen he’ll cry like a baby. Billy co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter, LinkedIn, IMDb, Amazon, and his professional website.
(Photo of Don’t Look Now from Sand Spice.)