Top Ten Horror Locations (Part I) from Billy Crash

<img src="dontlooknow.jpg" alt="Horror Locations Venice">
Horror Locations includes Venice, Italy.

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

Hotel Hell

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.

Farm Living

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 TwitterLinkedInIMDbAmazon, and his professional website.

(Photo of Don’t Look Now from Sand Spice.)

Highways of Horror – Day IV

Don’t look for a reason. Look for a way out.

Tagline – Cube

The way out of Sioux Falls is straight west via Route 90. End goal: Rapid City, South Dakota. But there are traps along the way, tons of them…

As I drive with the sun at my back and a real feel temperature of eight degrees (-13.3 Celsius) outside the Malibu, I traverse a vast ocean of taupe and white. Here, empty beer cans and used condoms don’t float upon the waves, but billboards. Hundreds litter the landscape on both sides of the interstate enticing tourists to choose one trap instead of the next. It’s like trying to traverse crackwhores on Frelinghuysen in Newark or fishing boat captains down the shore in Belmar. They all want a piece of you: your time and your hard earned dollar thanks to snake oil salesman marketing and bad jokes passing for wit. Worst still are the promises: “You’ll be amazed!” and “You’ll remember the experience for a lifetime!”

Route 90 has an 80 mph (129kmh) speed limit to help me run the five-hour gauntlet to Rapid City. But the pummeling of roadside signage makes me woozy. What was this drive getting me into? I could have gone a bit north to Fargo, where I hoped someone would have jammed an ice scrapper into the snow near a fence to play with the minds of Coen Brother movie fans. I could have visited something worthwhile, such as the Laura Ingalls Wilder house, or even stopped off at Sturgis, the motorcycle mecca. But as the trapped group in Cube, I had to keep going and dodge boobytraps like these:

Corn Palace. Wall Drug. 1880 Cowboy Town. Wall Drug. Bear Country USA (with a wolf on the billboard). Wall Drug. Reptile Gardens. Wall Drug. George McGovern Museum (probably the size of a cubby hole). Wall Drug. Pioneer Auto Show (with the General Lee from “Dukes of Hazard”). Wall Drug. Wonderful Cave (“Rated number one!” amongst caves?). Original 1880 Town. Wall Drug. Al’s Oasis. Wall Mother Fucking Drug.

I was inundated with Wall Drug shit for over 200 friggin miles. But I knew I had to stop there. Once Ally brought the place up, I could actually hear through the phone that she and Patricia Eddy engaged in a synchronized eye roll worthy of an Olympic Gold Medal. Other than that, I’d have to bypass the cheese that clogged South Dakota’s major southern artery.

But in Vincenzo Natali’s 1997 sci-fi/horror, Cube, the occupants seemingly had no hope of escape. Isolation proves to be one of the most pertinent tropes in horror. We’ve seen this element occur many a time from Alien to The Shining, and from The House on Haunted Hill to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The notion of “no hope” remains cringe worthy, and keeps horror fans rooting for those one or two cool characters to somehow find a way to break free.

Sure, if I was with Ferdinand Burghoffer, Jonny Numb, Greg Palko, or John Eddy, I’d probably stop at every damn place just to make some kind of record for Americana’s sake – plus you never know if they’ll come up as “Jeopardy!” questions. But I had to drive on – at 95 miles mph anyway – because I did have a legitimate place on the road less graveled that was most definitely camera and discussion worthy – and it wasn’t Wall Drug.

As I motored on, The Pixies’ incredible “Doolittle” kept me up and rocking. Then again, I almost earned eight-hours sleep and felt pretty damn good. Almost. Although the motel was quiet and the room comfortable, for the past two months I’m somehow sleeping on my left hand and crushing it. I often wake from the pain of a hand that’s not asleep but in a coma, and now my ring finger’s starting to lock. Even worse, a jolt of pain moves through that entire hand as if I hit my funny bone – with Gallagher’s watermelon mashing mallet, which I’m sure is on display at Wall Drug.

Indulging in one ridiculous nature crushing signpost after another, as if I was stuck in “the heart of the Poconos,” I thought of Joey Santiago’s gift to music. As the guitarist for The Pixies he took the surf guitar sound and upended this entire rock subgenre by adding ripping waves akin to speed metal. The great Johnny Marr did something similar when he added extensive rhythm to his lead guitar work, joining both worlds. Then again, Rage Against the Machine’s and Audioslave’s Tony Morello pulled from both the power of Jimi Hendrix and the technical wizardry of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp to bring us some out of this world sounds.

And by the time I pulled into that one place I had to see, I certainly felt as if I was out of this world.

Before Ally and Patricia took their drive west, my wife recommended I visit the Badlands. When I said, “Okay” and must have seemed as if I was brushing off the idea, Patricia approached me. She’s a great writer and caring soul with a lovely smile, killer hair, and eyes that always seem to sparkle even in the dullest light. And in every conversation her intelligence shines through and her multi-faceted frames of reference add great dimension to any topic. But this time, something was different, she glared at me and said, “You have to go to the Badlands.”


The Badlands, wild rock formations and mixed prairie grass, remained the hunting grounds for Paleo-Indians and the Lakota Sioux – until some wingnut emerged on a hill with a rifle in one hand and a bible in the other, and ruined everything. This is where traditional Ghost Dances took place, and near where the horrific Wounded Knee Massacre occurred.

Due to the bitter cold and ceaseless wind, my photography time would be severely limited. However, I still wish those friends of mine who enjoyed photography were there with me: Gillian Anne Gibson, Ann Thraxx, Melanie McCurdie, Betsy Mullenix, Ferdinand Burghoffer, Guy Ricketts, Vic De Leon, and Brad. (The latter would most likely be our guide to getting the best damn shots.)

The striations of the rock, as well as the textures and shapes, made me feel like I was part of a “National Geographic” special. After all, I was looking at what downpours and streams had created some 35 million years ago of an 80 million-year-old formation thanks to the disappearance of an inland sea. Holy Hell! Like most things that excite me to the point of swooning, as I write this, I can’t really remember what it was like to actually be there. At least I have the photos. Though the cold penetrated me to the point where I could no longer feel my camera, at least I didn’t drop it to the frozen earth. And once my memory card read “full,” instead of reaching for another, I made it to the Malibu to crank the heat. After visiting only three sections of the National Park in under 90-minutes, my stomach cramped from the stifling freeze.

But I do remember one thing quite well about the Badlands. When the wind would stop – completely – there was no sound. Absolutely nothing as if I were on the moon. And as the shadows of the rocks loomed larger thanks to a waning sun, I felt a different kind of chill.

I left the Badlands, wondering if they really were bad or just misunderstood, for a brief stop at Wall Drug. Of course, like the bulk of roadside distractions, it’s a tourist trap, though it’s simply a peddler’s village with an overabundance of old west flavor. But it’s also a speed trap. Once I got off the 80 mph highway, I had to crawl at 20 mph through the town of Wall, as the sheriff watched me roll.

Regardless, after a gazillion signs stretching for over 200 miles, I got there just in time to learn Wall Drug was closing early because of New Year’s Eve. So much for getting their “traditional five-cent cup of coffee” as advertised on at least twenty friggin billboards. Sonsabitches.

I let Richard Butler and the Psychedelic Furs carry me into Rapid City on the tunes from “Talk, Talk, Talk.” I made it through the gauntlet, and I’m happy to say I saw one stellar billboard for the Que Pasa? restaurant: “Mexican food so good Donald Trump would build a wall around it.” Now, that’s marketing!

So I made it through the gauntlet and the smothering of bad advertising, but you have to watch Cube to find out what happened to those hapless souls in one of Canada’s best low budget independent films of all time. There’s some snappy and poignant dialogue in there, and you’ll no doubt wonder what you’d do if you were in their boots. Now, what would you have done if you were in mine? Visit Reptile Gardens or stop at Al’s Oasis? Head over to Pioneer Auto or check out Original 1880 Town? I guess it depends on how you read the billboard.

Although I feel good about the day’s drive, tomorrow brings two new challenges as I head towards Butte, Montana: 8.5 hours behind the wheel and snow. So much for seeing Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse, and although the Malibu is one smooth, fast, and warm ride, my back hates the driver’s seat. But pending weather, I might not have the chance to take as many breaks to stretch and recoup.

Then again, who knows what the road will offer.

Happy New Year. And don’t trust someone else’s signs. Create your own and define love, happiness, and success for yourself. Travel forward, travel safe, but definitely take some calculated risks because regret can be a heavy burden.

(Badlands photo from Billy Crash’s iPhone.)

Crash Analysis: CRAWL OR DIE (2014)

Panic Time

A phobia-inducing nightmare

I was sold on CRAWL OR DIE nine months ago when I saw the trailer – the best one I’dcrawl-or-die-poster seen in twenty years. Granted, a trailer is a promise that you are going to see something worthwhile and entertaining. As we know, all too often, filmmakers fail to deliver on that promise, but not Oklahoma Ward.

A military unit is on a single-minded mission: protect the package, and get it to safety. Sounds simple, right? But in CRAWL OR DIE, it’s far from easy. Right from the beginning, we find ourselves running for our lives as the group does its best to stave off slaughter from an unseen attacker. To do so, they must go underground into the unknown, and that’s the least of their worries.

What Oklahoma Ward does best is he keeps the audience right in the action with close-up and sometimes extreme close-up camera work. This creates one of the most intimate and oppressive sci-fi horrors. We not only feel the claustrophobia the characters endure, we experience this firsthand as if we’re stuck with them. I have no problem with tight spaces, but while immersing myself in CRAWL OR DIE, I realized my breathing became labored. Twice, I gasped for air. I soon realized I needed a therapist on speed dial, with a chiropractor at the ready, as well as the promise of a hot shower to carry off the dirt and sweat.

The film stars Nicole Alonso as Tank, and what she endured while filming must have left her with dozens of bruises from crawling through one tight space into another one that was even tighter and dirtier. At times, with her gasping and near panic, I wondered if she was acting or feeling the constraint and near hopelessness of her character.

Most films suffer the second act doldrums, but this is truly where the film shines, because fear and trepidation rain down aplenty. It’s easy to watch the characters struggle, to hear them gulp for air and sweat, but there’s no doubt many in the audience will ask if they could handle such an experience.

CRAWL OR DIE could have easily been a shoot ‘em up horror, but writer/director Oklahoma Ward chose to keep us nearly trapped in ultra-close quarters, evoking what any great horror film should do – fear and suspense. The camera angles, editing, and ambient sounds add to the thematic tone. We watch and become crushed under the weight of earth and metal, under the pressure from being trapped below ground, barely able to move while something hunts us with abandon. If that isn’t enough, Tank and company (including the great filmmaker/actor David P. Baker as Sniper) must endure other hardships: lack of food, water, and medical supplies, and low ammunition, and absolutely no roadmap. They are underground, on their own, with only one option: CRAWL OR DIE.

Isolation hasn’t worked this well since 2010’s BURIED (Spain/USA/France), where we watch Ryan Reynolds wallow in a box for ninety minutes. But CRAWL OR DIE graces us with a feeling of hope, which ramps the tension and suspense because we don’t want to see it fall apart. Sure, any of the characters could have taken themselves out due to fear, but what if there is light at the end of tunnel? Maybe this is why Tank pushed on even when she knew the odds were steadfast against her.

The music is minimal, and oftentimes non-existent, and its absence only adds to the oppressive feeling. The lighting is perfect, creating little pockets of possibility in the tight knit abyss thanks to Craig Chartier and Oklahoma Ward. And for a low budget film, the special effects are wonderful.

Dive into CRAWL OR DIE just like the characters and go for the ride. An experience that will plague you long after the credits roll.

In the meantime as you wait for CRAWL OR DIE to arrive in the mail, get yourself ready with THE LAST KNOCK interview of director Oklahoma Ward and star Nicole Alonso right here:

Definitely don’t miss the most phobia-inducing horror since FINAL DESTINATION’s (USA/Canada, 2000). But where that movie left you off the hook after the first act, CRAWL OR DIE will bury you.

4 out of 5 stars

(Photo from Starburst Magazine.)