Kersting Court is widely recognized by many horror and sci-fi film fans as the center of pod exporting in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). This is one of the truly great science fiction/horror thrillers of all time. However, there are other significant horror/suspense genre films that were also filmed - at least in part, right here in Sierra Madre. So can it be that Sierra Madre is actually ... terror town?
In October, 2010, Mat Harmon spotlighted Pioneer Cemetery on a now defunct Sierra Madre blog with a wonderful piece which focused on Alfred Hitchcock’s swan-song, the comedy thriller Family Plot (1976). Hitchcock, known as The Master of the Suspense film, was most famous for his weekly television series, as well as a number of films. Rope (1948), Vertigo (1958), Rear Window (1954), and North By Northwest (1959) are universally recognized as celluloid masterpieces. For most horror fans though, his most important work was Psycho (1960).
Hitchcock’s cinematic admirers would come to their own prominence in the 1970s, and his taut suspense would reemerge in the form of a new generation of film makers - among them Brian De Palma, Tobe Hooper, and John Carpenter. De Palma’s admiration of Hitchcock’s form is somewhat easier to notice in his later work than in his seventies output (Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie) and Hooper’s debut, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1975) would be a hard stretch to align to Hitchcock. Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 looks nothing like a Hitchcock inspired film maker at all. All of that changed with his second film, Halloween (1978) .
Carpenter would utilize many of Hitchcock’s most notable techniques in the hugely influential Halloween. The tense frightening music is undeniably engaged as an instrument of tension. (For soundtracks alone, Halloween stands shoulder to shoulder with the soundtracks of Psycho, The Exorcist, and Suspiria). But Carpenter utilized other Hitchcockian techniques, most obviously the protagonist’s viewpoint - compare Norman Bates spying through the wall peephole to the first person point of view of the mask worn by “The Shape” (as the Michael Myers creation would be known).
There were other interesting nods as well; Psycho’s Janet Leigh was the mother of Halloween’s Jamie Lee Curtis, and psychiatrist Sam Loomis (played by actor Donald Pleasance) was the name of a character in Psycho. The use of already familiar locales, such as Sierra Madre's Pioneer Cemetery, was probably more than just coincidental.
Ultimately, Carpenter would reinvent Psycho for a younger generation of horror movie fans, and thus helped popularize a sub-genre of horror/suspense known as the modern slasher film.
Modern slashers are rooted in earlier suspense sub-genres. Slasher films owe a debt to both Splatter/Gore - most notably Herschell Gordon Lewis's Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) and The Gore Gore Girls (1972) - and to Italian Giallo (most notably the Bavas, Argento, and Fulci). Both of these styles utilized motifs that would become staple in the slasher films that followed.
The first modern slasher was Black Christmas (1974). However, it would be Carpenter’s Halloween and Friday the 13th (1980) that would popularize and define the sub-genre, and which would lay the foundation for the formula which followed.
Carpenter would utilize Sierra Madre a great deal for locations in the 1980’s, but his initial foray to The Foothill Village was with Halloween, an independent film that has gone on to become one of the most successful of all the slasher franchises. Filmed on a budget of $325,000, Halloween would eventually gross more than $60,000,000 in box office receipts worldwide, making it one of the most profitable independent movies of all time. The film would be remade in 2007 by former White Zombie singer Rob Zombie.
In December, 2006, Carpenter’s Halloween was chosen for inclusion in the United States National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, which stated:
John Carpenter’s first commercially successful film not only became his most famous work, but it also ushered in the dawn of the slasher film. However, “Halloween,” unlike many later films of that genre, creates a chilling tension with minimal blood and gore. The setting is Halloween night, and homicidal maniac Michael Myers has escaped from his mental institution and is hunting teenagers in his hometown of Haddonfield, Ill. Although the numerous imitations and elements of the genre are now considered a cliché, Carpenter’s style of point-of-view shots, tense editing and haunting piano score make “Halloween” uniquely artistic, frightening and a horror film keystone. (Library of Congress, 12/2006)
That is correct, Sierra Madre. A slasher film on the registry of the Library of Congress was partially filmed right here. I dunno ... maybe one day we can look forward to seeing one of those cute docent-led walking tours, led by a real pod person, parading a group of tourists in hockey masks up Baldwin Avenue. Why the Chamber of Commerce doesn't see this film as an important local business asset is beyond me.
Sierra Madre’s Pioneer Cemetery (553 E Sierra Madre Blvd.) was the local film shoot locale for Halloween. It was the pivitol scene where Loomis honors the history of Michael Myers. While rewatching the film recently, I was impressed that most of the scene from Halloween was easy to locate, shot for shot.
This same location would later be used by both auteur David Lynch for the funeral of Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, and for a comedy slasher, Uncle Sam: Wants You Dead (1997). I wonder if we can look forward to seeing our beloved Sam waltzing down Sierra Madre Boulevard as the Grand Marshall in an upcoming 4th of July Parade.
Carpenter returned to Sierra Madre for locales used in The Fog (1979). The film utilized shots from both the inside and outside of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension (25 East Laurel).
Halloween II earned a domestic gross of over $25,500,000, but received mixed reviews as the sequel had employed much of the predecessor’s formula, using techniques which had already begun to appear cliche. Ultimately, it showed signs of being as derivative as the many imitators in the slasher film sub-genre which had already begun to manifest. Halloween II, though relying more on gore and on screen violence, and less on the style and subtlety that Carpenter’s direction had utilized - was still an immensely popular film. It, too, would be remade by Rob Zombie.
The success of the sequel resulted in the third film of the series, though this film would look and sound nothing like its predecessors. Halloween III: Season of the Witch was a markedly different film, utilizing what Carpenter had envisioned as a Halloween - themed story, and one that had no connection whatsoever to the Michael Myers story line. It would be the only Halloween movie to do so. This film would bear little of Carpenter’s influence - it was directed by Tommy Lee Wallace - except for the music, and one of the locales: Sierra Madre.
That’s right, the “Three more days ‘til Halloween” jingle with the dancing pumpkin heads blasted from a TV set is in the window of a shop at 17 Kersting, currently the home of Mother Moo Creamery. As well as some footage shot inside another shop located somewhere on Baldwin. There was also a scene from inside the very famous Buccaneer Lounge, located at 70 West Sierra Madre Blvd.
Sierra Madre is listed as a location for many horror and suspense themed movies, including Tim Burton’s biopic of Plan 9 from Outer Space director Ed Wood (1994), and Poison Ivy (1992). It also was used for a couple of episodes of V, the TV Series.
The Foothill Village is also listed as a film location for Nightmare on Elm Street VI: Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991). My favorite discovery, hands down, was learning that Sierra Madre was listed by IBDM as the single locale for the z-grade comedy horror picture The Worm Eaters (1977). A film directed by the late Herb Robins, alumni of such Dennis Steckler films as The Thrill Killers. This was Steckler’s send-up of - what else? - Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Happy Halloween, Sierra Madre! You're a living part of it.