Monday, August 24, 2009

"Requiem for a wasteland" or "There's cheese in them thar hills"

From the steaming jungle of Fitzcarraldo to the snowy wasteland of Fargo, an impressive shooting location has been a vital element of many a classic movie. Great locations have also been responsible for classing up any number of unremarkable movies. Just look at the countless no-budget Westerns shot in Arizona’s monument valley and the mountain country of Italy. It’s a perfectly logical train of thought: If the best we can offer our audience is Lee Van Cleef shooting it out with badly dubbed Italian extras, we may as well give them something nice to look at in the background.

That’s all well and good, but I’ve always had a soft spot for filmmakers who lacked the budget or the motivation to move out of their own backyard. I’m talking about movies shot in my all-time favorite location: the arid hills outside of Los Angeles.

Now, I’ll admit that I’m a biased Midwestern boy who’s partial to verdant pastures and green, rolling valleys. I’ve seen quite a few places and still rank Western Wisconsin among the loveliest I’ve laid eyes on. That said, I’ve also been to the arid hills outside of Los Angeles. They’re not without their charms, but there is very little about the arid hills outside of Los Angeles that I would describe as especially scenic or beautiful. And yet, countless directors of the ‘50s and ‘60s dragged their barely paid crews and barely verbal actors out to the arid hills outside of Los Angeles time and time again. Guys like Roger Corman and Bert I. Gordon were such regulars out in those hills that the local woodland creatures started following them around, Snow White-style. (Though in Gordon’s case, the animals may just have been angling for future starring roles.)

Obviously, the major benefit to shooting in these hills was cost-effectiveness. They’re close enough to Hollywood that budget-minded directors could shoot all their location shots in one afternoon and be home in time for happy hour without burning so much as a full tank of gas. If you were shooting a cheap drive-in feature focused on bikers, monsters, hippies, aliens or any combination thereof, those grungy hills offered everything you needed. Also, they covered enough ground that nobody was likely to hassle you about permits and other such trivialities.

It’s also a relatively versatile landscape. The tall grass, sparse forests and rocky slopes and occasional creek beds are actually fairly distinctive, but they make a barely passable substitute for just about any terrain. I’ve seen those hills stand in for everything from prehistoric worlds to post-apocalyptic landscapes, to varying degrees of believability. (Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Mike Nelson hilariously pointed out “the famous Illinois Mountains” in Gordon’s Beginning of the End.) They’re like a mediocre impressionist – you never forget it’s him doing the voices, but you can at least sort of tell what he’s going for.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a new cheapie shot out in that terrain. I suspect that has a lot to do with the rise of affordable filmmaking tools and the decline of in-theater sleaze. Today, just about any upstart with a digital video camera and a limited distribution model can crank out a straight-to-DVD monster movie full of digitally rendered effects and backgrounds. Shooting in one’s own backyard is easier than ever, and industry competition has gotten so heated that making a legit film in California is often an expensive proposition, even in the arid hills outside of Los Angeles.

In a way, that’s a shame, because it feels like we’ve lost an important element of low-budget filmmaking. But it also makes me kind of happy to know that this terrain will be forever tied to a specific age and a distinctive kind of movie. Hiking through Topanga Canyon a couple of summers ago made me feel like I was part of some zero-budget film shoot. At every bend in the path, I half expected to be set upon by acid-crazed bikers, cheaply costumed monsters or scantily clad space women. But the genres and budgets that facilitated those characters faded away as Hollywood passed on to a different age. Perhaps it’s best that the sweaty, rocky, gorgeously unremarkable landscape they called home is relegated to the same fate.

- Ira Brooker


  1. you should write a script for a monster movie where the arid hills outside Los Angeles act as THE MONSTER ITSELF. In fact you should call it "The Monster Itself." To wit: featureless, hostile landscape laconically attacks and conquers other more interesting terrains and chases screaming chicks in underpants. It also consumes hippies who are too wiped on acid to notice what's happening.

  2. The creature design in "The Creeping Terror" isn't too far off from that, really. But I'm totally digging the concept of the hills creeping in on the Valley. Because of radiation, of course. It's always because of radiation.