Cinema’s creepiest towns
Don’t let the white picket fences and neat lawns fool you – the movie towns on this list are not for the faint hearted…
As audiences look set to make a trepidatious return to Silent Hill in the new installment Silent Hill: Revelation 3D, what better time to take a look back at some more sleepy towns we’ve encountered in the movies?
On the outside, these (largely middle-American) towns look the picture of suburban happiness, with their strong community spirit, picket fences, and cheerful rejection of big-city living. Unfortunately, the trade-off for the reduced number of Starbucks outlets is that they’re also filled with ghosts, demons, monsters, killer children, psychopaths, and spirits.
Join us, as we take a stroll through some of America’s cheapest real estate…
Antonio Bay, California – The Fog
Here’s to one hundred years of Antonio Bay! It’s going to be one hell of a centennial, you guys! There’ll be cake, and singing, and dancing, and phones ringing, and eyeless corpses, and killer leper ghosts with scythes for hands, and loads of murderous fog, it’s going to be so much…wait, what?
Yes, after the shocking revelation that the town of Antonio Bay was founded on gold plundered from a clipper ship deliberately sank by opportunist fishermen, the wronged crew comes back to haunt and murder the descendants of those responsible. They choose to do so on the town’s 100th birthday, under the cover of the titular, mysterious fog.
Pretty much every town has a dark moment in their past, and some skeletons in the closet that they’d rather forget, and there’s a significant number of towns in real life that, like Antonio Bay, owe their very existence to unpleasant deeds – how many port towns grew rich as a result of the slave trade, for example? But present-day townspeople choose to move on or ignore history, justifying things with a shrug and a “Hey - it wasn’t us.”
The Fog finds a neatly scary idea in exploring this all-too-familiar community psychology: whether children should be punished for the sins of the father by having the fictional town’s demons literally coming back to life to seek retribution. It’s an Old Testament ideal, perhaps, but seeing as town vicar Father Malone was related to one of the perpetrators he has to live by the sword and, ahem, die by the sword.
Castle Rock, Maine –The Dead Zone, Cujo, Needful Things
Possibly the most dangerous, wouldn’t-want-to-live-there fictional town of all, due to it being the favoured locale of horror maestro Stephen King, who chose to situate a number of his stories of the macabre and uncanny here. Part of his fictional topography of home state Maine, alongside Jerusalem’s Lot and Derry, Castle Rock made its screen debut in 1983 in two King adaptations: first up was David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, where a clairvoyant Christopher Walken is recruited by the town sheriff George Bannerman to use his powers to hunt down the Castle Rock Strangler. Shortly after came Cujo, the pulpy story of a killer St Bernard who contracts rabies and begins murdering townspeople – including, unfortunately, poor George Bannerman.
King’s love for cross-referencing and mythology-building means that Castle Rock gets a shout out in most of his major works both in book form and on the screen, with The Stand, It, Creepshow and Under The Dome all featuring sly references to the town – even Red, aka Morgan Freeman from The Shawshank Redemption, is noted in the original short story as being a former resident.
Perhaps the ultimate example of how innately treacherous Castle Rock is can be found in Needful Things, where we discover that the devil (played by Max Von Sydow) has identified the town as the perfect place to – literally – set up shop.
Amity Island, New England – Jaws, Jaws 2, Jaws: The Revenge
There’s an idea that a town ultimately gets the monster it deserves, but you have to say Amity seems a bit hard done by. Residents and visitors to the tourist hot-spot have been decapitated, chewed in half, had their arms ripped off and had their boats smashed, and their biggest crime has largely been wanting to hang out at the beach and get a bit of a sun tan. It hardly seems fair.
On the other hand, if you were a shark, you’d probably be annoyed if you or one of your mates got blown up and/or electrocuted by the town’s denizens every few years, so it’s little wonder this band of Great Whites have chosen Amity as their hunting ground of choice. Also, the government is certainly deserving of a little karmic retribution: the mayor of Amity is sleazy and largely ineffectual, refusing to admit that his town might have a small killing-machine problem not once but twice, and the town board are so ignorant they even go as far as to fire the hero sheriff Brody rather than, you know, deal with the killer shark that’s eating everyone. And when you really think about it, to avoid horrible death all that people in the town actually have to do is just stay out of the water. Now that I think of it, they deserve everything they get.
Haddonfield, IL – the Halloween series
White picket fences, leafy suburban drives, trick or treating kids, dorky babysitters, horny jocks, cheerleaders… yeah, Haddonfield is pretty much Averagetown, USA. Apart from the masked, unkillable serial killer that goes around murdering people, of course.
Putting Michael Myers aside for a moment, it’s amazing how much tension John Carpenter wrings from just moving his camera around the streets of Haddonfield in the early stages of the first Halloween. Perhaps his cleverest move in the film was to take the horror out of the dark enclaves of the haunted house and put it in people’s backyards in broad daylight, where there really is nowhere to hide.
The normality of Haddonfield is what makes it so scary - some of the most chilling and memorable shots in the movie are of Michael in the middle of the day just peering out from behind a hedge, or standing beneath a washing line adorned with white linen – a black spot of pure fury amidst virginal symbols of Apple-Pie America. Sometimes, Michael doesn’t even need to be there – just the Steadicam moving a little bit too slowly down the street is enough to strike fear into people’s hearts, tingeing as it does everything with that sense of intangible menace lurking beneath the surface.
The sequels and reboots were (surprise!) not as nuanced at inverting small-town familiarity to the same chilling effect, but the original Halloween did more than enough to establish Haddonfield as one of the great scary screen towns.
Potter’s Bluff, New England – Dead And Buried
Described as “clean, picturesque, and filled with old fashioned friendliness” in the trailer of vastly underrated shocker Dead And Buried, Potter’s Bluff quickly reveals itself to be one of the most memorably creepy towns in all of horror. By far one of the most sophisticated and interesting films to appear on the original DPP video nasties list, the tone of both the film is set in the very first scene, where a visiting photographer is accosted by the town residents, whacked over the head with a shovel, given a quick “Welcome to Potter’s Bluff”, then burnt alive. Things only get worse from there.
We soon ascertain that the dead in Potter’s Bluff don’t stay dead, but we’re kept in the dark as to why for the majority of the film, as Sheriff Gillis slowly investigates the sleepy town before discovering that (spoiler alert) the town has become the personal test-tube of mad scientist, who has used his experiments in re-animation to turn the locals into an army of murderous guinea pigs (not literally). This is one town where no-one either gets out, or stays in alive – and you’d better pray you don’t end up in the hospital. The nurses have a –let’s say – somewhat cavalier attitude when administering injections.
Twin Peaks, Washington – Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
Lynch had already presented us with an anachronistic Middle American town simmering with violence and perversion with Blue Velvet’s Lumberton, but really stepped things up a gear with the Twin Peaks TV show and subsequent movie spin-off Fire Walk With Me. Blending charming eccentricities (the log lady, the squeaky voiced Lucy, damn good cherry pie) with genuine horror (rape, murder, incest, demonic possession) Lynch found that the two made surprisingly good bed-fellows, and even served to greatly accentuate one another.
With Fire Walk With Me in particular, Lynch was able to use the lack of censorship to show a dark side of Twin Peaks that could never be shown on television: his portrayal of the cold, horrific abuse Laura Palmer suffered at the hands of the townspeople proved to be too strong for people at the time, with the film earning abysmal reviews from critics and being met with boos and jeers at its Cannes premiere. It has now been re-evaluated and is seen by many as one of the great American horror movies: indeed, in its relentless and brutal depiction the way horrific domestic abuse can lie easily undetected beneath the small-town façade, it’s maybe the most purely disturbing film on this list.
With Twin Peaks, Lynch provided a template that many filmmakers have tried – and largely failed – to emulate ever since. Simply put, when you think of suburban weirdness, you think of David Lynch and Twin Peaks.
Hobbs End, New England – In The Mouth of Madness
Hobbs End is a name familiar to many horror fans, first appearing in Quatermass And The Pit as the location (a fictional underground station) where alien remains are discovered. The name has been used in a number of horror/sci-fi books and movies since, whenever a sense of unease is needed to be conveyed. It’s certainly conveyed in In The Mouth Of Madness, a love-letter to Lovecraft that features Hobb’s End as a fictional town within a work of fiction. Or is it fictional? The town, I mean. Not the film. But is the fiction presented in the film fictional? Hello? You still there?
In The Mouth Of Madness has the kind of plot that if you try and actually properly fathom will casually tie your brain in knots before wandering away whistling with its hands in its pockets, so it’s best just to say this: Hobbs End is a knowing wink to the trope of a small-town with a dark secret, blending elements of Stephen King, HP Lovecraft and Clive Barker to create the ultimate creepy community.
There are horribly mutated townspeople, spooky hotels, psychotic axe murderers, creepy kids, nigh-on constant hallucinating, and it all takes place in – you guessed it – a sleepy New England town. The warning signs for the horror-savvy are all there, but the skeptical Sam Neill chooses to ignore them, even dismissing the hotel receptionist (a husband killing murderess) as “a sweet old thing that isn't capable of anything worse than dipping her dentures into her husband's beer.”
If there’s one thing everyone should have learned about small-towns in America by this point, it’s that appearances can be deceptive. But here’s hoping we and our heroes never fail to be suckered in by the sweet smiles, local diners, and picture-postcard settings – horror would be a lot less interesting if we didn’t.
Silent Hill: Revelation 3D is out in UK cinemas on the 31st October.
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