By Craig Leask
In movies, haunted houses and castles are traditionally isolated locations: perched on stormy hilltops, swampy bayous, or located on vast, overgrown estates, separated from society (or anyone who can offer help to those in peril). A mountainous resort, closed for the winter, requiring a caretaker, lonely empty mansions being investigated or hosting millionaire challenges, all ideal settings for frightening situations and plot lines.
Some buildings, when filmed just right, just look evil. Be it the quarter moon window “eyes” of 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, New York or the Gothic Revival spires and details of the Bramford Apartments, home to pregnant Rosemary Woodhouse and her husband Guy. It is this look and atmosphere which is often sought by directors and set designers who require the use of a real building to create the atmosphere needed to support desired frights.
This concept of isolation based frights still holds true. However, directors and storytellers are learning that sometimes, just sometimes, it can be more frightening when evil lives in that regular looking house next door.
Here are some of my favorite specimens of cinema’s truly malevolent architecture, both isolated and some maybe even in your own neighbourhood.
The Home of George and Cathy Lutz: The Amityville Horror (1979)
112 Ocean Ave (now 108 Ocean Ave.), Amityville, N.Y
The Amityville Horror is based upon the allegedly true events surrounding a young couple, George and Cathy Lutz, (James Brolin and Margot Kidder), purchasing a house possessed by evil spirits. The same spirits who were blamed for the voices in the head of the very real 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo Jr. who, a year prior at 3:15 am on November 13, 1974, shot his parents and four siblings to death while they slept.
The DeFeo saga, combined with the Lutz family follow up story, was amalgamated by Jay Anson who penned the novel “The Amityville Horror” which focuses on the later homeowner’s experiences and based upon the fallout from the tragic events of the previous owners. The movie was a success and spawned many sequels and spin-offs too numerous to list here. Most of which were successful enough to continue to warrant – at least financially – additional spin-offs.
As the owners of 112 Ocean Avenue at the time of the production of the movie, Jim and Barbara Cromarty were in the process of suing author Jay Anson, publisher Prentice-Hall and the Lutzs. It was clear that The Amityville Horror could not be filmed at the actual house where the alleged hauntings occurred. As a result, a stand-in for the house was located at 18 Brooks Road in Toms River, New Jersey. Structural prosthetics were added to components of the home to help it resemble the Lutz’s original home, including the iconic third-floor “eye” windows. The production crew also constructed a boathouse on the property, which remains to this day.
The original three-story colonial revival at 112 Ocean Avenue was constructed in 1927 with five bedrooms and three and a half baths. The waterfront property was last sold in 2010 for $950,000. The home now boasts new square windows (replacing the third-floor “eye” windows) and a new address (previous owners successfully petitioning the city to change their address to 108 Ocean Avenue in an effort to thwart the curious.)
Steve and Diane Freeling Family Home: Poltergeist (1982)
4264 Roxbury St, Simi Valley, CA
Poltergeist is a tale about an average family living in an average house in an average Californian neighborhood. Average if you count that fact that their home is built on top of a desecrated cemetery, the residents of whom they disturb while installing their in-ground pool.
Restless spirits begin to inhabit the home, terrorizing the family, while ensuring they are unable to escape by having pulled the family’s youngest daughter from the world of the living into the realm of the dead. The missing daughter, Caroline (Heather O’Rourke), being the anchor keeping the family trapped in their home.
The possessed house owned by Steve and Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson) is a real home in Agoura Hills, California, chosen by Steven Spielberg as his desire was to bring horror into a situation in which a viewer would not anticipate fear, making the scares that much more real.
As a creepy aside to the production, JoBeth Williams confirmed during an interview in December 2002 that the skeletons surrounding her in the pool she was dragged into during one of the climactic scenes were in fact real skeletons due to the fact that rubber replacements were too expensive.
Adding to the lore of the movie is the suggestion of a curse surrounding the cast. Heather O’Rourke, who played the youngest daughter, and starred in both sequels to the movie, died at the age of 12 due to complications surrounding a misdiagnosed intestinal stenosis. Dominique Dunne, who played her older sister, was murdered by her boyfriend in her driveway shortly following the movie’s release.
MacNeil Residence: The Exorcist (1973)
3600 Prospect St NW, Washington, DC
Based on the 1971 William Peter Blatty novel, The Exorcist surrounds the demonic possession of the 12-year old daughter (Linda Blair) of an actress (Ellen Burstyn) in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood, and the assistance of two priests, Father Karras (Jason Miller) and Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow), to “exorcise” the spirit out of the daughter.
The book was based upon the actual 1949 case of demonic possession and exorcism surrounding a 14-year old boy known anonymously as “Roland Doe”. The Roland Doe exorcism was one of only three exorcisms sanctioned by the Catholic Church in the United States at that time.
Prior to filming, Director William Friedkin wanted assurance as to the authenticity of the facts surrounding the events of the exorcism. To do so, Friedkin was given access to the original diaries, notes, and files of doctors, nurses and priests involved with the case. Additionally, the director was able to discuss the details of the events first hand with Roland Doe’s great aunt, who lived with the boy at the time. Once the events had been corroborated, the search for locations to shoot commenced.
The house, now known locally as “the Exorcist home”, was selected due to its adjacency to the now infamous “Exorcist Steps”, which figure prominently in the Father Karras death scene. Because the existing house was physically set too far back from the staircase to make the scene successful, an addition to the residence was extended to the side to position the house closer to the steps. This side wing was then visually tied to the existing home through the addition of a mansard roof which also concealed the structural supports of the facade.
Interior scenes of the MacNeil Residence were filmed on sets constructed at CECO Studios in Manhattan.
The Bramford Apartments: The home of Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
The Dakota, 1 West 72nd Street at Central Park West, New York City.
Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Roman Polanski, is based upon the 1967 Ira Levin novel of the same name. Believing in the strength of the story, Producer William Castle purchased the rights to film the book prior to the story being published and immediately hired 33-year old Roman Polanski to direct his first American film.
In the novel Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse reside at The Bramford Apartments, a building that was based upon Manhattan’s Alwyn Court Apartments at 180 W 58th St., a French Renaissance style building constructed in 1909 and literally covered with ornate terracotta figures. Levin developed the fictitious name for the building, “The Bramford”, based on Bram Stoker, the author of the 1897 novel “Dracula”. Rather than utilize Alwyn Court as intended in the book, the film’s production designer, Richard Sylbert, selected The Dakota to represent The Bramford due to the more sinister gothic architecture and brooding atmosphere of the building.
As with The Bramford in the film, The Dakota, built in 1884, originally had 65 large apartments which had been divided over time into smaller units to align better with today’s standard of living, adding an air of authenticity to the apartment.
As interior filming was not permitted in The Dakota, all interior sets were constructed on sound stages which, in the end, allowed for greater control over atmosphere, lighting and camera movements throughout the filming process.
Only one other movie was ever filmed at the Dakota – Joseph L Mankiewicz’s House of Strangers (1949). Due to the prestige of the building and its roster of celebrity tenants, filming is no longer permitted on the site.
Hill House: The Haunting (1963)
Ettington Park, Village of Ettington, Warwickshire, England
The 1963 movie adaptation of the book centres around Dr. John Montague, an investigator of the paranormal, played by Richard Johnson, who assembles three strangers with experience in the paranormal in a reportedly haunted house to test his theories on the supernatural. The strangers are played by Julie Harris (Eleanor “Nell’ Vance), Claire Bloom (Theodora) and Russ Tamblyn (Luke Sanderson). Hill House is uninhabited, save for two caretakers, and sports a violent history plagued with suicide and brutal deaths, providing the mansion a fitting backstory, which is explained in detail by way of voice-over during the opening scenes.
The movie was filmed at Ettington Park, near the village of Ettington, Warwickshire, six miles from Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Ettington Park is a confusing Neo-Gothic styled manor house which has developed into an awkward blend of gables, chimneys, and random additions, the result of centuries of renovations, alterations, and major repairs.
While the house in its present form was dramatic and had the ability to appear somewhat frightening, director Robert Wise felt the need to make Ettington Park appear even more sinister and threatening than it was. To do so, Wise and his team attempted numerous lighting effects, camera lenses, and settings, as well as various angle and time of day test shots. Nothing, however, achieved the menacing effect needed to be successful in capturing his vision. A solution was eventually discovered through the use of infrared photography which achieved the sinister portrayal he needed. When used effectively infrared film has the ability to create an unreal dreamlike image, portray menacing skies, brooding architecture and ultimately the haunting atmosphere Wise had been pressing for.
Today, following extensive renovations throughout the 1980s, Ettington Park operates as a very successful luxury hotel, which openly purports a reputation as one of the most haunted hotels in the UK.
American Horror Story: Murder House
Rosenheim Mansion, 1120 Westchester Place, Los Angeles, CA.
American Horror Story (2011 – ) is a television series created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk with a unique twist – each season is a self-contained miniseries with no connection to the plots of subsequent seasons, save for members of the core cast who return in new (and sometimes previous) roles. Season one, entitled Murder House, is set in 2011 Los Angeles and centers on the unfortunate events of a family who moves into a house haunted by a history of former occupants.
The house utilized in the first season is the 1908 Alfred Rosenheim Mansion in the Country Club Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. For Murder House the production team dressed down the mansion to give it the appearance of overgrown abandonment to support a 1970 backstory when the house was to have been standing empty.
The three-story house contains six bedrooms, five bathrooms and numerous public entertaining rooms within its 10,500 square feet of interior living space. The residence is positioned on an acre of land in the exclusive “Country Club Park” neighborhood of Los Angeles. The property also includes several outbuildings including its own formal chapel which was converted into a world-class recording studio by a previous owner. In 2014 the house was listed for $4.5 million, but has subsequently been removed from the market and is now used exclusively for movie and television locational shoots.
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Ennis House, 2658 Glendower Ave, Los Angeles, California
Tried and true haunted house plots often rely on the same premise: perfect strangers are given a reason to spend the night in a spooky old house. Be it the blatant exploration of the house (The Haunting -1963), a challenge (House of The Long Shadows-1983), the reading of a will (The Cat and The Canary – 1939), or the threat of damaged reputations (Murder by Death -1976). In the case of House on Haunted Hill, it is the appeal of a monetary payoff which is the irresistible draw to spend the night.
The storyline centres around millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) and his fourth wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) who are hosting a “haunted house party” for five invited strangers, who each have the opportunity to earn $10,000 should they survive the night in the house. The added stipulation is, should they decide to leave, they must do so prior to midnight when the doors and windows are locked until the return of the caretakers the following morning. The storyline, the somewhat wooden acting of the cast, effects which are not supposed to be comical, and a grainy, black and white, B-movie feel has resulted in House on Haunted Hill becoming the perfect Halloween camp classic.
House on Haunted Hill was filmed in and around Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House in Los Angeles. Built in 1924 for Charles and Mabel Ennis, the home was one of four “textile block” houses which were based upon the design aesthetics of Mayan Temples. The 6,200 square foot house, constructed of more than 27,000 concrete blocks, sold in 2011 for $4.5 million and is in the process of being fully restored faithfully following original plans and utilizing original materials.
Beyond House on Haunted Hill, The Ennis House has been featured in many movie productions, including Blade Runner (1982), Black Rain (1989), The Day of the Locust (1975) and in television programs such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1996 -2003) and Twin Peaks (1990 – 1991).
Burnt Offerings (1976)
2960 Peralta Oaks Ct, Oakland CA
The plot of Burnt Offerings centers around Ben (Oliver Reed) and Marian Rolf (Karen Black), their 12-year old son David (Lee Montgomery) and Ben’s Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) taking advantage of a very inexpensive rent deal to secure a large, secluded, yet tired mansion for the summer. Over the course of their short tenancy, the behavior of each member of the family changes, through injury, harassment and even death. As each person’s health falters, so too does the house, absorbing each member’s life force in the process. Gradually the house improves itself in direct correlation to the breakdown of the family’s mental and physical well-being. Throughout the movie the audience witnesses the rebirth of plants in the greenhouse, the entire residing and re-shingling of the main houses intricate cladding, and the reconditioning of the estate’s pool, not without demonstrating the associative effects on the people involved.
The house used as the setting for Burnt Offerings is located in Oakland California, known locally as “Dunsmuir House”. Built by Alexander Dunsmuir, the original house was completed in 1899 as a wedding gift for his wife Josephine. Tragically, Alexander became ill and died while in New York on their honeymoon, his wife, returning home alone, died of typhoid shortly thereafter in 1901. Ironically these true events provide a haunting backstory to the Burnt Offerings plotline.
Overlook Hotel:The Shining
Timberline Lodge, Mount Hood, Oregon
The plot of The Shining centers on Jack and Wendy Torrance (Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall) and their 5year old son Danny (Danny Lloyd) moving into a remote hotel for the offseason where Jack has been employed as the caretaker. It is hoped that the seclusion of the hotel will work to mend broken family dynamics while allowing Jack to concentrate on his writing career.
The backstory to the hotel, so important in Kubrick’s movie, is cleverly relayed through conversations with the hotel’s manager, the hotel chef and various ghosts whom only Jack Nicholson’s character can see. It is during these conversations that we learn the fate of the previous caretaker whom succumbed to Cabin Fever and killed his entire family.
Initially, the Stanley Hotel in Estes Colorado served as the inspiration for the building, which inspired author Stephen King to pen the original book after a solitary stay. Kubrick based the movie version of the building on the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood in Oregon, but built a set at EMI Elstree Studios, a British soundstage, large enough to accommodate interior and exterior shots.
Although Kubrick used exterior shots of the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood just outside Portland Oregon as the fictitious Overlook Hotel, the majority of production took place at EMI Elstree Studios in England. Interior footage was completed in sets based on the interiors of another hotel, The Ahwahnee Lodge (renamed The Majestic Yosemite Hotel in 2016) in Yosemite National Park. Within these locations, Kubrick was extremely successful in engaging the hotel as a pivotal character in the movie rather than a backdrop to the plot.
To read more about the development of both The Shining movies, click here
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.