Monday, November 27, 2006

Plastic Fantastic Universal Studios

This weekend, L. and I went to Universal Studios... which made me question whether or not I’m too old to truly appreciate amusement parks. When I was a kid, I loved going to King’s Dominion and Busch Gardens in Virginia – my family would buy season passes, and we’d go every other week throughout the summer. I was a little disappointed to find that, at Universal Studios, there is nothing to compare with the rollercoasters at King’s Dominion or Busch Gardens. The Revenge of the Mummy rollercoaster is too short, and the Jurassic Park water ride is tame by comparison.
The main attraction for me, of course, was the studio tour… but I have to say that I have much prefer self-designed tours of random shooting locations in and around Los Angeles. Just this past Friday, I went to visit a friend in Agoura Hills and made a detour through the neighborhood where they shot exterior establishers for Poltergeist. (The main house is in Simi Valley.) As I wandered, I could practically hear the theme song in my head. On the edge of the neighborhood, there was also a random shooting location from Phantasm. Being there made the movies seem more real.
I learned about these locations from a guy named Sean Clark, who runs a website called “Horror’s Halloween Grounds.” He writes: “When we as fans visit these locations it is not unlike returning to a childhood home we haven’t seen in decades. They hold a special place in our lives. A piece of nostalgia from a classic moment in time. Even though you may have never been there before, you feel at home.”

I saw Poltergeist for the first time when I was seven years old and my mother was in the hospital. That movie scared the bejesus out of me. I still remember sitting in a darkened room while the credits rolled across the screen, listening to that ethereal theme music and feeling completely disoriented, as if I was only half awake. I knew that the things that happened in the movie couldn’t really happen… but scary movies served as a safe, friendly reminder that bad things could happen. Oftentimes, when people ask me why I like horror movies, I think of that particular time when I was learning to cope with the realization that bad things could happen. Driving through the neighborhood of Agoura Hills (called Cuesta Verde in the movie), I remembered how real the movie had been for me when I saw it for the first time.

I had a completely different reaction to the Universal tour. The back lot made everything seem fake. You may be protesting: "Of course it seemed fake. Sets on a back lot are fake." Often, they’re just wood and foam fa├žades – one or two sides of a building, with nothing behind them. This came as no surprise to me, but it was still a little disappointing to imagine some of my favorite films being shot in such a sterile environment.

Universal films have always been known for their grandeur. When Carl Laemmle founded the company during the silent film era, he aspired to create “the entertainment center of the world.” The studio’s first major success was the extravagant Lon Chaney feature The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). They followed up with The Phantom of the Opera (1925), which necessitated the building of the first front lot stage (now known as #28). These two films became templates for the Universal monster movies of the 1930s – Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933) – which kept the studio going strong through the Great Depression. Many of these horror films (as well as portions of the 1929 Best Picture All Quiet on the Western Front) were shot on the back lot’s “Little Europe,” which we passed on the tram tour. Sadly, the films were mentioned only briefly by the tour guide (“Hey look, there goes the Invisible Man…. Just kidding.”)
Despite the fact that the Psycho house and the Bates Motel loom large on the tour, they also got short shrift on the way to a much more “dazzling” sight: a suburban neighborhood devastated by a crashed airliner from the Tom Cruise vehicle War of the Worlds. We slowed to a crawl through that set, so I had to turn backwards to get decent photographs of Norman Bates’ home.

The tour organizers have obviously determined that most visitors would rather hear about newer blockbusters and television programs… Courthouse Square, made famous by Back to the Future, has been rendered unrecognizable for TV’s “The Ghost Whisperer.” The set on which Charlton Heston parted the red sea in The Ten Commandments is now little more than a storage place for miniatures from Peter Jackson’s King Kong. The home of “The Munsters” is now part of the suburban hell from “Desperate Housewives.” And then there’s Whoville… one of the most elaborate (and surely among the most hideous) sets ever created.

It was exciting to see Bruce the Mechanical Shark from Jaws in good working condition, after all the trouble he caused during filming. But then the tour guide gently informed us that this model of the shark was actually from Jaws: The Revenge.

That’s it, I thought, the bubble has been burst. Why mention a movie that nobody liked?
Universal goes to great lengths to immerse the casual visitor in the world of classic films – through the tour, interactive rides, actor lookalikes, and the constant blaring of familiar theme songs. But throughout the tour, I wanted nothing so much as to go home and watch the movies instead.
In the afternoon, we abandoned the amusement park and went to see the new James Bond movie. Somehow, this is the first time we’ve managed to make it to the cinema since we arrived in L.A. Even more shocking: This particular movie wasn’t a half-hearted effort at nostalgia. Daniel Craig actually manages to reinvent what had become a one-note character. (In my opinion, the new Bond has a touch of Steve McQueen.)

At the end of the day, I decided that I probably am too old to truly appreciate amusement parks - at least, the way I used to. I may also be too old to appreciate the current incarnation of the decades-old Universal tram tour... But I still had fun, mainly because I love being reminded of just how real some movies are to me. Even the actual locations and actors who brought a story to life don’t seem as real as the films themselves, because those fictional worlds have taken on a completely independent life in my memory.

That’s the magic of Hollywood.

The Hanging Tree - from "Phantasm"

Welcome to Cuesta Verde (Agoura Hills)

Welcome to Cuesta Verde (Agoura Hills)

In the foreground, you can see Universal's back lot. In the distance: Warner Brothers studio.

Universal Studios

... where you can ride the movies.


Brownstones, looking east

Brownstones, looking west

Church facade

Town square from "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"

"Little Europe"

"Little Europe"

After the filming of "Psycho 3," the house and motel were restored to their appearance in the original film. The oblong monstrosity above the motel is part of Whoville from the live-action "How the Grinch Stole Christmas"

Bedroom window of Mama Bates

The airplane crash set from "War of the Worlds" is directly behind the "Psycho" house

The Courthouse Square from "Back to the Future" (clock tower absent from the main building on the right), dressed for "The Ghost Whisperer"

Stage 50 is rigged for earthquake special effects.

Stage 55 is rigged for exploding cars.

Just in case you don't know, this is a hovercraft from Joss Whedon’s “Serenity.”

Our tour guide said that "Jurassic Park 4" is in the works.... but it looks to me like this franchise is pretty much played out.

This is why I don't have very many action photos. One minute, you're in "Little Mexico" admiring the view....

... the next minute, you're shielding your camera from flash flood waters that are headed directly for you...

It seems like every attraction at Universal Studios is designed to get you soaked.

Just when you thought it was safe....

Troubled waters

Bruce Almighty

Bruce gets hung out to dry

Nothin' says Christmas like a big blue monkey.

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