You’ve seen this movie before.
A pair of young city-dwellers drive out into “the country” to explore some remote curiosity. Maybe they’re on the way to visit a relative, or tracking a local legend, or – in the most hopeless cases – taking a “shortcut” to some commercial-friendly vacation destination. Whatever the case, the movie doesn’t end well. They make a wrong turn, pick up the wrong hitchhiker, get trampled by Lady Luck and/or Mother Nature before being tortured and killed by giant insects or an inbred family of hungry cannibals.
Oddly, this type of movie frequently gets shot in Antelope Valley, about sixty miles north of L.A. Driving through, it’s not hard to understand why. The high desert landscape is naturally forbidding. Strong winds stir up dust devils in the rocky sand and the only signs of life are Joshua trees – which don’t grow big enough to provide shelter from the sun. Here, a person is completely vulnerable to the elements. The population of the valley – concentrated mostly in the western cities of Palmdale and Lancaster – is growing fast, but settlements to the east still appear inhospitable. One gets a profound sense of loneliness on the empty roads, and hopes that this is not the day the radiator overheats or a tire blows out… because, as Hollywood has proven, this is the perfect place to disappear.
Four teenagers disappeared here in Rob Zombie’s directorial debut, “House of 1,000 Corpses." Their wrong turn landed them in Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen – better known as the Four Aces, on the corner of 145th Street and Avenue Q. The Four Aces is a shooting location with three distinct 1950’s-era sets: a diner, a gas station, and a motel. The motel was the main shooting location for the horror film “Identity,” starring John Cusack. This place looks so real that I have to wonder how many people have stopped here for gas, food, and/or lodging. At the same time, I can’t imagine that very many tourists wander by – the Four Aces is well removed from the main roads, and completely cut off from any other visible buildings.
Just down the road sits Club Ed, another shooting location made famous by Rob Zombie. Club Ed was built in 1991 for the Dennis Hopper film “Eye of the Storm,” and later served as the Khaki Palms Motel in Zombie’s “The Devil’s Rejects.” I think the motel section might have also been used in Quentin Tarantino’s “From Dusk Til Dawn.” When we pulled over to the side of the road to snap some photos, the resident/caretaker (who looked strikingly like John Carpenter) came out to protest. I remembered where we were – and that this is more or less how “House of 1,000 Corpses” begins, with nosy tourists annoying the locals – and we politely moved on to the next stop.
On Avenue G, we visited The Sanctuary Adventist Church – known to fans of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” as Uma Thurman’s wedding chapel. According to my trusty tour guide (Harry Medved’s book Hollywood Escapes), the diner across the street was featured in the Jean Claude Van Damme action-thriller “Desert Heat”… which I shamefully admit I have seen, and rather enjoyed. Unlike the Four Aces and Club Ed, which have been maintained for future film work, the “Desert Heat” diner looks like any other abandoned building on the western edge of the Mojave Desert… in a word: dead.
A few miles to the southeast, we visited the sleepy town of Lake Los Angeles, named for a body of water created in the 1960s in anticipation of a real estate boom that never happened. Today, the lake bed is completely dry. On its southern edge is a brand new public park, complete with baseball diamond. Strangely, when we visited the park on a Sunday afternoon, not a soul was there. I felt like we had wandered into the Village of the Damned… perhaps, I thought, there’s some kind of taboo about being in the new playground on the Sabbath. But I had to take a chance because I wanted a photo of the nearby Lovejoy Buttes, where giant ants menaced the heroes of the classic monster movie “Them!”
We made one more stop, further east on 240th Street, at Belle’s Diner. This is where Kurt Russell lost his wife in the 1997 thriller “Breakdown.” If you don’t remember the film (and I can’t hold it against you if you don’t), it’s about a yuppie couple who are driving from Massachusetts to San Diego when a group of backwater boys kidnap the wife and hold her for ransom. The remainder of the movie is silly as hell, but I always enjoy watching Kurt Russell fighting for his life. We watched it on DVD a few nights ago and recognized Moab, Utah, from our cross-country drive around this time last year. The similarities to our own trip were eerie. Since I knew I would never survive the ordeal that Kurt Russell went through to rescue his wife, we decided to head back for civilization.
Some day soon, maybe we’ll venture further east into San Bernadino County – home to Dry Mirage Lake (where Steven Spielberg filmed the desert scenes for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), Victorville (where Jack Arnold shot portions of “It Came from Outer Space” and “Tarantula”) and Lucerne Valley (from the original “The Hills Have Eyes”). For now, we decided to stick with the movies…
Four Aces motel
Four Aces diner
Village of the Damned