Monday, January 21, 2008

Inland Empire

This weekend, we took a roundabout way to Palm Springs. “Roundabout way” means (for me) taking frequent detours to check out some familiar filming locations in California's vast "Inland Empire."

Instead of driving straight through San Bernardino County, we veered north to Victorville on the southwestern edge of the Mojave Desert. Victorville was established in 1895, and the downtown area grew up around historic Route 66 (now 7th Street) after it was constructed in the 1920s. Though primarily known as a shooting location for westerns in the 40s and 50s, Victorville also served as a memorable setting during the heyday of Hollywood space sagas. Legendary director Jack Arnold (“Creature from the Black Lagoon,” "This Island Earth,” “The Incredible Shrinking Man”) shot the opening scene of “It Came from Outer Space” (1953) here. The UFO flew (in 3-D, no less) over the rocks on the east side of the Narrows, near the 1920s Rainbow Bridge, and crash landed in Old Town Victorville.

A few miles down the road, just east of the neighboring town of Apple Valley, Arnold staged another scene for “It Came from Outer Space” (the police barricade), as well as the optical illusion from his 1955 film “Tarantula.” The first time we see the titular beast (“Crawling terror 100 feet high!”), it is crawling over the rocks at Dead Man’s Point. “Tarantula” was one of the few early films in the “nature runs amok” subgenre that didn’t place blame for its monstrosities on nuclear experimentation… but I imagine that the desert setting (not far from military test grounds for aerial bombing) made more than a few viewers read the film as a warning about the unknowable dangers of entering the atomic age. Myself, I’ve always wondered why the military wouldn’t simply use their new bombs to take out the hundred-foot-tall spider. After all, where could he hide?

Driving east from Apple Valley, the desert becomes more desolate and more sinister. Lucerne Valley and Johnson Valley are the only settlements along Highway 18 (ironically known as Happy Trails Road) for nearly 50 miles. One need not spend much time staring out the windows at the seemingly abandoned houses to draw the conclusion that people who live here are a different breed. It takes serious physical and mental stamina to endure the harsh climate of the Mojave Desert, let alone the isolation. Wes Craven must have been a bit unnerved by his first trip through Lucerne Valley, because this is where he shot his 1977 cult film “The Hills Have Eyes” – about a family of cave-dwelling cannibals who assault a family of urban vacationers. To survive in this environment, the urban family must become absolutely primal.

Further south, we took another detour to visit Pioneertown – a full-fledged ghost town, built in 1946 as a live-in shooting location. The pictures say it all. This is one of the coolest attractions you’re likely to come across in the desert. It still houses several residents, and continues to serve as a filming location. According to The 80s Rewind Movie website, Pioneertown was also used as a shooting location for parts of Craven’s ill-conceived sequel “The Hills Have Eyes Part 2” (1985). That website berates the film with far more panache than I could, so I won’t bother to comment on the film itself. I will comment, however, on one similarity between the original and its 2007 remake…

Both feature some very creepy mines. While the remake was shot in Morocco (for $$$ reasons), the original “Hills Have Eyes Part 2” was shot in nearby Joshua Tree National Park. According to Harry Medved’s trusty tour guide “Hollywood Escapes,” the main house is in the Desert Queen Ranch, accessible only via guided tour. No tour guide is necessary, however, to visit Desert Queen Mine. (I should note that Medved’s book is a little misleading. He places the mine near Hidden Valley Campground, west of the Park Boulevard / Key’s View Road junction. In fact, the dirt road leading to the mine is east of the junction on Park Boulevard, between the Hall of Horrors and Skull Rock. Sounds appropriately ominous, doesn’t it?) The mine shafts were all barricaded… but, in at least one case, a very thin person could easily slip inside. Less than a hundred feet into the mouth of the cave, you’d find yourself in total darkness…

One last stop brought us full circle on our day trip. According to Medved, Cap Rock (at the junction of Park Boulevard and Key’s View Road) is where rockers Gram Parsons (of The Byrds) and Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones) reportedly got stoned and watched for UFOs. Parsons was so affected by the experience that he asked to be cremated on this spot. He wasn’t… but it still makes for a good story. It seems that everyone out here is either watching the night skies or burrowing into the earth. Maybe we should blame the overbearing desert sun for producing a certain strain of madness…

Old Town Victorville

The Narrows (Apple Valley side)


Dead Man’s Point

Lucerne Valley

According to Harry Medved, “The Hills Have Eyes” was shot in the hills behind this "settlement" on Barstow Road in Lucerne Valley. If that's true, the "call box" on the side of the road is strategically placed.

Mojave Desert (looking east from Barstow Road)


Jerry Garcia is alive and well and living in Pioneertown. Actually, we did meet a serious Deadhead here. After following the Grateful Dead for five years, he settled here and now makes beautiful glass jewelry.

Desert Queen Mine

Cap Rock

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