Friday, December 31, 2010


After a few days in the Eastern Sierras, L and I headed west through the bayous of the Central Valley – a strange sight for two people who are usually think of California geography in terms of mountains, deserts and rocky coastlines. As we passed through Lodi, we listened to hometown hero John Fogerty’s desperate longing for cultural variety… and felt grateful that we weren’t stuck in Lodi. We didn’t stop again until we got to Santa Rosa. For me, this was the beginning of a short tour of Nightmare America – locations where filmmakers Alfred Hitchcock and John Carpenter made their mark.

Santa Rosa is the stand-in for idyllic small town America in Hitchcock’s film SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943) and, although the town is much more metropolitan today than it was when the film was made, you can still catch glimpses of WWII-era America there. All you have to do is take a short drive down McDonald Avenue and stand in front of the house where Hitchcock’s film was shot. The Newton family home still looks exactly as it did in SHADOW OF THE DOUBT, and the rest of the neighborhood is equally charming. On our visit, we experienced a constant shower of bright autumn leaves as we strolled down the street… adding to the sense that we had just stepped into a picture postcard. What better place for a murder?

Closer to the coast, we visited another famous Hitchcock filming location: Bodega Bay, home of THE BIRDS. Hitch claimed that he chose Bodega Bay because he wanted the film to have a foggy, overcast look. When it came time to shoot the film, however, the coastal community was bright and sunny. L and I had more suitable weather for our visit.

Our first stop was at the old schoolhouse on Potter Road, where Hitch loosed a flock of angry birds on unsuspecting children. According to a plaque on the front gate, the two-room school has been around since 1873. By 1961, when Hitchcock used it in THE BIRDS, the building was abandoned and condemned. A few years later, the Taylor family bought and restored it. Three generations of the family have lived in the house, and they are still gracious enough to allow film fans inside on the weekends. For hours, see

Not far from the school is winding Old Bay Road, which leads straight down into the village, past The Tides Restaurant where Mitch (Rod Taylor) and Melanie (Tippi Hedren) take refuge during the apocalyptic attack. From the back of the restaurant, you can look across the harbor and see where Mitch’s house once stood. In the film, Melanie took a motorboat to the other side, but today there’s a half-sunken sailboat in the way… and what looks like a trailer park on the other side. We didn’t have a motorboat, so we continued down the coast to Inverness, where John Carpenter made THE FOG.

Most of the main shooting locations for THE FOG have been well-documented by Sean Clark over at Horror’s Hallowed Grounds… but I note that when he visited Point Reyes Lighthouse, it was annoyingly clear and sunny out. We, on the other hand, had plenty of natural atmosphere. In Carpenter’s film, lighthouse keeper Adrienne Barbeau takes a long drive through rolling coastline hills to get to her destination. Tourists face the same laborious trek. The drive through Point Reyes National Park was so long that we were worried we’d run out of gas on the way to our destination… and the closer we got, the more the fog rolled in. The lighthouse itself is an impressive sight, sitting on the westernmost edge of the California coast, at the bottom of a narrow 308-step staircase.

Afterwards, we made a valiant attempt to visit Muir Woods, just north of San Francisco… but the place was so crowded that we couldn’t find anywhere to park. Thus, inadvertently, we passed over Muir Woods just as surely as Hitchcock did. Originally, the director had intended to use the park as the location for his film VERTIGO, but he shot instead at Big Basin State Park, south of San Francisco… so that’s where we headed.

We breezed through San Francisco in the pouring rain – past Fort Point, where Jimmy Stewart rescues Kim Novak after she throws herself into the San Francisco Bay – and wandered up the rain-soaked hills to the oldest (and arguably the least inviting) state park in California. By the time we got there, it was nearly 4pm and the woods were eerily dark. (Most of the trees are so old, and their growth so thick, that they blot out the sky on the sunniest of days.) After an hour of driving – with no idea how far we were from the famed “circle of Redwoods” that Hitchcock featured in VERTIGO – we decided to turn around and head back to our hotel in Half Moon Bay.

The next morning, we set out again for our destination… and found the park to be infinitely more impressive in the early morning sunlight. As we drove, shafts of heavenly light (look at the photos – there’s no other way to describe it) broke through the fog and lured us in. The Redwoods themselves were just as amazing – several of them towering 300 feet above us, and boasting 2,000 years more life experience than any of us will ever have.

Being there brought to life one of my favorite scenes in any Hitchcock film – a brief bit in VERTIGO where Kim Novak muses on her death and resurrection. In a haunting whisper, she traces the years between her two lives via rings on a cross-section of a giant Redwood. “Here I was born,” she says, “and here I died.” The scene has such ethereal lighting that I’d always assumed Hitchcock used some kind of filter in this scene – like the kind old studio directors used on aging actresses, to soften their features. After visiting Big Basin, I now realize that the ethereal quality of the scene has much to do with the way that the fog naturally diffuses the sunlight there.

We managed to catch more Hitchcock location on our trip… but this one came as a complete surprise. For a couple of years, I’d been eager to visit Point Lobos State Park in Monterey – even since I saw a couple photos of the place in a travel guide. One was a photo of a grove of twisted cypress trees, looking like something out of a childhood fairy tale, and the other was a photo of a stone stairway beside a wall of strange succulents. I was even more captivated by some of the stories I’d read about the park’s mythic inhabitants, The Dark Watchers. Over the years, many visitors (including John Steinbeck!) have claimed that the Watchers are real… and that Point Lobos is a natural hub of psychic energy.

I’m a sucker for these things, so I fell in love with Point Lobos immediately. When we stopped at an old whaling cabin on the shores of the park, I learned (via a museum exhibit) that Alfred Hitchcock had the same reaction. In fact, he shot his first American film, REBECCA (1940), here. In an interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitch explained that when he came to the States he was eager to incorporate specific American landscapes into his stories. If he had made REBECCA in England, he said, “the house would not have been so isolated because we’d have been tempted to show the countryside and the lanes leading to the house. But if the scene had been more realistic, and the place of arrival geographically situated, we would have lost the sense of isolation.”Almost twenty years later, Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak visited the same site for a pivotal scene in VERTIGO (1958).  It is, not coincidentally, the moment when Stewart finally embraces the illusion that will destroy him.

Point Lobos conveys the sense that one has reached the end of the earth... or maybe fallen over the edge. Whether that’s due to the strange sights all around the place or to the presence of Dark Watchers, who can say? Either way, it was a perfect end to the trip.

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