Monday, July 22, 2013

The Conjuring (2013)

Take a deep breath of fresh air.  Go ahead.  I'll wait.
Got it?  
That's the best way to sum up James Wan's The Conjuring.   It's truly a breath of fresh air in the Horror genre; original, well-made, well-acted, well-written and, most of all, scary!
Based on the files of ghost-hunting couple Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring tells the story of a family who moves into a deal of a house out in the Rhode Island countryside.  For Carolyn and Roger Perron (and their five daughters) things are quickly turned upside down as strange happenings begin in their new home.
Before they know it, the Perron family calls Ed and Lorraine Warren for help in determining just what the hell is going on in their home and why it's happening.
Playing out more like Poltergeist than Friday the 13th, the strengths of The Conjuring lay more in what isn't shown than what actually is.  Remember those days kids?  Surely anyone who's into Horror films can relate to being terrified that someone or something was in their closet, under their bed, or waiting in the shadows.  The screenplay by Chad and Carey Hayes really sticks to the point of the story and only brings in some minor subplots, though overall, it's really a fat-free Horror story at its heart.  
I recently read that James Wan studied various 1970s films to model the way he had this film shot; it shows.  Set in 1971, when the actual case occurred, it's nice to see a period Horror film taken seriously and not just an uber fan director trying to emulate the style of "a Horror movie from the 70s".  Everything about this film feels authentic and that was truly something that I appreciated and helped make the world within the film that much more real and believable.  

As Ed and Lorraine Warren, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga embody two characters who really can be (hopefully) the next great Horror franchise characters . . . more on that later.  Both actors bring their A-games and, although the story is about the Perron family, their performances really pull viewer interest towards the Warrens.  Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston are also in fine form as Carolyn and Roger (the girls who play their daughters are all exceptional as well); in fact, I was truly impressed with everything that all of the major players allow themselves to go through in this film!  

Keeping in mind that this film is based on factual accounts and that Ed and Lorraine Warren are very real paranormal investigators, there's a sense of realism found here that you don't really see in too many Horror films.  Sure, it's so easy to slap "Based on a true story..." onto a film and watch the money roll in, but . . . well, do the research yourself on this case after you see the film and come to your own conclusion.  In fact, while browsing around, I found a photo gallery of Lorraine in the Warrens' basement occult museum; in the photo was a particular item featured in The Conjuring and seeing the real thing definitely sent a shiver over me. 
The moment the lights went up in the theater, I immediately had to Google the Warrens as their name and story seemed very familiar to me . . . I almost knew I'd seen something with them before.  Sure enough, they both appeared in the Fangoria documentary series Scream Greats Vol II:  Satanism and Witchcraft, with their interview footage and testimonials butting heads with a bargain basement practicing Satanist!  Again, this realization just made this movie that much more real for me.

Speaking of that occult museum . . . having investigated over 10,000 paranormal cases since starting their career in 1952 (Ed unfortunately passed away in 2006, but Lorraine still investigates on her own), the Warrens have amassed quite a collection of artifacts and trinkets which were central to each and every investigation.  In the film, it plays almost like the antique shop in Friday the 13th:  The Series and one immediately wonders how much of it is made up . . . oh, I assure you, it's very real though!  Basically, as it's portrayed in the film, it's a virtual endless fountain of macguffins for continuing the continuing adventures of Ed and Lorraine very much in the vein of Kolchak:  The Night Stalker!  After seeing this film and looking up a little history on the Warrens, it's apparent that their four other most famous investigations would make incredible movies . . . in fact, the door is left wide open for a sequel focusing on what is perhaps their most famous case! 

By the end of the film, audiences will have seen everything went in expecting without the usual stereotypical bullshit found in most mainstream Horror films released during the summer months (ie:  no ridiculous CGI final showdown that has viewers distracted by how fake everything looks).  If you're a serious Horror fan, please do yourself a favor and go see this film now . . . it's already on track to be a hit, but please support it for the fact that it's an original, R-rated serious Horror film.

See it!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Dawn of the Dead: The Monroeville Project

Think of a place that truly means something to you....does that place hold some sort of special memory?  A memory that is instantly brought back the moment you step foot in that place? 

Now think of your all time favorite movie....have you ever wondered what it would be like to step into that movie?  For most of us, our favorite movies were probably filmed on massive soundstages.  As much as some of us wish we could walk into the Death Star hangar or train for "the big fight" in Mighty Mick's Gym, those classic locations were merely sets which have now likely been dismantled and destroyed unfortunately.

For as long as I can remember, there's been one place that combines both of the things I asked you to really think about. 

The movie is, of course, Dawn of the Dead and the place is The Monroeville Mall where, in the Fall of 1977, four survivors of a national crisis sought refuge from hordes of the living dead.

Above:  January 1978...Below:  April 2013
As early as my second or third time seeing Dawn of the Dead, I clearly remember fantasizing about going to the mall.  Growing up in New Jersey, I've seen my share of shopping malls, many of which were probably built around the same time as the Monroeville Mall as some of them even featured similar decor and structures.  For those of you back home, the Whitehall Mall outside of Allentown, PA had some very similar features near its entrances....until it was pretty much demolished and got a massive facelift, as so many of these classic malls have fallen victim to....yes, even the Monroeville Mall.

Living a brisk walk away from Pennsylvania for most of my life, making a trip to Monroeville, PA seemed like a no brainer!  Unfortunately, that never materialized, as family vacations and roadtrips never quite veered far enough west along I-80.

Last year, for my 30th birthday, I knew I had to do something special to commemorate the event.  The idea of road-tripping it back to New Jersey to see my family and friends came up and...of course, Monroeville happens to be on the way!

After doing some solid research on-line for addresses of not just the Monroeville Mall, but other locations from Dawn of the Dead, as well as The Crazies, and Night of the Living Dead, my wife Sandee and I were all set to go.  In fact, to say we were excited is way too much of an understatement.

Though, before we really get along on our journey, Dear Reader, I've gotta introduce some sort of antagonist, don't I?  Every good story has a great antagonist, right??  Well, while doing my research on various George Romero-themed websites and message boards, I came across a post from someone who had recently visited the mall....this person claimed that the JC Penney's store, which had been the main location for a lot of the action in Dawn of the Dead, was ultimately closing and being demolished to make way for a movie theater!

What now?!?!  That can't be!!  They can't really destroy a place of horror movie history and, ironically, turn it into a movie theater....could they?  With that question hanging over our heads, we set off for Monroeville, PA.....

Our first location appears to be pretty far from the mall itself, but is actually a lot closer than you'd think!  Early in the film, the four friends need to find helicopter fuel and come across a large posse of local hunters and National Guardsmen out "hunting" the living dead.

Just try and look at this pic and NOT start humming "Cause I'm A Man" as it plays in the film!
 Most of the "redneck" scenes were filmed at a nearby golf course which is actually right up to the left in the location photo.   You can also see that the house, road, and general area remain untouched aside from 35+ years of tree growth.

This area is actually a bit of a treasure trove of Dawn and Romero-related locations....just down the road from the Redneck House is the Monroeville Airport (Harold W. Brown Memorial Field)....

I guess they truly DID hit the pumps and they took off....with the pumps!
It was pretty surreal when we first arrived at the airport, parking right across from the helicopter landing pad!  At first, you turn down a gravel road which is marked by warning signs of trespassing and threats of being protected under Homeland Security(!)'re there!

And, exactly as the location is laid out in the film, right across from the landing pad is the field house....

Beware of bald, redneck zombies and crazy kiddie zombies when entering this building!
Unfortunately, both times we visited the airport, no one was around for us to ask if we could get a peek inside.  For those who maybe aren't Dawn fans, a lot of action was filmed in the field house and all over the airfield itself.

Remember what I said about this area being a treasure trove of locations?  Well, just over the trees behind the field house is a small residential neighborhood...containing none other than the house from the wrap-around story in Creepshow!

If Tom Atkins actually lived here, I'd be tempted to be an ass just to have him come out and yell at me!
As our heroes in the film eventually do, I think it's time we headed to the mall . . . shall we?

Here we see the original JC Penney's location, one of the first and longest-standing residents of the mall.
 The first location at the mall that is shown in the movie is, of course, the JC Penney's store as our heroes fly over the barren parking lot.  It's funny that I didn't actually realize the first location shown in the film is, in fact, Penney's . . . though, once I first stepped foot onto the property or inside the mall itself, I felt as though I'd been there a million times before!

"They're in Flyboy.  They opened the loading docks!  With those bay doors open, there's gonna be a thousand zombies in here."

The entrance we chose to enter the mall first was, of course, the loading docks.  This is where a good majority of some of the more important action takes place.  This is, of course, the second entrance that Peter and Roger block with the trucks and, ultimately, where Roger gets bitten.  It's also the entrance that the raiders later use to get into the mall with their bikes.

The photo above of the zombies, of course, is what a lot of us first saw from the old VHS tape!
The area seen above is so cool; as soon as you see the stone wall -- which is seen so much during the raider invasion as well as most noticeably as the back cover photo of the film's original VHS release -- it's instantly recognizable!  The first time we were there, there was actually a large tree planted in the open area off to the bench's right side (you can see it in the nighttime shot above).  When we came back in November, though, the tree was gone, making the area more resemble its 1978 version!

Once inside the loading dock doors, the mall really hasn't changed all that much . . . 

One of the interesting things that I noticed while first seeing the mall in person versus seeing it a million times in the movie is that it seems so much smaller in reality.  So many areas seen in the film always felt like they were shot in some other remote area, yet a majority of them were shot in a lot of the same areas.

From this entrance, there's a long hallway, leading to the main part of the mall.  This hallway was used for a variety of set pieces throughout the film; it's most commonly seen as Peter sets his sights on the Tommy Gun Raider as the bikers retreat.

Stationed at one end of the mall, this entrance leads to the area known as Fountain Square where the fountain originally was located.  This is on the Macy's side of the mall which, at the time of filming, was home to Hornes department store.

As you can see, today, it's a virtual petri dish of germs as the fountain has been replaced with a Mister Rogers' Neighborhood-themed childrens' play area.  Also, unfortunately, the cool stairwells stationed in each of the anchoring ends of the mall, which the zombies so prominently climbed, have been replaced with escalators. 

Directly above this area, as well as at the other end of the mall where the Clock Tower once stood, are those funky skylights which are famously seen at the start of the film's end credits.  The first time I looked up and saw them, I knew I was HERE . . . a great feeling!

Keeping with the film, we had to enter the JC Penney's store from the upper level, so let's make our way up there, shall we?

Up on the second floor and on the way to Penney's is, of course, one of the most instantly recognizable spots from the film:  the hallway that leads to the apartment hideout of our heroes!

Any fan knows that, just to the left side of the DVD screencap above, there's a fake wall that was put into place to mask the seemingly never-ending hallway (which actually leads out to the parking lot!).

It's worth noting that the change in the color scheme makes the hallway just a little more inviting and friendly.  Every time we've been to the mall, there is always a family or two with small kiddos in a hurry to get to the rest rooms located at this end!  You can also see a difference in the height of the hallway . . . it looks like, over time, there were some changes to the structure of it.

Now hit the department store!  Go!

This shot is such a classic!  The location photo we got was actually by accident, but it's still a great shot, don't you think so?

When there's no more room in HELL, the dead will walk the Earth.
Unfortunately, this was one (of two) of the only times I was able to visit the Penney's store; you see, the rumors were indeed true:  this location was closing to make way for a movie theater.

Seeing Penney's in her state of disrepair -- fixtures removed, CLOSEOUT sale signs, and general emptiness was bittersweet.  It was absolutely a bummer to see the store closing, knowing that Horror fans would forever be losing a piece of film history.  With that being said, it was also a treat to see the store almost completely empty!  In fact, for my next visit to the mall in November of 2012, it had been closed and was in the process of being completely gutted . . .

To most visitors of the Monroeville Mall, the JC Penney's store may have just been a tired, old department store well beyond its expiration date . . . but to Horror fans around the world, it held a special place in our collective heart.  

The main areas of interest in Penney’s were, of course, the escalator which Roger famously slides down the middle of, and the elevator where Flyboy meets his fate.
Heeeeeey Peter!
At the time we were there, the escalator was also in a state of disrepair.  Over the years, its wide open view point from the 2nd floor down to the ground floor had been replaced with a walled-in mirror look commonly found at most department stores.  Of course, the escalator itself still remained and, from what I could tell, most of the surrounding departments remained in the same area – with the Home Entertainment area being off to the right on the ground floor.

The first day we were there, I was nervous about sliding down the escalator – hey, I had to do it, if not for being a fan of the film and dreaming about it for so long, at least to get to do it before the store closed!  After much urging from my better half, I took a slide and recorded it . . .

Good times!  

When we returned the next day, the escalator was actually not working at all and was roped off for “maintenance” . . . something tells me they were trying to deter anyone else from taking one last slide though!

The elevator had seen some changes over the years; most notably with its interior, which had been modernized.  Though, once the store was closed and demolition had begun, I was delighted to see several fans with access to the store and her parts posting photos of the original wood paneling inside the elevator, which had been hidden by the added modernizations!  Very cool!

Get me a screwdriver and something to stand on for down there....
On the ground floor, the area around the elevator saw many changes; in the film Flyboy runs past what looks like a small office or service desk.   Ultimately, the hallway leading down to the elevator had solid walls, a small doorway leading to several offices and a drinking fountain.

The second day we were there, more of those "Elevator" letters were missing....

The 2nd floor of the elevator, where Flyboy eerily returns as a zombie, looked pretty much the same as it did in the film!  It’s worth noting that, in the film, I had no idea that the exterior entrance of the mall was literally just out of sight in the right hand portion of the screen!

This is actually one of the shots that, for me, has always stood out from this film and genuinely creeped me out!
You can see that the area remained the same, aside from some modern flooring, a change of carpet, and the overhead lighting panels removed.   In fact, the door just to the left of the elevator appeared to even have the exact same sign “Associates Only”!

During that November visit, while the interior mall entrances were closed, the exterior doors to the gutted Penney’s were indeed wide open as demolition crew cleared out the location.   I was able to quietly step inside and see Penney’s in her naked state; the entrance I went in was right by Flyboy’s elevator, which was closed off unfortunately.  The little bit of Indiana Jones in me wanted to remove the elevator button for my collection, but alas, it had already been dismantled and what was once used in the film to reveal the Flyboy zombie was now just an errant wire sticking out of the panel.

These photos were taken in November 2012 as Penneys was being prepped for demolition.
Sadly, there was nothing I could really grab as a souvenir.

The Lower Level entrance to Penney's.

The LL entrance again.  This is also where Fran encounters the Nun Zombie.
Perhaps the most famous JC Penney store . . . ever?

Goodbye JC Penneys.

Moving along through the rest of the mall, the next location to check out would be one of the other entrances that the heroes lock from inside before they go on a hunt.

This particular location was interesting to me as it's actually on the upper level of the mall!

This entrance is relatively unchanged from how it appears in the film!
Also worth noting here is, along the wall leading to this entrance, there's an incredible mural painting that recognizes many great aspects of Pittsburgh history and pride -- including Dawn of the Dead and even The Dark Knight Rises.

The mural itself is actually a little further down than what is shown in the film.
  Here, we also get another famous line from Peter as the heroes finally take over the mall.

"We'll get it all locked off . . . then we're going on a hunt."
 After "the hunt' is over and all of the zombies still inside the mall have been put down, there are several locations highlighted in one of Dawn's best montage sequences.

The first is the coy pond.   In the film, there are several little pond/bridge combos seen, most of which have long been removed except for, of course, the coy pond.  The area around the bridge has changed a bit with the removal of the foliage and refurnishing of the floors, but the coy pond and its bridge remain as one of the last truly recognizable landmarks from the film.

Another area shown in the aftermath of the "the hunt" -- and shown quite a bit in the film -- is the Town Square area at the end opposite the Fountain Square.  This, of course, was home to the mall's famous Clock Tower.  The anchoring department store is now the new location of JC Penny; during filming Gimbel's department store was located there.

At one point, this area housed a trampoline/bungee attraction for kids.

Later on in the film, Roger finally succumbs to the bites he received earlier while blocking the entrances of the mall.  Once he turns and . . . comes back, Peter puts him down and he and Stephen bury him in one of the gardens of the mall.

As you can see, the tropical jungle-esque gardens that once took up a great deal of the lower level's floor space have all but been removed.

Now, let's take a look at one of the more secret filming locations found deep within the bowels of the Monroeville Mall . . . 

The boiler room.

In the shot above, I'm not quite sure if it's the same area.  With that being said, the boiler room itself is quite small and, well, it's a boiler room -- and a fully-functioning one at that!  With all of its lighting on, it's not quite as foreboding as it appears in the film.

Although I'm unsure if I'm in the same area that's shown in the screen cap above, there is at least one place in the boiler room that stands out and is immediately identifiable....

The control room. 

Looking at this photo, I'm wondering if Romero consciously went for moodier lighting to hide the clutter.
 One of the coolest aspects of the Monroeville Mall is that, true to Romero's original inspiration for setting Dawn there, it really is operationally self-contained.  I'm told that it's also one of the first (if only?) climate-controlled malls, operating under its own resources.  So, yeah, when the heroes first arrive to the mall and Peter notices that the power's still on and it "could be nuclear"?  He wasn't bullshitting.

Below, you see the interior of the office (as glimpsed through the door as the technician was getting ready to close up shop at the end of the night).  Looking at all those gauges -- which remain almost identical to the way they were seen in the film! -- I'd say this little, tiny office is truly the nerve center for the entire mall!  Seriously, just looking at the pic as I'm typing this, I'm smiling in amazement that this area hasn't really changed at all! 

"Hit 'em all.  We might as well have power on everything.  We might need it."
Here, we see the famous office where Peter and Roger grab the "keys to the kingdom" and flip on all of the mall mechanical features such as the muzak, displays, and even the escalators . . . 

Yes, this is where the late Clayton Hill, as the Sweater Zombie, took his ride.  Every fan should give it a go in his memory!
Even though the cool staircases originally situated at either of the anchoring ends of the mall have long since been replaced with escalators, the original escalators in the center of the mall have always remained.  Gone, though, is the funky floor tiling, which has been replaced with a marble-esque floor, a "fell off the truck" perfume kiosk, and a set of Lazy-Boy recliners . . . speaking of which, why are we seeing more and more of this sort of "living room" set-up in the middle of shopping malls?  Are we really that lazy that we need to sit down in a faux living room while we're shopping??

Also worth pointing out are the French marble columns seen throughout many of these photos.  From my knowledge, they're original to the mall and, at first glance, most of them look as though they've never been replaced outside of minor patch-up work here and there.  
Speaking of the marble columns, you may also notice something a little different . . . the light fixtures.  Unfortunately, the original light fixtures seen so prominently in the film, have long since been replaced by the night stand-like shaded lamps.  

Of course, the late Monroeville Zombies museum and gift-shop managed to hold onto a few of those awesome fixtures . . . 

Wouldn't these lights make the coolest living room centerpiece?
Maybe one day, I really will have one of these in my house.
 Speaking of Monroeville Zombies, fear not fiends . . . like any good zombie, they won't stay dead!  The museum will be returning VERY soon in its new home as The Living Dead Museum in the place where it all really began:  Evans City, PA.

Moving on to some other locations in the mall, let's lace up our skates and go for a spin around the ice rink at the Ice Palace shall we?

Oh wait . . . it's been replaced with a food court.  Damn!

Well, there were some zombies eating on the ice, so I guess this is only fair, right?

As far as I'm concerned, there's only ONE Sbarro Pizza and it's at the Monroeville Mall.
It's pretty much your standard mall foodcourt with all the usual types of food you'd find; Asian, BBQ, Chicken, Burgers, and a Sbarro Pizza.  Naturally, I recommend the Sbarro Pizza myself, as the slices are always great (especially when they're fresh) and the service is always top notch and friendly!   

Also, a brief word of caution:  the bathrooms in the foodcourt area are disgusting!

"Say 'goodbye', creep!"

One thing that pretty much any Dawn fan can agree on is how amazing Tom Savini's special make-up and effects are in the film.  One of the absolute standout images from the film occurs when the raiders invade the mall, letting thousands of zombies in with them; almost like they're having a good old time, the raiders start butchering the zombies.  

Savini's character of Blades is knocked off his bike by a zombie passerby.  Back on his feet, Savini swings his machete down into the ghoul's skull, effectively showing some of his cinema magic, as well as turning young Lenny Lies (who stood in as said zombie) into one of the most famous zombies in film history!

Soon, Peter and Stephen start shooting at the raiders, taking them out one by one.  Blades catches on and tries to hunt Peter down . . . 

"Ohhhh, you mother!"
 Before Penney's was torn down and moved, one of the only other stores that remained from the film is this Naturalizer.  Believe it or not, it was a Naturalizer store during filming and remains so to this day!

Also a stuntman, Tom Savini actually did this stunt himself . . . twice.  The first time didn't go so well.   When visiting the mall, please don't try this kids!

Another famous and notorious spot in the mall is the blood pressure machine.  These days, you don't see too many of these machines actually inside a mall, as they're usually tucked away inside pharmacies or mega stores like Wal-Mart and Target.

"Hey man!  What the hell ya doin, playin' around when someone's up there shootin' at us?"
These days, the blood pressure machine has been replaced by a Vitamin Water machine!

Outside the mall, there are still many more places to check out . . . 

As I said earlier, a lot of action takes place outside the Loading Dock entrance.  This area is also home to a shot in the film that forever had me puzzled in terms of layout . . . 

Obviously, the shot in the film was taken from the rooftop, which gives the illusion that there are more than two levels to this area of the mall.  In reality, the little squared off area looks down right above the loading dock doors themselves.  Right behind the railings is the mall entrance to the second level directly above the loading docks hallway.

This spot is great, though, as you can see out across most of the back end of the parking lot -- again, where a lot of action occurs in the film.  Directly to the right of the railing is where the famous, pod-like lamp posts were as seen when the heroes first arrive at the mall.
Looking at the pic below, I see what they did when the mall was updated . . . there originally was a staircase, similar to the ones by the Clock Tower and fountain.  In the screen cap, you can see the handrail for the stairs in the right hand corner. 

Looking out across the parking lot, you'll instantly recognize the service road that Peter and Roger tear down in the trucks as they block the entrances.

Those of you outside of the East Coast, might not be familiar with A & P grocery stores, but seeing that store in the strip mall across the parking lot in the film always made everything feel a lot more real and much closer to home.  Growing up, my hometown had an A & P and, along with that one, I used to go to at least two or three others, so this inclusion here always made me chuckle.  

These days, the A & P is now a Guitar Center.  In the film, you don't really much more of that annex where A & P was located, but these days, it's almost like a mini mall in and of itself!

Again, this area is where the second truck blocking scene takes place and it's also home to one of the squishiest (if not underrated) scenes in the film!  As Roger backs his truck up against the Loading Dock doors, he runs over the head of a zombie that Peter hit while turning into the area in front of the entrance.

Oddly enough, as we were leaving the mall, a truck was making deliveries and was parked in almost the exact same spot as Roger's truck!  

Well, there you have it.  I can't say this enough:  If you're a Horror movie fan, you owe it to yourself to check out the Monroeville Mall.  Sure, a lot of it has changed and it may very well be unrecognizable to the untrained eye . . . but to the rabid, dare I say "obsessed" Dawn of the Dead fan, it's like stepping into the film!  Every time we go back to the mall, it's like seeing an old friend that I've known for most of my life.  

So, what are you waiting for?  Plan your trip and see it for yourself!

The Monroeville Mall:  After Hours
Thanks for sticking around and reading through this piece; I've been slowly working on it for almost a year now!  It's been fun going through and finding the locations and matching them up to their film versions.

Remember, this is by no means a final guide to all of the Dawn locations . . . I've still got a few more to search out!

In the meantime, feel free to also check out the video version of this article . . .