Giant bugs, dreamland slashers and psychotic clowns are among the Mojave’s on-screen haunts
The High Desert has served as the isolated and unforgiving backdrop in countless horror films over the years. Here are six that shouldn’t be missed this Halloween.
1. “Them!” (1954) | Rating: Not Rated | Violence & Gore: Mild
Remembered today as the first of the “Big Bug” movies popularized during the Atomic Age, “Them!” is also notable for its inventive special effects, which earned the film an Oscar nod at the Academy Awards in 1955.
“Them!” lost to Walt Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” but the nomination helped propel the creature feature beyond its seemingly preposterous premise of the world’s first nuclear test mutating a colony of tiny ants into 18-foot monsters.
Directed by Gordon Douglas, “Them!” is set in Los Angeles and New Mexico, but it’s the Mojave that appears on screen as the ant-infested Chihuahuan Desert. More specifically, many scenes were reportedly filmed on Blayney Ranch in Lake Los Angeles, about 37 miles west of Victorville.
Despite residential and commercial growth, the 160-acre ranch remains a hotbed for filmmakers and photographers on the hunt for that uniquely untouched desertscape.
2. “Tarantula!” (1955) | Rating: Approved | Violence & Gore: Mild
Released 16 months after “Them!”, the Jack Arnold-directed “Tarantula!” never earned Oscar acclaim, but that didn’t stop the movie from becoming one of the most memorable of the “Big Bug” era, and a divergent plot helps set it apart.
Rather than anything nuclear, it’s scientific research meant to increase the world’s food supply that inadvertently unleashes the giant arthropod on unsuspecting townsfolk in a remote Arizona desert. Once again, the Mojave plays the role, with several scenes filmed along Bear Valley Road in Apple Valley.
The most iconic shots feature the beast crawling over the rocks of Dead Man’s Point and onto the old road. There, local authorities try (and fail) to blow up the eight-legged villain, which was a live tarantula in most scenes, with dynamite.
Old timers say the burn marks from the explosion are still visible on Bear Valley Road to this day (just kidding).
3. “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977) | Rating: R | Violence & Gore: Moderate
“The lucky ones died first…” is the tagline for this cult classic about a California-bound family that runs into some trouble with cannibals when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. But it was director Wes Craven and producer Peter Locke who nearly died while the film was in development. Or so they say.
According to the late Craven in a documentary about “The Hills Have Eyes,” he and Locke rented a car and drove into the Mojave Desert to scout locations for their film. They eventually found the outskirts of Apple Valley — and an oppressive heat to which the New Yorkers weren’t accustomed.
“It was probably summer, you know, sometime really stupid. Like the time you should never go into the desert,” Craven said in the documentary. “We got back to the car, no fluid, and the car wouldn’t start … We looked at each other like, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to die.’”
The car, luckily, eventually turned over, and “The Hills Have Eyes” — on a $700,000 budget — went on to earn about $25 million at the U.S. box office in the summer of 1977.
The heat didn’t scare Craven and Locke away from their chosen setting either. “The Hills Have Eyes” was shot in rural Apple Valley in the fall — not the summer — of 1976. Lesson learned.
4. “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge” (1985) | Rating: R | Violence & Gore: Severe
Of course, Craven went on to create Freddy Krueger, one of horror’s most iconic madmen, for 1984’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” But he didn’t return for the sequel about a teenage boy (Mark Patton) whose dreams — and body — are haunted by the “Springwood Slasher.”
Craven’s absence didn’t stop the production from wandering off to the High Desert, though. The opening scene of “Freddy’s Revenge” plays out on a school bus from Hell that Krueger maniacally drives off road, to the terror of his poor passengers.
After blitzing past a few Joshua trees and prickly chollas, Freddy hits the brakes in a remote spot where the desert floor caves in and transforms into an elaborate set piece that resembles something out of a Salvador Dali nightmare.
Most of the scene was filmed in suburban Palmdale, with the bus veering off the pavement and into an undeveloped lot where East Avenue South and 51st Street East meet. The land remains vacant today but — fittingly for Freddy — leads right to an elementary school.
5-6. “House of 1000 Corpses” (2003) and “The Devil’s Rejects” (2005) | Rating: R | Violence & Gore: Severe
Knowing that Sid Haig died Sept. 21 at age 80, it would be wrong not to include the Rob Zombie-directed films that transformed the late actor into Captain Spaulding — a crazed, hillbilly clown with a taste for blood and fried chicken.
In the first film, Haig’s Spaulding operates the “Museum of Monsters and Madmen” out of an isolated gas station in the fictional town of Ruggsville, Texas. The gas station, however, is part of the Four Aces Movie Ranch on the northwest corner of East Avenue Q and 145th Street East in Lake Los Angeles.
The museum’s exterior was actually a diner that adjoins the gas station on the High Desert set located across the road from the aforementioned Blayney Ranch.
Zombie — who added a third film to the series this year with “3 From Hell” — returned to the region to film numerous scenes for “The Devil’s Rejects.” Spaulding’s ramshackle abode sits just off East Avenue J in Lancaster, for example, but the Club Ed Movie Set is where much of the violence plays out.
Situated fewer than six miles north of the Four Aces set, Club Ed can be found on 150th Street East in Lancaster. The set boasts a diner, gas station, auto parts store, motel and pool. Originally built for 1991’s “Eye of the Storm,” which starred Dennis Hopper, Club Ed has since appeared in dozens of productions.
Don’t get too comfortable, though. Killer clowns and their psychopathic cohorts have been known to roam the grounds.