Exploring the world of movie locations – the unchanged and the long lost.
There’s something about movie locations that I love – and quite often obsess over. Whether it’s the hotel setting and freezing maze seen in The Shining and the sinister swaying fields of Children of the Corn or the quiet, terrified coastal resort of Hitchcock’s The Birds and the leering rocky terrain of Picnic at Hanging Rock– location can define the films we love the most. Take the blisteringly hot Outback location of Nic Roeg’s Walkabout, a film that effortlessly leers over its location as much as a focus of attention as it relishes Jenny Agutter running around in the shortest of skirts or skinnydipping when the opportunity arises. Most of all, the Outback in Walkabout is used by Roeg as friend, enemy, saviour and stranger alike. Location here is so vital to the film it may as well have its own co-starring credit.
Imagine a really bad movie in terms of script and acting. I’m talking about the worst of the worst. If it takes place in a rustling field of barley on the top of a lonely coastal cliff path, shot moodily at sunset, with crashing waves below – I’ll probably love that bad film a whole lot more (call me shallow if you like!). Location and cinematography are as important for me to be able to appreciate a film as the screenplay, cast or direction. It’s also true that a great script can be scuppered by flat cinematography or a terrible choice of location shoot, but I think there are few film studios that conjured up a sense of place as well as Hammer. When they shot entirely in the studio, the results were never as much fun. Thankfully, most Hammer films went outdoors and filmed those near-legendary day-for-night scenes and creepy fog-drenched debauchery in the nearby likes of Black Park in Buckinghamshire. Like the most poetic of peepers, the Hammer house camera focused on all kinds of sin and Satanism, bloodlust and ravishing goings-on in the local woodland.
The one thing that made nearly all the Hammer films so memorable, often alongside the terrific scripts, swarthy direction and a now legendary cast, were those gorgeous countryside locales that happened to be right on their doorstep, just outside the famous Hammer film studios at Bray. These woods and the Bray backlot were shot from every conceivable angle – you never would have guessed that the same stretch of woodland appeared in so many films. Until I read the book on the subject, Hammer Films on Location, and the odd stretch of woodland road or gravel pit (since filled in) and grander place markers such as Oakley Court (owned by an eccentric French gent in a top hat with an organ in the hallway that “made a terrible noise”) and the decrepit old mansion called Down Place (later to be renamed ‘Bray Studios’) become, by the last page – old and dear friends.
Locations in the surrounding area of Bray included: the 18th Century lake at Black Park from whose murky depths the lovely, but dead, Susan Denberg was fished out from in Frankenstein Created Woman; Frensham Ponds in Surrey that doubled for Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles or Chobham Common, also in Surrey, where Peter Cushing tries to run over a local beggar girl with his horse-drawn carriage in The Evil of Frankenstein, a place where a plague of zombies also once descended – you can’t help but wonder, when all goes quiet, whether the old Hammer crew are missed as much by the locations themselves, as they are by the hordes of Hammer fans that yearn for those effortlessly atmospheric movie-making days of old.
In later years, Hammer films moved away from Bray and shot on stages at Pinewood and Elstree. As the authors of the book suggest, it just wasn’t the same, even though Hammer still managed to sneak back to those favourite locations of old – those deep, twisting, autumnal woods with endless paths that always seemed to meet in the middle amid plenty of lush, as good as alive, undergrowth to run through as a certain man in a cape gave chase.
In 1966 it seemed that Hammer’s home had been staked through the heart at around the same point that cast and crew said farewell to Bray and headed off to Elstree to film Quatermass and the Pit. There’s little doubt that the best years of Hammer’s life for many fans (though personally, I prefer the later Hammer movies, post-Bray Studios) started in the mid-Fifties when films such as The Curse of Frankenstein and the earlier Quatermass instalments were shot, all the way up to that final Bray Studios-based location shoot in 1966 for The Mummy’s Shroud – a period when the famous Bray Studios backlot also housed Dracula’s castle that towered over the fresh-necked locals (usually assisted by a Les Bowie matte painting of mountains as a backdrop) or the village where Frankenstein’s work spread suspicion like a flaming torch in a pile of dry timber.
Hammer would also travel to nearby villages to film on location, irrespective of which studio they were based at, and these quaint English villages have now been immortalised in the world of British horror forever, like it or not. Wherever Hammer headed to, I think it’s fair to say that these were people who knew how to use a location better than any other homegrown film company, then or since. Even in the present day, with Hammer films such as the wonderfully eerie Wake Wood (2011) where the rural Irish locations in the village of Pettigo (itself a place seeped with local legend) are used to brooding, earthy effect – a Hammer horror film remains familiarly distinctive of place and somehow timeless.
Hammer Films on Location is written by Wayne Kinsey and former Hammer employee and film industry insider, Gordon Thomson. I say written, but the better word to use here is probably ‘investigated’ and it’s Thomson who provides most of the field research and photographs while Kinsey comments and places the shots in context as well as providing brief, informative reviews of all the films listed. Kinsey admits in his introduction that he has never been a huge fan of location hunting, but as the book progressed and his co-contributor sent back such fascinating snaps of locations in present-day disarray or unspoilt beauty as intact as the day the Hammer crew left for home, he became gripped by the location-hunting bug and went out scouting for those familiar areas used by Hammer as well.
Halfway through the reading of this book, I too developed the urge to go out and explore some of the locations mentioned; and I did. I focused on two areas of initial interest. First up was the unspoilt picture postcard beauty of the village of Hambleden in Buckinghamshire, listed in the Domesday Book of 1086 as ‘Hanbledene’. This village was used for Hammer’s 1966 shoot on the film The Witches that starred Joan Fontaine who had acquired the rights to the novel The Devil’s Own by Norah Loft (written under the pseudonym ‘Peter Curtis’) and which had been adapted as a screenplay by ‘Mr Quatermass’ himself – Nigel Kneale. Not far from the village of Hambleden is the imposing and mysterious mausoleum of Sir Francis Dashwood (the founder of the Hellfire Club, and a man of dubious repute whose club was also a probable inspiration for Hammer’s Taste the Blood of Dracula) to be found above the village of West Wycombe – this was a location used for the climatic scenes of 1976’s To the Devil a Daughter, featuring Christopher Lee and Nastassja Kinski.
Hambleden remains untouched by modern-day invasions of High Street stores or tourists, and I had a picture taken of myself standing outside the local Butcher’s shop called ‘Wheelers’ that you can spot in the movie and that, perhaps unexpectedly, remains unchanged to this day. There’s a wonderful tearoom in the village that’s part of the post office (also trebling up as the village store as well) on the village square where an elderly couple, a family and a weather-beaten farmer sipped at cups of tea and nibbled cakes. In the centre of the village is an old church with an arched gate just the right height for a horse and carriage to pass through and a stone monument that, if I didn’t know it was actually real – could almost have been placed there by the Hammer props department! I took a picture of the quite eerie village hall too that was short of windows the further round you went, just ripe for all kinds of secret goings-on. This village hall was actually used as the location for Heddaby School in The Witches, and today is mostly unchanged in appearance.
Despite its quaint nature, Hambleden does have its sinister secrets, and a few years back the remains of newborn babies were found stored packed tightly inside cigarette cases in a local museum, where they had remained in storage for over 100 years (having been excavated from a sprawling and mysterious Roman villa site in the area). Some theories led to a suspicion that the villa was once the site of a brothel and the babies that resulted from the services rendered, were killed at birth. Other, stranger, speculation, focused on a ‘mother goddess cult’ where having babies at a shrine earned you spiritual protection. The ones stored away were those that were stillborn. A carving on one of the bones that had been excavated was thought to indicate sacrifice of some kind, and while nothing has been proven conclusively – the mystery has rumbled on.
Surrounded by stunning, vibrant woodland and countryside, Hambleden village also has an old-fashioned pub, the ‘Stag & Huntsman’. The side bar has a private feel, decidedly not for tourists, though I’m sure visitors would be welcome (although when I visited this side of the bar, the landlord mysteriously went missing!) and it’s a room that feels unchanged over many decades, just like the butchers next door or the village hall round the corner, or the house next to the village hall that has decidedly strange objects worthy of the Hammer prop department cluttering up on a window shelf; rusted metal boxes and strange wood carvings covered in cobwebs and long-forgotten purpose. Or – if there is some kind of purpose, it may well be best not to let the visitors know until sunset when the cackling starts, the cauldron boils and the locals meet in a circle in the hall around a strange occult symbol carved in stone at their feet. Of course, I could be wrong. The objects could be childish toys that became boring, the side bar a modern extension, and the tearooms just for tourists with a pretend farmer from the local amateur dramatics group there once a week to make up the numbers. I don’t think so though. The buildings here all burn quietly with history and age, the church stands proud and central to village life, and the pub room has the feel of a place that becomes full of chatter late at night, where local farmers and committee members after a meeting at the village hall, go to talk about things we don’t need to hear – as visitors – in the daytime.
That’s what Hammer horror films did to me as a boy. I grew up thinking the locations used in their films conveyed real history; were how rural villages in period settings used to be. I still do. I don’t know how accurate Hammer films were of place, setting and story in reality, not all the time anyway but I don’t think it matters. Hammer has its own kind of history, where all locals are either buxom or brain transplanted, the beer is always flowing, and everyone meets for a bit of occult playtime and a brandy at the village Squire’s house at midnight. If that’s not accurate, I don’t care – I can visit the locations in this book and pretend.
Just before work started on the book, there was a devastating fire at one of Hammer’s favourite locations (and an area I know and love too) – Frensham Common in Surrey. Owned by the National Trust, it’s an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a Special Site of Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation. It was used as a location for The Hound of the Baskervilles as Dartmoor (the area used is actually called ‘Vampire Flats’ but only named after an RAF Vampire jet that crashed there in 1948, not anything to do with the Hammer vampire mythology!). The authors of this book are clearly devastated by the fire, and seeing the location post-damage, it affects them a great deal, reporting at the very start of the book that: “Frensham Common was the site of a dreadful fire which started at 13.50 on Sunday 11 July 2010. More than 80 firemen, 23 fire engines and a police helicopter were sent out to combat the blaze as it rapidly swept through 200 acres of tinder-dry heathland. Trees were exploding and flames tore along the roots under the dry heath as the inferno took almost 48 hours to control, reducing the beauty spot to a scorched landscape etched by its many sand tracks”.
The book reveals many other missing or damaged Hammer locations – old friends, including the once famous Chelsea Drugstore (that Cushing runs past in Dracula AD 1972) along London’s King’s Road that was once “modelled on Le Drugstore on Boulevard St Germain in Paris. Inside customers would find bars, a chemist, newsstands, record stores and other concessions. A popular service was the ‘flying squad’ delivery service run by the store where purchases were delivered by young ladies in purple catsuits on flashy motorcycles”. Referenced in The Rolling Stones track, You Can’t Always Get What You Want, there is a comparison shot of what the building has become today – Big Mac anyone?
Other equally notable historic locations, of their kind, such as Toddington Services on the M1 (as seen in 1971’s Fear in the Night where Ralph Bates and Judy Geeson stop) are also no more – completely redeveloped and now dominated by a Burger King logo. The Shell Haven Oil Refinery where the giant steel domes grew alien lifeforms in 1956’s Quatermass 2 have also gone, demolished just a few years before work on this book commenced. Perhaps even sadder is the difficult time the authors had trying to identify locations used in 1959’s Hell is a City, as the famous Arndale Centre had swallowed up many of the locations used for the movie, a situation further complicated by the rebuilding of the Centre following the IRA’s devastating bombing of the site in 1996.
As the second part of my location visit inspired by this book, I headed to the scene of one of my favourite Hammer films, To the Devil a Daughter. The film, with Nastassja Kinski menaced by a threatening, suitably demonic Christopher Lee, reached its climax at the Dashwood Mausoleum in West Wycombe Park. The Mausoleum was built by local eccentric and all-round bon viveur, Sir Francis Dashwood and now houses his – and his family’s – ashes. Dashwood’s good friend, and fellow Hellfire Club member, Paul Whitehead, left a directive for Sir Francis to be given his heart in an urn upon his death, and that the urn was to be kept in the Mausoleum. This unfortunate urn was stolen by an Australian soldier in the 18th Century, and the empty casket was placed in the Hellfire Caves. The ghost of Whitehead is supposed to have haunted the caves and the village ever since. There is certainly an oppressive, eerie atmosphere both in the caves and on the hill where the Mausoleum overlooks the village and the area for many miles around, totally dominating the natural landscape. I suspect that, somewhere below the Hammer cast and crew, deep down in the Hellfire caves that are sprawled out beneath the Mausoleum itself, old Sir Francis and his followers were guffawing their fullest approval.
Some locations are still unknown, including the site of the climax of one of my favourite Hammer Dracula movies; 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula in which Lee’s Count and Cushing’s Van Helsing battle in a modern-day setting that saw Dracula now sitting behind a desk in a darkened office (wonderfully hidden behind a glaring lamp) instead of within the more familiar castle walls and Van Helsing armed with a handgun as well as the usual crucifix. The film’s thrilling climax, the fight to the death in the hawthorn bushes – in which Lee claimed to have genuinely had his skin torn to shreds in filming – doesn’t have enough identifying features to reveal the location to the authors of the book, other than it was likely to have been filmed “within the grounds of Pelham House and could have been anywhere without further clues”. While nearly every other Hammer location is identified, this one still waits to be found. One last elusive Hammer location. Kept secret. Perhaps forever. There’s a part of me that’s on the side of that unknown hawthorn bush, the one that just may have had the last laugh on us all.
MARK GORDON PALMER
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Marvelous. For further info on Hell Is A City filming locations, interested readers should investigate http://www.levyboy.com/hell_is_a_city.htm and also pubs-of-manchester.blogspot.com has more on the vanished M’cr streets and non-existent boozer – and mucho fascination besides (for some of us). Destruction by gentrification, etc. Rumours that a construction crew and their families were buried alive by a cave-in during the 1969 construction of the Arndale, and that, to this day, their desendants haunt a network of tunnels beneath it and adjacent sites (including the former civil defence shelter accessed via Spring Gardens), have been made up, just now, by me … Or have they??
Your theory would explain a lot about the Arndale Centre, it must be said. Thanks for the links!
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