How Locations Can Help Build Terror in Horror Movies

When it comes to locations and sets, horror movies have their own special requirements. The genre can invoke dread with every unopened closet, spiraling staircase, creaking door, cobwebbed attic and menacing facade.

But as Stephenson Crossley, a location manager on AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead,” which began season three on June 4, points out, there’s more to a good horror house than just the aesthetics or the architecture. “You look for things that have a sense of isolation,” says Crossley, who also scouted locations on 2014’s “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones.” “Very often I pick things that are up on a hill, or some kind of rise, so you can look up at the property from a low angle. That gives things a spooky, foreboding quality. Sometimes it’s really that simple.”

As soon as location manager Kandice Billingsley read the script of Joel Edgerton’s 2015 thriller “The Gift,” she knew just what sort of setting was needed. The low-budget Blumhouse production told the story of a successful married couple (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) whose past harbors sinister secrets. So Billingsley sought out a David G. Clark house built in L.A.’s Sherman Oaks area in 1962 — an open-concept home of wood and glass. “A mid-century modern tends to be very private on the front but in the back is lined with oversize windows,” Billingsley explains. “That reveals something about the characters who live there. And it gives you the creepy feeling that at any time somebody could be looking inside.”

Billingsley has worked on more than a dozen horror pictures, including 2013’s “Dark Skies,” 2015’s “Sinister 2” and three “Insidious” sequels. “You almost always know when you’ve found the house,” she says. “Usually there’s a feeling you get from the script of the style and type — it could be a Victorian; it could be a Craftsman. But it has to be a house where it feels like someone could be lurking around every corner.”

Horror films tend to be made cheaply — particularly true of Blumhouse fare. As a result, the locations wind up determining the action to a surprising extent. The big, shabby-looking apartment complex Crossley found for “The Marked Ones,” for example — a vacant 1930s building on Adams Boulevard near Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles — influenced many of the film’s most memorable set-pieces.

“They really adapted the movie to the location,” Crossley says. A sloping balcony railing gave rise to a stunt in the middle of the film. A disused basement room resulted in a scary scene involving a trap door. “We went underneath the building one day and found that area, which was really creepy to begin with. They said, ‘OK, let’s do a scene here.’”

“The house can inspire things that weren’t in the script,” Billingsley echoes, “scenes that make the movie richer.” For “The Gift,” she remembers showing Edgerton a distinctive koi pond running beneath the front walkway of the Clark-designed house. “Joel saw that, and it became a key [scene in the movie],” she adds. Indeed, anyone who has seen the film will recall the moment when the heroes discover with terror that someone has poisoned the pond.

Mike Neale, a location manager who worked with Rob Zombie on his pair of “Halloween” remakes, describes a locale he found for the director that integrated perfectly into the film: the hospital from which the murderous Michael Myers escapes. “That was a former mental ward at an abandoned veterans hospital in Los Angeles,” he says. “It had the real vibe. There was no power in the building; that’s how derelict it was.”

The location’s energy is palpable in the movie.

The real job of the location manager on a horror picture is to find places that, in their unique way, will unsettle and disturb, Neale says. “A location manager is like a casting agent for places. You’re casting the location. Just like you cast the craggy face of an actor, you cast the craggy face of a house or hospital. That’s the fun and creative part of the job.”

Neale adds: “This isn’t a standard romantic comedy where you can just set up the camera anywhere and start shooting. This is a horror movie. The location is more important.”

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