By Ryan Menezes
For like 90 percent of all movie locations, the most interesting thing that happened or will happen there is that someone once shot a movie in that place (unless you think "Rob Lowe had sex with the catering lady on this backlot" counts as interesting). In fact, most directors have to work really hard to make regular places look cool and intriguing. And we said "most" because other times, the real story behind the location is so crazy and fascinating that it completely dwarfs anything that a coked-up Hollywood screenwriter could come up with. For instance ...
As part of a continuing effort to make the lair of every James Bond villain as ridiculous as possible, the bad guy in Skyfall operates out of an abandoned city on an island, complete with crumbling buildings and objects eerily left behind. Why is it abandoned? Why would a master hacker live there? Because it's a movie, and because shut up. This is also the place where the villain shoots and kills a girl who has a glass of scotch on her head.
|"What a waste of good scotch." -James Bo... wait, he actually says that in the movie.
But while the close-ups were shot on a set, you're seeing a very real place in the distant shots: the Japanese island of Gunkanjima, which once housed over 5,000 people, and now houses zero.
|In 2011, it got recognized as that year's Japanese city with the fewest public gropings (only five incidents).
The city served as a coal mining base for almost a hundred years. In the 19th century, Mitsubishi (before they started making cars for Jackie Chan) used to run boats from Nagasaki to the island so workers could dig coal, until they realized that they could save a lot of money by just putting the miners and their families in concrete blocks on the island itself. Some 5,250 miners squeezed onto a 16-acre island, making it the most densely populated independent place on Earth, ever - the equivalent of placing the entire world's population in Maine.
|But without the seasonal joy of the McLobster.
So what happened? Did a bomb go off there or something? Nope: In 1974, the coal ran out and Mitsubishi left, telling the now jobless employees that they would be hired on the mainland on a first come, first served basis. Entire families rushed out, leaving toys on the floor and cups of coffee on the table. Within two months, the entire place was empty.
|This woman forgot her torso.
Seems like a place worth visiting and preserving, right? Korea disagrees: They're trying to keep it off the U.N.'s World Heritage Site list, on account of the small fact that during World War II, Gunkanjima used slave labor. And not just Korean prisoners - some Japanese nationals were forced to work the mines, too, and were punished if they tried to escape. Besides being tortured and starved, some were sent to clear the rubble in Nagasaki... right after the bombs dropped. See, the executives at Mitsubishi weren't just corrupt. They were straight-up Bond villains.
#4. The Dark Knight Rises - Into a Cursed Indian Citadel
In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman spends a good chunk of the movie trapped at the bottom of a prison pit where Bane left him. You might remember the bizarre tessellating staircases on the walls, which seem right out of Inception.
|"Unfortunately, the stairs are under repair, so the only way up is a flimsy rope."
Later, Batman 'batmans' the shit out of that pit, climbing out and finding himself in the desert, outside a fort.
|"And now, friends, a little Bat-present to remember me by ... *Ffffpt*"
The prison scenes were shot on a set (hence the fantastic TV reception), but the walls/stairs are based on a real structure outside Jaipur, India:
|If you invert the Great Pyramid and put it here, the Earth opens.
This place is called Chand Baori, was built in the ninth century, and has 3,500 steps across 13 stories. Remember how the prisoners liked to chant while Batman was trying to climb out of the pit? Well, so did the real priests who lived there as they descended the steps toward water, sending vibrations through the stairs.
|Alternatively, the chanters were graphic designers who mocked up the structure using Java.
Meanwhile, the fort above the pit was an actual on-location shoot outside Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, India. Check it out -- there's even a real stone circle where the pit's outer lip was in the movie:
|Batman sealed it with the other guys inside to protect his secret identity.
The tale behind Mehrangarh Fort is even crazier than Bane's origin story -- when its builder, Jodha of Mandore, began its construction, he discovered that the so-called "Mountain of Birds" under it had a Lord of the Birds: a hermit named Cheeria Nathji. Jodha said "that's nice" and kicked the man out, and the hermit cursed the fort with the most terrifying affliction he could think of: "May your citadel ever suffer a scarcity of water!"
|"In ... in the desert, yes. Look, I'm not good under pressure."
To lift the curse, Jodha ended up building the hermit a house, putting a temple in the fort, and, just to be extra sure, burying a guy alive in the fort's foundations. One of the villagers around the construction site actually volunteered to get buried (presumably under the impression that Jodha meant "in so much ass that you'll be sore for a week") and Jodha repaid him by bequeathing an estate to his family. In fact, his descendants still live there. So, yes, there is a guy trapped under the city, only he's been there for 500 years.
Today, the fort's an open tourist destination, and one company even operates a
ziplining course around it, thus allowing you to create your own deleted scene
from The Dark Knight Rises.
|For an extra thousand rupees, they'll break your back and trap you underground for six months.
#3. 12 Monkeys - The Mental Asylum Is a "Haunted" Prison
Despite being a movie partly set in a dystopian future where most of humanity has been ravaged by a virus, probably the most disturbing scenes in 12 Monkeys are the ones set in a present-day mental asylum. Bruce Willis' character, a time traveler from the year 2035, gets thrown into the asylum for, well, telling people he's a time traveler from the year 2035.
|A bleak and terrifying future where Bruce Willis loses all of his hair.
What could be worse than being trapped in that place along with hordes of crazies, Brad Pitt's inane babbling, and the specific horror of public domain cartoons? Well, how about being trapped in the actual 19th century prison where those scenes were shot?
|Terry Gilliam actually had to make the place look less like a Terry Gilliam movie.
That's the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. By some accounts, it was the world's first penitentiary, and it was built in 1829 in an effort to begin treating prisoners more humanely. Of course, at the time, "treating prisoners more humanely" meant not letting them talk, forcing them to wear hoods whenever they were outside their cells, and forbidding any type of human interaction. Silence was absolutely enforced throughout the facility, and prisoners were kept completely isolated from the outside world and each other, so naturally many of them came in as delinquents and came out insane (if they came out at all).
|Some probably still sit in there, wondering how the Civil War turned out.
Unsurprisingly, there are now claims that the place is haunted as all fuck, with disembodied laughter being heard in some cells, probably just to spite the ghost guards. Even in the 20th century, when the prison became overcrowded and the silence rules were dropped, prisoners couldn't wait to get out of that creepy place. In 12 Monkeys, there's an escape attempt, but it ends pretty quickly -- in real life, Eastern State Penitentiary saw dozens of successful escapes. The biggest one was in 1945, when a dozen inmates successfully dug a tunnel from the prison to the outside:
|Except one who turned up in Albuquerque.
The brains behind the operation, bank robber "Slick Willie" Sutton, was caught just two blocks away. Most of the others were recaptured and/or shot. And then one of the fugitives, James Grace, came by a week later, ringing the penitentiary's doorbell. He was kind of hungry and wanted to know if his cell was still vacant. See, Brad Pitt, that's a real crazy person.
#2. The Princess Bride - Dong Towers and Mayhem at the Real Cliffs of Insanity
One of the key settings in The Princess Bride is a place called "The Cliffs of Insanity" -- the characters arrive there on ships and must climb this insanely steep (hence the name) cliff. Later, the awesome sword fight between Inigo Montoya and Dread Pirate Westley happens in some ruins at the top of the cliffs.
|Thus spawning half a dozen memes, before meme technology had even been perfected.
But that shit is all foam and miniatures, right? Nope, not all of it: These scenes were shot on the real-life Cliffs of Moher in Ireland. At the highest point of the cliffs, there's a real-life tower, put there in 1835 by one Sir Cornelius O'Brien for the noble purpose of impressing female visitors. Some points of the story are debated by historians, but what seems certain beyond any shadow of a doubt is that Sir Cornelius had a very, very tiny penis. He died a few years later and is buried near there.
|His p**** was preserved and used to paint angels onto the heads of pins.
But that tower looks disappointingly well-preserved. What about some real ruins, something to jump around while swinging a sword with the wrong hand? Sure, they got 'em, too: The name "Moher" actually comes from a fort of unknown origin, now ruined, located on an outcropping of the cliffs named Hag's Head.
|The hag suffered from severe, debilitating deformities.
And what about some comical misunderstandings involving these cliffs, like in the movie? Well ... that depends on your definition of "comical."
|The son of one slain Spaniard would dedicate his life to tracking down the killers.
You see, real ships did come here filled with sailors looking to climb. Back in 1588, watchmen on the cliffs saw Spanish ships approaching. The Spanish had last been spotted heading for England, and now here they were - it looked to them like the Brits had fallen and wee Ireland was next on the menu. The panicked Irish attacked the Spanish ships as soon as they came in and brutally killed 300 men. It was only at this point that they realized the Spanish weren't invading - they were retreating from England, badly defeated, and turned toward Ireland, hungry and sick, hoping for a warm welcome from those Catholic rebels. Whoops.
#1. The Big Lebowski - An Unsolved Murder Happened at the Lebowski Mansion
There are two men named "Lebowski" in The Big Lebowski, and the bigger of the two lives in a fancy mansion. As we've covered before, the same mansion has been used in many other movies, because it looks damn fancy and isn't far from the studio lots.
|A streaking Gary Busey had to be digitally removed from the window.
What we haven't told you is that the mansion was also used in a real-life mystery that makes The Big Lebowski's complicated plot about sex, rugs, and botched funerals look like a Hardy Boys book ... mainly because, almost 90 years later, we still don't know exactly what the hell happened in there.
|So it's more like the end of Barton Fink in that sense.
The place is called Greystone Mansion, and it was built in the 1920s by the son of tycoon Edward Doheny. Doheny made a fortune after he struck oil as a teenage prospector in Los Angeles, and if his story reminds you of There Will Be Blood, it should - he was the inspiration for the main character in that film, whose final milk-shake-drinking, head-bludgeoning scene was filmed in ... you guessed it, Greystone Mansion. Doheny bought the estate as a marriage gift to his son Ned, who built the mansion there at a cost of (in today's dollars) $40 million.
|You can't tell because it's in black and white, but this is all solid gold.
The Big Doheny's gift made a fine home for Ned and his wife. Or it would have if, five months after the couple moved in, Ned hadn't been found shot to death in his bedroom.
So who done it? Was it the butler? The secretary? The chauffeur? Ned's "companion"? It was all of them, said investigators, because all four of those titles belonged to one man: Theodore Plunkett. Plunkett was found dead in the hallway, apparently by suicide. The case was closed almost immediately under the official explanation that Plunkett was crazy, but not everything made sense: Ned was found with blood on his face in a way that didn't fit with his wounds, and the family doctor later confessed that he lied about not moving the body.
|"What a waste of a good rug." -Jeffrey Lebowski
Add this to the fact that Plunkett's wife had left him, that they had found a bottle and glasses in Ned's bedroom, and that this happened two days after Valentine's Day, and the whole thing looks very suspicious. Also, the murder was committed with Ned's gun - some believe he fired the shots and his family then moved the bodies to hide the men's true relationship. Presumably they also disposed of all the aromatic candles and copious amounts of lube.
Nowadays, Greystone Mansion commemorates this tragic, sordid story with ... murder-themed theater productions.