Humans are herd animals. We’ve always lived together — in groups of only a couple of hundred in our prehistoric days right up to tens of millions today. But few places are more fertile for movie lore than the small town.
Big enough for webs of human drams, small enough for the character and personality giant cities with their neon anonymity can never offer, small towns are the breeding ground for love, old-world values and family. But there’s a dark side to many of them…
1. Barrow, Alaska
30 Days of Night, 2007
There’s no better place to hunker down and stay indoors with the fire burning and a huge stash of DVDs. Only this year, you’d better stock up on crucifixes, garlic and the odd axe as well. For a band of roving vampires, a small town cut off from civilisation by impenetrable weather high above the Arctic Circle where the sun descends for a whole month at a time is a smorgasbord.
Dead Man, 1995
Jim Jarmusch’s alt western serves up a picture of the brutal frontier we’ve never seen before. Machine is an allegory for the lawlessness not just of the frontier but the rise of the amoral robber barons. Mild mannered accountant William (Johnny Depp) is the opposite, straight laced and buttoned down, but the brutality of the place quickly transforms him into everything he abhors about it — a lawless gunslinger on the run, led by a heathen when a local native takes him in.
3. Gunnison, Colorado
Alien vs Predator: Requiem, 2007
If only because of the budget, the besieged Predator ship from the end of the original AVP might have crashed into the middle of Los Angeles or Tokyo. But if you happen to live in the small Rocky Mountain town (maybe not far from South Park), you’re in for it. In this land of white picket fences and howdy neighbours, is the invasion of godless aliens a 9/11 parable? You decide.
4. Fargo, North Dakota
Whenever there’s a huge stash of money buried in the snow, there’s going to be blood, and no matter what your motivations it’s going to affect you. It starts with a seemingly harmless swindle when Jerry (William H Macy) tries to have his wife kidnapped so he can engineer a ransom from his wealthy father in law. But the sleeting snow and forbidding winds of Fargo are the Cohen’s device to portray the chill winds in the hearts of men, and the snow covers everything — money, footsteps, blood, even the funny lookin’ guy who’s gone through a garden mulcher.
Its bad enough that the mother of local girl Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) was murdered a year before, but on the anniversary of her death a killer strikes again, bumping off kids Sidney knows and then working his way through her friends. Could her mothers’ murder be related? Worse still, how do you escape a killer who knows all the rules of slasher film lore and still resist the temptation to say ‘I’ll be right back?’
6. Haddonfield, Illinois
Unlike Rob Zombie’s 2007 redux, we don’t see exactly what made Michael Myers snap, but one Halloween night he murdered his entire family, sparing only his baby sister Laurie before clamming up for good and developing a disturbing mask fetish. Michael grows up to be about seven feet tall and virtually indestructible, and when he escapes from the institution where he’s spent most of his life, only his doctor — Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) — knows for sure where he’s going. As if Laurie (Jamie Curtis) doesn’t have enough worries with school and boys, now she has a psychotic serial killer brother butchering anyone who stands in the way of his quest to reach her.
7. Akron, Ohio
The Dead Next Door, 1988
One of movie history’s many zombie plagues starts in an Akron basement where a scientist accidentally unleashes something terrible. Fast-forward a few years and the country is overrun with the hungry living dead. A government task force (the Zombie Squad) is sent in, complete with a crappy early 80s sedan with Zombie Squad stickers peeling off the doors that probably belonged to the producer’s Mum. Worse still, Akron is home to a religious cult that considers the zombies the inevitable fate of humanity, all who oppose them infected with the virus or fed to the hordes they keep caged up.
Blue Velvet, 1986
On the surface, Lumberton’s a postcard-perfect place, thriving off the timber industry and full of white picket fences and friendly neighbours. But when David Lynch makes a movie about your town, the psychotic, oxygen-addicted drug dealer/killer Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) is only the last stop in a twisted path of bizarre threats to your sexuality, the burgeoning relationship with the police chief’s daughter, your sanity and your life.
9. Kingston Falls
Producer Steven Spielberg and director Joe Dante made no secret of homaging It’s a Wonderful Life’s Bedford Falls in their rollicking creature feature, even having the film playing on TV in several scenes. The location was key for an invasion of savage, knee-high monsters, however — the American nightmare of the prototypical small town falling victim to horrors from chemical warfare to invaders speaking a strange language.
10. Santa Mira, California
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956
Were director Don Siegel and original author Jack Finney commenting on the effects of modern life to turn people into soulless automatons decades before George A Romero in his definitive Dawn of the Dead? We might never know, but there’s a reason it happened in a small California community not unlike Santa Monica rather than the Midwest or New England, with writers, directors and studio executives terrified for their livelihoods thanks to the commie witch hunt that was devastating their ranks. Reds under the bed or not, remember — you’re next! You’re next!