Thursday, May 19, 2016

Where Is the Abbey in 'The Masque of the Red Death'?

ILLIMITABLE DOMINION. Prince Prospero's castle, as seen on 'The Masque of the Red Death' (1964). Photo via Call Me The Red Telephone.

Reading Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" today gives you a thrill not unlike from watching "28 Days Later." In this zeitgeist, you can't help but conjure images of survivors holing up in a castle while hordes of the undead storm the countryside. Think George Romero's jaded skyscraper in "Land of the Dead" or the complacent Alexandria in "The Walking Dead." It will be no surprise if "The Masque of the Red Death and Zombies" comes out soon.

Also, it pays to remember that it's not the Rage Virus that Edgar had in mind while writing this classic short story. Many in the literati agree that tuberculosis, or the tragic loss of Edgar's wife, mother, and other relatives to it, massively informed his writing. During the Industrial Revolution, tuberculosis had no cure yet. It would still be several decades before the Spanish Flu, but "consumption," as tuberculosis was known then, already made a good job of wiping out the Western populace.

Tuberculosis and the fictional Red Death have a lot in common. The former is characterized by the expectorating of blood, while the latter led to "profuse bleeding at the pores." Blood was either one's Avatar, indeed.

It was only a few months before the story's publication in 1842 when Edgar's wife Virginia began to show symptoms of TB. While she was playing piano, Virginia bled from the mouth and "ruptured a blood vessel," in Edgar's words.

Edgar Allan Poe hunted for houses around Philadelphia to help his wife Virginia recover from consumption. Their last Philadelphia house is now the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site. Via Midnightdreary

He and his wife would soon move around Philadelphia in search of better homes to flout the advance of the disease. It's easy to draw parallels between him at this point and Prince Prospero moving to a castellated abbey to escape the pestilence.

Mr. and Mrs. Poe ended up in a rented house in Spring Garden, Philadelphia. There, Virginia would play the piano and harp, diversions that would no doubt resonate with the doomed guests in the story.

Virginia succumbed to the disease in 1847, almost two years after the story was revised and re-titled from "The Mask of the Red Death" to "The Masque of the Red Death." She died in a humble home in The Bronx, now preserved as the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage.

Edgar and Virginia's last home together in Fordham, The Bronx. Via Zoirusha

New diseases have since sprouted to succeed the dangers of tuberculosis, and thankfully, pharmaceutical developments are keeping up. Art can beget suffering, yes, but no one wishes now it would come at the price Edgar or his wife paid.

P.S. There was a direct retelling of "The Masque of the Red Death" in cinemas, courtesy of Roger Corman in 1964. The namesake film was filmed on a sound stage at the Elstree Studios in Britain.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Where Is 'Dexter's Laboratory'?


Can you believe it has been 20 years since a ginger boy genius fused atoms in our hearts? Cartoon Network debuted its first fully animated original series in 1996 with "Dexter's Laboratory," about a boy who is as smart as he is diminutive. He's the OG child prodigy in cartoonlandia, paving the way for Phineas and Ferb, Jimmy Neutron, Johnny Test, and other smart-alecky permutations.

Dexter's Lab...on the surface.

According to canon, Dexter and his family live in a town called Genius Grove. In real-life America, that would be Santa Monica or somewhere in Silicon Valley. The median erudition in these places is off the charts; you could find a future Dexter or Mandark here.

Dexter might live in suburban America but you won't be able to place his accent stateside. While fan theories chalk up his peculiar speech to Asperger's syndrome, it's actually rooted in the Russian diaspora. Creator Genndy Tartakovsky and his family emigrated from Moscow to Ohio in the late 1970s.

Welcome to Silicon Valley, where cerebral minds hold court.

Genndy clearly took his fish-out-of-water experience to the bank. Dexter was actually modeled on his brainy big bro Alex, now a computer scientist. Growing up in a predominantly Russian neighborhood in Chicago, Genndy would pester Alex, engrossed in his science projects.

That's right. Dee Dee is Genndy in the real world.

Wherever Dexter's Laboratory is, behind someone's bookshelf in Illinois or under a nondescript house in California, our neurons are still firing up with fondness for this whiz kid decades later. Genndy has since moved on from Dexter to Dracula. Don't worry, as we've triangulated his digs too.

There's a sizable Russian neighborhood in Chicago's Ukrainian Village. Photo via Adam Jones

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Where Is Allerdale Hall in 'Crimson Peak'?


Not since Queen Victoria's reign have we found a piece of Gothic fiction as beautifully realized as Guillermo del Toro's "Crimson Peak." As literary scholars would tell you, houses in Gothic stories usually upstage the living, breathing characters themselves. Allerdale Hall, the film's scene-stealing haunted house, is a worthy modern successor to anything the Brontë sisters or Daphne du Maurier ever dreamed of. It can more than hold its own in the moaning and shrieking department with Jessica Chastain or Mia Wasikowska.

Creating a gothic house is just a lot trickier for Guillermo than dedicated Gothic authors: He has more than paper to work with. To corporealize Allerdale Hall, he had a cavernous soundstage built in Pinewood Studios in Toronto for interior shots. The set was reportedly three stories high — it has since been demolished — and took some seven months to erect.

Allerdale Hall's exquisite foyer. Photo via Collider

And since the house is a character in its own right, Guillermo was very hands-on about the set design.

Guillermo was particularly meticulous about color in this film. Rooms in the soundstage were reportedly color-coded to mirror certain moods in the script. Also, the wallpaper supposedly had the word "fear" embedded into it, literally. That is to say nothing of moths as a motif permeating the wallpaper and tiles throughout the makeshift manse.


“I think that digital effects or computer effects should only be used as a last resort,” Guillermo went on record as saying.

Viewers, however, get to thank CGI for the glorious hole in the sky that is Allerdale Hall's ceiling. Also, many exterior shots of Allerdale Hall were rendered in pixel, although a facade for the house was constructed on a hilltop outside Toronto. 

Allerdale Hall took seed in paintings as much as real Gothic houses. Edward Hopper's 1925 artwork "House by the Railroad" steered the movie toward the right (art) direction.


There is at least one very real Gothic house related to the film: the Casa Loma in Toronto. The ball scene was filmed in the castle-cum-mansion's opulent library. 

Casa Loma in Canada. Via InSapphoWeTrust

As for a real-life place in Cumbria where sanguine clay seeps into snow, it's all a conceit straight from Guillermo's twisted mind. You'd have to go all the way to Blood Falls in Antarctica to see red on snow, or wait for a polar bear to pounce on you in winter. 

BLOOD FALLS. Real-life Crimson Peak in Antarctica. Via Peter Rejcek

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Where Is Elsa's Palace in 'Frozen'?


In many ways, "Frozen" broke a mold that had become seemingly unbreakable by the time Walt Disney floated the idea of a "Snow Queen" adaptation decades ago. "Frozen" triumphantly ices out the idea of banging princes as happy endings. It's not even a Disney Princess movie — Elsa is literally a queen.

But the film is also a traditionalist in many respects. It continues, for one, Disney's winning streak of rendering fictional castles so beautifully that they make real life a bore. Elsa's ice palace is simply the most inventive royal digs since King Triton's castle in "The Little Mermaid."

For inspiration, "Frozen" artists looked no further than Canada, in Quebec's Hotel de Glace.

Hôtel de Glace. Photo via Matias Garabedian

Unsurprisingly, the 44-room hotel has cashed in on its newfound cachet. At the height of the polar vortex of 2014, "Frozen" art director Michael Giaimo partnered with the ephemeral hotel to create a suite themed around the movie.

'Frozen' suite in Hôtel de Glace. Via Byzantinefire

Of course, the movie's source material looks far, far away, toward the gelid wastes of Scandinavia. There, Denmark's master storyteller Hans Christian Andersen imagined the Snow Queen, Elsa's fairytale alter ego, to reside in "a strong castle...at the North Pole, on an island called Spitsbergen.”

Spitsbergen is as much a part of Andersen's wild imagination as the Svalbard archipelago in Norway. This is certainly no island in the sun; temperatures are plainly arctic. In fact, the sun does not make a peep here for months on end. You can't blame Hans for thinking a goddess-like figure would hold court in such rayless conditions.

SINGING 'LET IT GO'? More like Madonna's 'Frozen.' Illustration for 'The Snow Queen' by Elena Ringo.

While Andersen does not mince words where the Snow Queen's fixed abode is, he also narrates that she has a "summer tent" in Lapland, the nippy northerly region of Finland. It's not clear whether the final battle for Kay's life took place in the summer home or the palace overseas, but preternatural beings with cold hearts evidently live large.

Ever self-aware, Finns have been building a real-to-the-touch castle fit for a snow queen since 1995. You could almost imagine sculptors singing "Let It Go" as they build Lumi Linna, ostensibly the world's largest snow fort, every winter in the town of Kemi.

Kemi Snow Fort. Via Dmitry

There is as yet only one Disneyland in Europe. If there's ever going to be a second one, we're raring for one in the cryosphere this time. That's the only way we'd get to literally chill in a full-scale, faithful replica of Elsa's ice castle. Let's just hope climate change doesn't get there first.

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