Outsiders have an image of Jersey for sure, and it’s not flattering.
Gals with big hair jumping in hot tubs down the shore. Murderous mobsters whacking the competition, then lingering a little too long over that order of onion rings. Or — maybe the most insulting cliché of all — dull, dopey losers wasting their lives in the boring suburbs.
It’s unfair, and to anyone who lives here, awfully tiresome. So with October upon us, and Halloween just around the corner, maybe it’s time to celebrate another pop-culture side to our home. Something even scarier, and something a lot more fun.
Time to forget the Garbage State insults — and embrace Boo Jersey.
As long as there have been horror films — and horror fans — Jersey has been their beating heart. America’s first monster movie, “Frankenstein,” was made by Thomas Edison’s West Orange film company in 1910. A century later, fright film enthusiasts still flock here for the Chiller Theatre Expo, or the Asbury Park Zombie Walk.
We have a richly scary history, founded on generations of homegrown horror mags and filmmakers.
Publications like the late and lamented Castle of Frankenstein and Scarlet Street, or current Weird New Jersey. Directors like Steven Spielberg (the scary tree in “Poltergeist” was based on at his childhood home in Haddon Township). And Morristown’s Joe Dante, who gave us “Matinee,” “Piranha” and “Gremlins,” among others, and currently runs the fun movie site Trailers From Hell.
It’s no secret that Jersey still looms large in people’s dreams, and nightmares, even after they go Hollywood. The original “Halloween” may have been set in small-town Illinois. But the name of the town itself — Haddonfield — was a tip of the hat to producer Debra Hill’s own girlhood home. Jersey memories die hard.
So this Halloween, why not focus your at-home viewing on some local scares?
The best place to start is probably the original “Friday the 13th.” Shot in Warren County — popping in and out of Hope, Hardwick, and Blairstown — the film used the Boy Scout camp No-Be-Bo-Sco as the scene of its murderous Camp Crystal Lake. Sequels went farther afield — including outer space — but Jason was definitely a Jersey guy, and the surprise smash hit moved the slasher genre “Halloween” had pioneered straight into splatter territory.
New Jersey was also the setting for Orson Welles’ famous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast of 1938, which had Martians turning their death rays on Grovers Mill. (Newark, Bayonne and Howell came under similar attack in Spielberg ‘s movie version, released in 2005.) Something about our lovely state just says dystopia to Hollywood, it seems; “I Am Legend” — based on the modern vampire novel by Allendale native Richard Matheson — brought last-man-on-earth Will Smith to Mount Airy and West Amwell, while M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” was filmed in tiny Pedricktown.
Often, admitted, New Jersey simply serves as New York ‘s stunt double (if Toronto is the favorite screen substitute for “nice” Manhattan, we get called on for its grungy side). But some horror films let Jersey be Jersey, or at least acknowledge our own traditions — like the hodgepodge hybrid known as the Jersey Devil, who has shown up in no less than 10 movies, including “13th Child,” “The Barrens” and “Satan’s Playground.”
Unfortunately, most of the Devil stories aren’t very good, and some even get the mythology wrong — like the old “The Jersey Devil” episode of “The X-Files,” which apart from making the Pine Barrens look remarkably like British Columbia, turns the winged monster into a scruffy humanoid. (A more authentically Garden State case for Mulder and Scully was “The Host,” in which they found a giant sucking parasite living in the Newark sewers. Hey, it could happen.)
Another homegrown Jersey horror is “The Toxic Avenger,” a superhero made of nerdish resentment and poisonous waste. He first showed up prowling the streets of “Tromaville” (mostly Jersey City and Boonton) and has since spawned plenty of sequels, and even a musical; a reboot with Kevin Bacon and Peter Dinklage is currently in post-production. (The mini-studio behind his adventures, the proudly tasteless Troma Entertainment, has also given us such so-bad-they’re-awful pictures as “Rabid Grannies” and “Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead.”)
The Avenger — “Toxie” to his fans — is definitely an acquired taste, his low-budget stories dependent on topless starlets, bad jokes and gross-out gore. But if you’re looking for similarly shabby, shot-in-Jersey horror, there is no shortage of old films to unearth this season. Like the bloody holiday slasher “Christmas Evil,” shot in Glen Ridge, Montclair and Edgewood. Or another mad-killer mess, “Don’t Go in the House,” filmed in Port Monmouth, Jersey City and Atlantic Highlands.
Even more authentically Jersey — and even worse — is the Red Bank based “Vulgar,” a side hustle from Kevin Smith’s ViewAskew crowd, with Brian Johnson directing Brian O’Halloran in a super-violent story of an abused Garden State clown. Or the gory, shot-in-Sparta “Jersey Shore Massacre,” produced by Jenni “JWoww” Farley, which features dim-bulb vacationers (sample dialogue: “We don’t eat meat — we’re veterinarians”) getting turned into a bloody pile of spare parts.
Look a little harder, though, and you can find some decent shockers shot — and, occasionally, set — here.
Like the original “The Amityville Horror” (with Lakewood, Toms River and Point Pleasant passing for the Long Island town). The genuinely disturbing “Alice, Sweet Alice,” made in Paterson (and featuring, briefly, a young Brooke Shields). The comic book-inspired, Stephen King-penned “Creepshow” (partly shot in Ocean County, once they were able to pry director George Romero out of his beloved Pittsburgh). Or the current hit “Smile,” chiefly shot in Jersey City and Hoboken.
Of course, die-hard New Jerseyans know films like these only scratch the scary surface of living here. There are far more gruesome horrors lurking patiently in our state, just lying in wait for unwary newcomers, situations guaranteed to make anyone break out in a cold sweat. Like driving on Route 3 when there is a big rock concert at MetLife Stadium. Or trying to make your way into Penn Station during a snowstorm. Or ripping open the envelope the next time the town sends out your tax bill.
But then, some things are too horrifying even for horror movies.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.