REEL estate

Forget the plot and acting, the hottest star in some movies is the house

Stephanie Earls Staff writer
Section: Life - Scene,  Page: D8

Date: Friday, April 13, 2007

Behind just about every great movie is a great set. A great set can propel action and offer insight into the personalities, peccadillos and motivations of the characters. Great sets can elicit specific emotions from the audience; they can ground us in place and time and...

Aw, heck-who am I kidding?My name is Stephanie, and I am addicted to cinema real estate.

You can't get much more satisfying than an excellent movie with an excellent house-say, " Wonder Boys" or "The Witches of Eastwick" (multiple cool houses). On the flip side, a good house can elevate an otherwise mediocre movie to must-own status. MY DVD collection contains numerous examples of movies I have purchased mainly because I have a crush on the home in which the characters live. This includes "What Lies Beneath" (Vermont lakeshore), "The Deep End" (Lake Tahoe lakeshore) and "Deathtrap" (Connecticut farmhouse with a desk that also invades my decorating daydreams).

A prime example of the power of a luscious abode comes in the form of "Disturbia," a teen terror remake of Hitchcock's "Rear Window: that opens today. Yes, sometimes a good house can be a movie's only saving grace-although salvation might be stretching it a bit in this case.

In"Disturbia," Shia LaBeouf plays a troubled teen sentenced to three months of house arrest after punching out his high school Spanish teacher. His mom rescinds TV and Internet privileges. Commence torture - for a teen, or anyone for that matter.

Only thing is, the Arts and Crafts bungalow where LaBeouf and his mom live is jaw-droppingly, heart-stoppingly, never-smoke-inside-again awesome. Frank Lloyd Wright must have stepped down from architectural heaven to lend his guidance on its construction. Details include scalp-high wainscoting, natural woodwork throughout, endless banks of casement windows, hammered metal fixtures, stained glass and ... (sorry - I'm tearing up).

The house is, by far, the most memorable character in "Disturbia." Three months of house arrest in that place? Bring it on. When it came time for my release, you'd have to peel my fingers from the library's built-in, quarter-sawn, white oak shelving.

House of character

For cinema real estate junkies like me, a library of good "fixes" includes abodes occupying a range of plot roles. In some movies, the house is a crucial, central character - consider "House of Sand and Fog" or the recent South of France subgenre that includes the Russell Crowe comedy "A Good Year" and "Under the Tuscan Sun." In other films, the act of remodeling becomes an epic quest: The 1948 Cary Grant film "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" served as the cornerstone; the plot itself has been remodeled for "The Money Pit" (1986) and the new "Are We Done Yet?"

In others, the house plays a supporting role, as in the Jack Nicholson-Diane Keaton rom-com "Something's Gotta Give," which boasts a flawless gourmet kitchen that inspired later high-end, real-world designs.

In still others, the house is incidental. Yet somehow its presence - like a cameo by an obscure literary icon or musician - elevates the film to movie-real estate cult status. (See: every movie by Woody Allen and any flick set on the coast of Oregon or Washington, like "The Goonies," "Five Easy Pieces" and the utterly awful, except for the home, "Ring 2.")

Join us now on a cinematic real estate tour:

The open house

The term "house porn" arose not long ago to describe the countless TV shows, magazines and Web sites devoted to renovations and house buying and selling, as well as the genre's (for the most-part) couch-potato, lifetime renter fan base. When it comes to house porn, the 1990 thriller "Pacific Heights" offers the Full Monty.

We meet Drake and Patty (played by Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith) just as they are making an offer on an amazing, fixer-upper Victorian home in San Francisco (always the best way to establish an emotional connection with your cinema real estate).

We get to know the couple are first-time buyers, and that they paid $750,000 for the home, not bad in terms of the late-'80s market, but, as Drake and Patty are people of modest cinematic means, the mortgage is still going to stretch their budget. This situation leads to the plot's main driver: Michael Keaton as the tenant from hell.

See also: "Panic Room," which at least explains how main character Jody Foster affords the newly purchased Manhattan mansion.

Home office

Movies like to pair inspirational architecture with frustrated writers in search of alone time.

Consider "Swimming Pool" (2003), in which Charlotte Rampling's mystery writer decides to spend a few months at her publisher's isolated manor in the south of France. The foliage-framed mansion, with its big fireplace, French doors (do they call them that in France?), stone walls and always-dappled sunlight, is just what she needs to jump-start her new project - until a stranger shows up.

See also: "Secret Window," and the modest but nifty upstate New York cabin where an even more stressed author (Johnny Depp) struggles with writer's block and worse.

Widow's walk

Houses and horror movies go together like lathe and plaster. Horror gives houses their very own category: The haunted house flick. (Question: Why do serial killers always live in places with more storage space, and much bigger basements, than the rest of us? See: "The Silence of the Lambs").

If it's an effective horror movie, and even if you're architecturally attracted to the house, you should walk away from the movie hating - or at least distrusting - the home ("The Amityville Horror," "Psycho"). Sometimes, though, what you feel is pity: It wasn't the poor house's fault it got cast in an atrocious movie ("Cold Creek Manor"). Further, an unscary-looking house can be the touch of death for a haunted house film ("The Grudge").

For the most part, though, a true cinematic real estate fan should be able to see beauty beyond the shrieks and dripping gore ("I do believe that's vintage wide-plank fir flooring under that pool of blood").

Finally, a timely selection: "Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter" (1984) sees the usual collection of frisky, nubile victims-to-be bunking down - not in a rustic sleep-away camp, but in a stately Queen Anne Victorian nestled in the woods. The place has the cool octagonal window, gables and countless bedrooms (for coupling/death). Nice crib, considering.

Which brings us back to that old saw, as true in the movies as it is in real life: It's all about location, location, location. Even in the fantasy real estate world, a house on infamous Crystal Lake, where Jason Vorhees did most of his killing, just doesn't feel all that romantic.

Although you probably could get a really good deal.

Stephanie Earls can be reached at 454-5761 or by e-mail at