Friday, February 28, 2014

Solvang, California is so HOMICIDAL!

Solvang, California on a rainy day in February 2014.

I made a flying visit to Solvang, California, this week. It is a charming little tourist spot on the California coast, nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. To reach Solvang, you turn east at Buellton and everybody knows where Buellton is because it is the home of Pea Soup Andersen's where they make Andersen's Split Pea Soup.

I accidentally timed my visit to coincide with the only rainy week we've had in California in about a year, and for me the mood fit neatly. This Danish-California village may be cute; but, it will always seem a little homicidal to me. Since you may find that strange, I shall explain.

One of several windmills in Solvang that delight visitors from all over the world. The windmill idea, though from Denmark's past, was slightly ahead of its time, when you think about it.

Solvang was founded by Danish settlers in the first decades of the twentieth century. For most of its early life it looked just like any other rural California village, though it did have a Danish school, a Danish Lutheran church, and some of the best Danish bakeries this side of Copenhagen. It also sat on the edge of one of the most beautiful valleys in the world: the Santa Ynez Valley, now a place where rich people go when they want to raise horses and have their own vineyards.

The Danes who settled here were not rich, but were mostly farmers. Then, shortly after the end of World War II, the Saturday Evening Post featured a story on the charms of Solvang, such as they were. City fathers read the article and got together to do what they could to make their village an even quainter place for tourists. That's when all the faux Danish construction began and ever since then, Solvang has been, in fact, what Walt Disney would call a "destination." 

In the decade after 1947, during which Solvang was transforming itself, a director named William Castle was doing the same. Tired of the B-movies he had been directing at major studios, Castle started his own production company and began making a series of C-minus films that turned out so well, many of them are now considered horror classics. The Tingler (1959) starring Vincent Price, is one of my personal favorites and lots of people like Straight Jacket (1964) with its bang-up cast including Joan Crawford, Diane Baker, George Kennedy and Lee Majors--but that one is too bizarre for me. What puts me off is that in it Joan Crawford looks like a man wearing a wig. Which, curiously enough leads me to another Castle film, Homicidal (1961) and its connection with Solvang.

Homicidal--to tie up this loose end once and for all--was shot in part in Solvang.

The actress holding the knife in Homicidal is called "Jean Arless" in the credits. Under her real name, Joan Marshall, she appeared in lots of other television shows and films. There is a reason, other than embarassment, that she needed a name change for this movie. But that would be telling.

Homicidal is a murder/horror tale that did well for Castle. Most critics dismissed it, but Time magazine said it was right up there with Psycho. Alas time has proved Time wrong about this--as with so much of the other nonesense published in those pages. But I digress. Homicidal is a nutty, interesting film with a plot twist for the ages and an unusual setting for a horror film.

A Danish village in California. Having it--without any explanation--in the background of William Castle's unusual story does give the movie an added je ne sais quoi. And if I knew what it was, believe me I would tell you.

Solvang in the rain, 2014.

There is more in a visit to Solvang than just the history of a real town gone faux and a real director gone rogue. On the edge of town, in perhaps the most beautiful spot in the region, is Mission Santa Ines, founded in 1804. 

Mission Santa Ines across a rain-soaked field.

The padres always picked the best spots in California.

It is not the original building: this is a reconstruction. The original structure took a pretty bad beating during a rebellion of Chumash Indians and was then neglected and allowed to fall further into disrepair by subsequent rulers of California. It appears to be thriving again, as are the Chumash, who stopped rebelling and now operate a casino six miles up the road. 

A piece of the original Mission Santa Ines on a stormy day.

To come full circle: there was even redemption down the road for Castle. Just seven years after Homicidal, William Castle read the galleys to a scary new book by Ira Levin that was about to be published. He was so excited about it and wanted so much to turn it into a film, he brought the galleys to movie executive Robert Evans, who gave them to Roman Polanski to read.

And that's how William Castle became the producer of Rosemary's Baby. And it all began here, on the California coast. 

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1 comment:

TTrider said...

You're right--way too homicidal. On the other hand, when I was editing car and bike magazines in SoCal, Solvang was a nice destination, and there used to be a terrific old-bike collection there. But of course to know or care about that aspect of Solvang, you'd have to care about old bikes!