Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Northernaire Hotel and the Awful Movie Bill Rebane Made There

There was a huge hotel that used to stand in the small town I grew up in. The Byron Inn. It's gone for over 25 years now, and because I'm not huge on remembering the place I grew up, I barely remember it. I know it must have held hundreds of people because it took up a whole city block, and where it once stood they managed to fit a public library and a fire station with room to spare. My cousin opened a record shop there in the early 80's when they tried opening it up as a storefront as a last ditch effort to save it from destruction. But there was never any real hope of that. It was a dump. On occasion people would buy it and try to make a go of it, like a family that moved in when I was in fifth grade. Their son, Jim Bridger, was in my class briefly. Huge, dumb kid with bad breath, a Texas accent, and a crushing handshake, who of course gravitated towards me instantly. Yes, his name was really Jim Bridger. I never remember going in the Byron Inn, even though they had a bowling alley.

What calls to mind the phantom of the Byron Inn is my predilection for abandoned, forsaken, or derelict places.  At least in movies. In real life also, but I never have occasion to enter one. I know it's a trendy new fad to photograph or trespass on the grounds of derelict buildings, but I'm not really ever one to join in fads. I remember one night in 2000 when I had moved to Evanston I got off the red line one winter night and for some reason felt compelled to break into one of the crypts of the cemetery that is right there by Dominics on Chicago Ave, but I had no success and eventually found my way to where I was staying at the time. But in terms of horror movies, one of my favorite genres is the abandoned, forsaken, cursed or derelict place. Lately I've been revisiting several of my favorite movies in the genre and I re-watched legendary independent Midwestern horror director Bill Rebane's 1984 offering, The Game.

It shares in common with recent movies I've revisited, like Ghostkeeper, HumongousRevenge of the DeadThe Grim Reaper, and classics like Session 9 and The Shining, in that it's shot in such a place, and specifically a hotel. The Northernaire Hotel, to be specific. 

The Northernaire, in Three Lakes, Wisconsin, was once known as the "Waldorf of the Midwest." You can see from the exterior one of the reasons the movie never really achieves the ominous feel and sense of foreboding the other movies mentioned did. It's too cheerful, and Rebane never really uses the interior of the hotel to create any sense that the place itself is sinister or a character in itself. The Northernaire was demolished in 1995. Rebane instead is content to use the steam room for gratuitous sex scenes, and there is an interesting boiler room and some dilapidated out buildings, but it's clear this was just a place to shoot for Rebane. One setting in the movie that is far from frightening, but probably the most interesting is

Marty's Showboat and Supper Club, opened in 1946. Now the interiors shot in this lounge seem like home to me. I'm sure I've been to a million places like this. The lounge is now the clubhouse for the Big Stone Lake Golf Course although the rest of The Northernaire Resort has been demolished.

Back to the movie. The Cold (The Game) makes no real use of a setting that should have offered more opportunities to create suspense and a sense of feeling lost and forgotten in a forsaken place. I'm not kicking the movie because I actually enjoy it quite a bit. The only specific component of the movie I'm being a grouse about is the loss of the now lost opportunity to shoot a movie in a place like this. Standard setup, three eccentric millionaires invite a group of strangers to their resort to win a prize of a million dollars if they don't get too scared to leave. 

The scares aren't that scary. The suspense isn't very suspensey. The seventeen trick endings aren't very tricky. The boobs aren't very good. The acting sucks. The sound is criminal. But I still liked it. 

However, while reading about the movie for this review I learned about Bill Rebane, a very interesting man who founded the very first movie studio in the Midwest, and the Northernair Resort, so I feel I came out of the experience far better for the effort. 

February 10, 2013 update: The more I continue to ruminate about the huge Byron House hotel in the small town I grew up in, the more I think I need to drive down there to the small museum they have there and ask the curator for some documents so I can write a story about it. I contacted the curator at the Byron Museum and she said there were some photographs available, and I want to write a story, but I'm so bottled up with projects right now I just can't get to it. i have this lingering curiosity as to why I don't remember ever having been there except to go it for quarter sodas out of the Coke machine they had there for a while.

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