When it comes to horror movies, one of the most important elements in creating tension, fear, and terror is the atmosphere of the film itself. While it’s not impossible to elicit fear during a bright, sunny day – just look at The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – it’s obviously easier to create such a feeling when the setting of a film is as unsettling as the horror we are about to endure. Movies like The Shining, Event Horizon, Alien, and similar all created an atmosphere that relied heavily upon the location the film took place in. After all, if we feel that the main characters are safe wherever they might be, how can we be expected to feel any sort of concern for what’s about to happen to them?
It’s in this arena that the upcoming horror/thriller Eloise already has a leg up on many other genre titles. Set in the actual abandoned mental hospital of the same name, which is based in Southeast Michigan, the film was shot in the same decrepit and rotting hallways that once held real patients, where people received extreme and now banned treatments, and in what is now considered to be one of the most haunted locations in the state. I was fortunate enough to visit the set and walk through the halls with producer Sanford Nelson, who spoke about the film and demonstrated his seemingly endless knowledge about the compound itself.
Four friends break into the abandoned institution in hopes of finding a death certificate, which will provide Jacob with the rights to a sizable inheritance. While inside the asylum, the group not only finds that the institution houses a horrifying history but also the truth about their own tragic pasts.
Eloise stars Eliza Dushku, Brandon T. Jackson, Chace Crawford, Robert Patrick, and PJ Byrne. It comes to VOD platforms and limited theaters on February 3rd.
Walking Through Eloise
Before we could watch any filming take place, Nelson insisted that myself and my friend/photographer Matt walk through several of the floors of the remaining buildings of Eloise so that we could get a feel for the atmosphere of the film. This included going into the now defunct power house, which powered the entire compound. The building was a maze of rusty pipes, creaking machinery, walkways that were too decayed to step foot on, and flooded passageways. While walking through here, Nelson insisted that the crew did very little work to make it look this way. Rather, they simply cleared a few bits and pieces so as to make everything safer while filming but left the rest intact so that what was shown on screen was authentic.
From the power station we made our way into the administration building. Constructed of brick and surprisingly intact, there was still a sense of filth and degradation that permeated off the edifice. Venturing inside, we walked through hallways whose floors were littered with plaster that crumbled from the ceiling and into rooms where shards of glass sparkled on the floor. In some places, there were the rotting remains and skeletons of dead birds. Throughout the building, binders and papers were scattered across the ground, tales and stories of patients that lay ignored and waiting for time to weather them to illegibility.
Our journey took us from the tunnels underneath the basement to walking on the roof, as well as passing by a rickety freight elevator – the kind that used a lever and sliding gate – and getting close to “therapeutic” bath tubs, whose purpose is rather sinister when thought about through today’s understanding of mental illness.
Having been a fan of Brad Anderson’s Session 9 for many years, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between that film and the building I currently stood in. To say that it felt incredible would be an understatement. This was the kind of experience that many of us dream to one day have. While not a true believer in the paranormal, I truly felt like I was walking through a place that exuded energy, where every square inch held history…not all of it pleasant.
Eloise: A History Lesson
After our journey through the hallways of the main building and the labyrinth of the power station, Nelson took us on an evening car ride around the compound so that we could get an understanding of its enormity, all the while regaling us with history lessons and anecdotes. He began, as any good story should, at the beginning.
Eloise operated from 1832 to 1982. At it’s peak, it consisted of 78 buildings on 900 acres of land and was a totally self-sustaining city. It had its own fire and police departments as well as a bakery. They farmed all their own vegetables, livestock, grew their own tobacco, made their own uniforms in a textile mill, had their own post office…
Five of the original buildings are still standing and we are lucky enough to be shooting in two of them. This is the administration building, so when new patients would come and they would check in, this is where they would start. They did have some holding cells on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th floors were they were held before they were placed in the correct building.
Nelson’s first experience with the compound began in a rather unorthodox fashion. He told us that when he first started his research, he stumbled across a Facebook page called “The Eloise Insane Asylum” that was run by a man whose name he never found out. This man put together groups of people to meet him on the grounds of Eloise to search for paranormal activity. He explains that he reached out to the page, made arrangements for a meeting and upon seeing the guy immediately left. Laughing, he explained, “There was no fucking way that I was about to break into Eloise at night in search of paranormal activity with this guy.” While he couldn’t tell us exactly what it was about this man that made him so unsettling, it was clear that Nelson’s gut instinct took over and he trusted it entirely.
As we drove on, Nelson made it clear that the large size of Eloise was not just in its square miles – it took us 15 minutes to drive around the perimeter on roads that had an average speed limit of 45mph – but also in how many people were there on any given day. “One building alone held over 8,000 male psych patients,” he told us, also explaining that tens of thousands of people being at Eloise, both patients and employees, was a daily occurrence.
Continuing along Michigan roads during dusk, Nelson took us past the tuberculosis sanatorium and the dedicated cemetery. Everything he told us only strengthened the concept that Eloise was its own self-sufficient compound, a place where anything and everything could be handled internally. “It was literally its own city,” he said, his amazement of the scope of the compound apparent in his voice.
Nelson was also able to explain the origin of the name “Eloise”, which came about decades into its operation.
In 1912, due to so much mail coming in and out of the facility, they decided that they needed to build their own post office. The former postmaster of Detroit moved onto the property to run the post office and other logistics, his daughter’s name was Eloise. So, he named the post office “Eloise” and then, eventually, the entire property became synonymous with her name. There’s still a painting hanging in the lobby at Eloise of Eloise and her dog.
Originally, it started out as one building, a poor house for the extreme mentally ill. It then grew and grew and grew. It was the Wayne County Poor House, the Wayne County General Hospital and Sanatorium…
Nelson also told us just how quickly Eloise went out of business, stating that, “…the psych ward closed in the late 70’s and by 1982 the entire place was shut down and they immediately began razing buildings and redeveloping it.” Most of the buildings were left to ruin, although one is now a homeless shelter.
As for the patients who were still in Eloise when the center was closed, fate wasn’t kind to them. “A lot of them went into jails with murderous criminals. Others went to other psych hospitals before those were shut down as well. And many of them were simply thrown on the streets. I then heard stories about a lot of homeless people, ex-patients, who lived in the tunnels after the place closed down. Imagine that? You’re a patient here for years and years and you’re dying to get out. Then, when the place shuts down and you’re let out, you have nowhere to go. So you end up just coming back and hiding in the tunnels.”
What astonished me, apart from the history of the compound and the deliciously eerie locations we visited, was the big budget feel of the film. Shot on a $7 million budget, it still felt like something bigger and grander. We watched a scene being filmed that included fake fires, rain, and lightning flashes, smoke billowing from the windows and doorways of the front of a building. And yet, even with this epic inclement weather that clearly took enormous amounts of coordination, timing, and resources, the crew insisted that this was an independent feature, something they kept firmly in mind so as to create the right kind of experience.
After watching this important scene being filmed (I won’t reveal anything more because to do so might spoil key aspects of the story), we were allowed to walk through the lower halls of the administration building, where it was much more apparent that we were on a set. Framed pictures of antiqued photos lined the walls and there were display cabinets and medical trolleys that were laden with vials, prescription bottles, and various tools and surgical implements. Gurneys were placed here and there, giving the impression that this was an area that saw a lot of “action”.
We then briefly got the chance to speak with director Robert Legato, who was a second-unit director on films such as Shutter Island, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hugo, and The Departed. He was adamant that Eloise is not a horror film, something Nelson agrees with even though the current trailer and the footage I saw shortly after the set visit seems to speak otherwise. Rather, they insist it is more in the nature of a thriller that happens to have horror elements. Producer Tripp Vinson (The Number 23, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) says that much of this boils down to the fact that they are making sure that the story and characters are at the forefront of the film. Interestingly, they also coyly suggested that the Eloise compound itself is a “huge character”.
This set visit proved to me that everyone involved in the making of Eloise was not only deeply committed to creating a great film but that they were also intent on paying respect to a historical monument. There was a reverence and appreciation for the building that was obviously felt by the cast and crew, none more so than Nelson, who dedicated years to researching Eloise and bringing her story to life.