DEAD ON

The Baltimore Sun

Avenue B is quiet today. Lines of giant sycamore trees, their branches swaying gently with the afternoon breeze, strain toward each other from opposite sides of the street. Rows of two-story frame houses stand in their shadows, chairs perched on the porches, children's toys strewn about the lawns, neatly tended planters filled with carefully cultivated flowers.

But there's not a person in sight. Not a car moves up or down the street. No dogs bark; no cats meow. No radios blare. Newspapers lie unopened on the lawn. Cobwebs hang from the street signs.

The eerie block, on property where chemical munitions were once made for wartime use, seems like the perfect setting for a horror movie.

Last week, it was.

Some half-dozen homes on the grounds of the Perry Point Veterans Affairs Hospital in Cecil County, empty since at least 2004, are being used as sets for the horror-thriller From Within. The filmmakers, who have been shooting in and around Havre de Grace since July 10, are ecstatic. Tree-lined ghost towns are not easy to find.

"We really couldn't believe our luck when we found this," says Adrian Butchart, the film's British-born co-producer; he and his team learned of the setting from the Maryland Film Office. "All these houses look exactly like the house we wanted for this movie. And ... we're not having to close roads and inconvenience people. We can successfully do what we need to do here, get our job done and put it back into the condition we found it in."

Like everyone connected with the film, whose cast includes Thomas Dekker, from the NBC series Heroes, and Rumer Willis, daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, Butchart is loath to reveal too much about its plot - the better to keep potential audiences guessing and potential imitators at bay. He refers to it only as a "psychological horror-thriller, set in a rural town where the residents begin to die off one by one, apparently by suicide - and the 'apparently,' that's important."

What Butchart doesn't hesitate to do, however, is set expectations high. "We wanted to make a horror film," he says, "in the tradition of The Shining or Rosemary's Baby."

On this hot July afternoon, director Phedon Papamichael is shooting a scene outside the Commodore's House, a 250-year- old former plantation house that, though included on the National Register of Historic Places, has sat neglected for three years. The makers of From Within, however, are breathing new life into its arched entranceways, grand stairway and 12-foot ceilings, casting the house as home to the "ostracized family" that lies at the heart of the film's mystery.

Filming this day is being done inside a garage just a hundred feet or so from the mansion. For the sake of the film, set designers have transformed the inside of the garage into a bathroom, complete with (fake) shower stall and sink. In today's scene, actress Laura Allen, who plays the drunken, religion-obsessed stepmother of the film's central character, high school student Lindsay, is looking haggard. By all appearances, she's about to drink from a bottle of drain cleaner.

Just before shooting, a crew member measures the precise distance between Allen and the camera lens. A few feet away, Papamichael sits, offering encouragement in his Greek accent and suggesting ways Allen can act even more desperate. On the other side of the set, separated from Allen by a "wall" of plywood, her stand-in, Annapolis resident Tracy Teague, mimics her movements, ready to take Allen's place when she's not on camera.

"PICTURE'S UP!" shouts second second assistant director Felisha Grace as Papamichael signals for shooting to start. "QUIET ALL AROUND. WE'RE ROLLING!"

Fans of the F/X series Dirt will recognize Allen as the drug-addicted actress who went after tabloid editor Lucy Spiller (Courteney Cox) with a knife. She says she signed for From Within because of the complexity of her character.

"She really does love God and love her stepchild," says Allen, sitting in her dressing room between shots. "And she loves her Wild Turkey."

Quicker to smile than her character in the film, and more together than the floozy she plays on Dirt, Allen says she's been delighted by her experiences in Maryland. In a break from the persistent gloom of the film, the Oregon-born Californian even partook of a local delicacy.

"I ate a crab the other day, cracked it open, used the hammer and everything," she says. (Don't worry, she quickly corrected herself, noting she used a mallet, not a hammer.)

Actress Elizabeth Rice, who plays the diminutive Lindsay, says she sees some of her own background in the film.

"I'm from a small town in Arkansas," she says. "The environment that this film takes place in, the small town, I related to that from my hometown."

But here's betting that Pine Bluff, Ark., doesn't possess a street this vacant.

Situated just across the Susquehanna River from Havre de Grace, Perry Point was once an estate of 1,800 acres owned by the Stump family (a member of which stares from a painting inside the Commodore's House, mutton-chop sideburns framing a stern visage). According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the estate was seized by Union forces during the Civil War, used as a training station for cavalry mules and apparently left in considerable disrepair after the soldiers went home.

The Stump family remained on the property until February 1918, when the federal government bought the remaining 516-acre estate for $150,000. With World War I in full swing, officials turned the site into an ammonium nitrate plant, for use in making high explosives. But four months after the plant opened, the war ended, and the plant became obsolete.

Since 1919, the property - including some 300 homes that had been built to house the factory workers - has been used as a veterans' hospital. But base realignment and other changes have forced Perry Point to adapt, and the need for so many ancillary buildings has been eliminated.

Some houses have been torn down. Although the Commodore's House will be preserved, about a dozen homes - including those along Avenue B - are slated for demolition as soon as the money becomes available.

That makes the homes' starring role in this production, which the filmmakers hope to have ready in time for February's Sundance Film Festival, especially timely.

"The houses really are in bad shape, and some of them do need to come down," says Jack Rosenkrans, who is serving as the liaison between Veterans Affairs and the filmmakers. Having worked at Perry Point for 29 years, he sees the movie as a chance to preserve the abandoned community. "As long as it's on that film, it will continue to exist."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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