By Timothy Rawles / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ
(Pinal County, AZ) When they paved over paradise to create the world's entertainment capital, Hollywood needed to expand its reach. Some of that stretch included Arizona; Pinal County, to be specific. Some of these sites where filming took place are still around and just a day trip away.
Cinephiles can find a ton of locations in L.A. where their favorite films were shot. Still, a trip to Arizona also offers an opportunity to see how Tinseltown’s influence spread past the California border.
Back in the ‘50s, when the western genre was born, theatergoers were transported to old west towns thanks to meticulously constructed Hollywood backlots and retrofitted indoor studios.
As the genre progressed, producers put their money into locations outside the backlot, sometimes constructing entire towns in remote spots around America. Arizona became a frequent favorite of theirs. The Apacheland Movie Ranch in Apache Junction is a prime example.
The Apacheland studio was the filming location for TV series’ like “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza.” It was also used in the movies “Charro!” and “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.”
Sadly, the massive ranch burned down in 2004, but the chapel and barn were saved — you can see those at the Superstition Mountain Museum.
Studios didn’t need to build an entire town to set the scene. Location scouts have found other places around Pinal to make do. Some movies left their celluloid footprint on Pinal County, some of which are still accessible to intrepid movie buffs.
Stir Crazy (1980): This comedy was considered raunchy. Starring the late Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor as two fugitives, “Stir Crazy” was a box office juggernaut. Although a lot of the film was filmed in Tucson, the famous prison scene was captured in Florence, where the comedy duo uttered the infamous lines, “That’s right, we bad!” through the cell block. This same location would be used later in the Coen Brothers' film “Raising Arizona.”
Murphy’s Romance (1985): This rom-com starring James Garner and Sally Field was Oscar-nominated. Although the film takes place in the fictional Eunice, Arizona, it is actually Florence, and you can see landmark clues throughout the movie.
Eight-Legged Freaks (2002) Six years after the success of “Scream,” David Arquette starred in this ‘50s-style nature-gone-awry throwback. After spiders ingest toxic waste, they are mutated into giant monsters that terrorize an Arizona town called Prosperity. As with Murphy’s Romance, Prosperity is fictional, and Superior is used as a stand-in. Main Street is probably the most prominent location in the film. One scene includes the monstrous arachnids ascending down the side of the Magma Hotel, which has been since restored and is available for guests.
The Gauntlet (1977) Clint Eastwood wasn’t always an Oscar-winning director; he was the quintessential action star of the 1970s. In "The Gauntlet," he plays a cop in charge of escorting a woman to Phoenix to testify against a mob boss. The primary location was set in Phoenix, but parts of the movie were filmed in Superior.
U Turn (1997): Big Hollywood directors such as Oliver Stone have cast Pinal in their movies. His thriller “U Turn” doesn’t change the name of Superior and uses landmarks throughout. Some of those structures remain today. It follows Sean Penn as a traveler who gets caught up in a murder plot involving an incestuous married couple. The movie gained moderate success but was mostly panned by critics.
The Prophecy (1995): This horror-thriller gained cult classic status in 1995. It stars Christopher Walken as the Archangel Gabriel, who is sent from hell to find a “dark soul” on Earth with the help of a mortal. There is one scene in the film in which Gabriel questions students at the Taft Municipal school, which is The Old Superior High School.
The Unhealer (2020) More recently, Hollywood came to Apache Junction for the horror movie “The Unhealer.” In this movie, a bullied teenager gains superpowers and uses them against his tormentors. Apache Junction was used as the backdrop, and you can see the Superstition Mountains in many shots.
From romantic comedies to westerns to horror and science fiction, Pinal County has done a lot of work for Hollywood. Whether they change the name of places or keep them intact, these locations are now a part of film history, and it's fun to visit them as a reminder of just how close Hollywood really is.