Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive

Constructing Berry's House of Dreams

The opening credits set the vibes for the film and highlights some of the many contributors to Berry's vision.

Robert Berry seemed the likely suspect for eventually creating a film within the small town of Decker, Indiana. Located in southeastern Indiana with a population of about 300-400 people at the time of filming in 1962, Decker was the embodiment of small town living.1 Berry, born in 1940, earned a reputation as an innovative visionary from the locals of Decker, like his father before him. His father, Robert Berry Sr. spurred growth by operating Decker’s water works before his death in a plane crash not long before Berry started his film endeavor. Like his father, Berry took over his father’s responsibilities at the water works in addition to pursuing an education in speech and drama at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. Acting guided Berry to spending the two previous summers leading up to 1962 playing leading roles in productions on the Majestic showboat.2 In the summer of 1962, with experience in acting and the vision of a new endeavor in Decker, Berry would turn his eye to filmmaking, ultimately creating a regional horror film known by local audiences for over 60 years. 

The idea for a feature length film came to Robert Berry unexpectedly, spawning from a critique of existing horror cinema. House of Dreams started as a thought between Robert Berry and his friend Ed Stewart. Stewart was a 24 year old neighbor of Berry who was sometimes cited as a theater owner in nearby Terre Haute and Indianapolis and at other times named in newspapers as a regional distributor for Republic Pictures of Hollywood.3 The two were watching a horror film late one January night on television, when the thought crept over them that they could create a better film than the one playing on television. The next day Berry started writing the script for his vision. That spring semester, Berry wrote between classes and late at night after finishing his studies.4 The script would be edited and revisited by Berry four times before filming started.5 By late June of 1962 Berry had assembled a cast, crew, and equipment to make his filmmaking dream into a reality.

Lee Hansen Writing in His Study

Robert Berry playing the lead part Lee Hansen, the troubled writer.

The story of House of Dreams connected real structures of Berry’s life with classic horror elements to make a unique and contemplative film. Events focus on Lee Hansen, a writer of horror and ghost stories struggling to complete his latest work, his wife Elaine, a recovering alcoholic balancing sobriety, and a decrepit mansion at the edge of town. The subject of the troubled writer's latest book, the rundown mansion, was familiar to Lee due to exploration trips in his youth. Similar to the fictional story, the house was an actual old and decaying mansion at the edge of Decker. It was known locally as the Sam Jordan House and was the place of a mysterious murder decades previously. It was familiar to Berry as it sat on his family’s property, and provided an adventure spot for childhood curiousity.6 Truly a feature of the film, the dilapidated house provided key plot points for the story through the film’s signature vision sequences which took place while Lee slept. Additionally, the ominous and prophetic vision scenes taking place within the mansion center the horror and mystery elements of the film. After Lee’s first vision foreshadowing the death of his brother Ted becomes a reality, the troubled writer’s obsession with the house and his writing grows. This interest leads Lee down a dark path. View the whole film to find out Lee’s fate.

Shot of Lance Bird as a State Trooper

Lance Bird is photographed here in a scene as a state trooper. Additionally, Bird would provide his Jaguar sports car to the film, along with doing camera work.

Pauline Elliott as Elaine

Fellow hoosier Pauline Elliott shown here ready to start performing as Lee's wife Elaine. 

Completing the script would be but the first of many hurdles in Berry’s quest to create a film. Before the first scene could be shot, the young filmmaker would need to cast actors to fill the roles, find a crew, secure funding and equipment, and create the logistics of shooting scenes throughout Decker and the surrounding area. For regional, low budget movie endeavors, these details ultimately lead to many failed film projects. Fortunately, this proved to not be the case for Berry. Casting was completed without spending any money by having friends play roles or through reaching agreements with local actors. The fact that the nature of the film required only a few major characters and a handful of minor ones proved beneficial. Although Berry initially pursued a California man to act as Lee in the film, the low pay caused the man to back out of discussions prompting Berry to grow a beard and play the leading role himself.7 Across from Berry, playing Lee’s wife, was fellow I.U. student Pauline Elliott. At the time Elliott was a junior majoring in speech and theater at Indiana University.8 An audition was held for the role of Ted’s wife, which was given to Indianapolis’ Carlene Bradley of the Herron Art Institute.9 Berry got his friend Lance Bird to join, playing the part of a state trooper while also assisting with camera work and other behind the scenes tasks. In exchange for acting parts on screen, Lester Lucas, the then manager of the New Moon Theater and Allison Drive-In in Vincennes, was briefly shown in the Vincennes Bus Depot scene making a call from a pay phone.10 Still photography was done by Dave Jackson and Joan Tapp was in charge of hair.11 A Roger Sanders would also come to assist as a cameraman. Finally, either from a liking of Berry, the excitement to be part of a professional movie, or to just show some Decker hospitality, a multitude of Decker and Vincennes residents played background and extras roles.12 A Knox County deputy sheriff, Bob Warth, even joined in on the action, playing a sheriff in a few scenes.13 By being creative and tapping into the local population, Berry was able to fill the cast and crew with local talent without much money. 

Funding was a major concern for Berry, who bankrolled the majority of the film’s $10,000 budget. While an extremely low price for a complete motion picture at the time, the ability for a college student to self-fund the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $103,421.19 on a passion project is atypical of many college students today.14 Costs remained low in other areas by securing a second-hand 16mm camera to record with and utilizing acting talent in other production roles.15 Ed Stewart and Lance Bird would assist Berry with camera work, not to mention Bird loaning Berry his sporty Jaguar for several scenes in the film to add believability to the wealth of the character Lee.16 When not in front of the camera, Charlene Bradley would work as the scene designer.17 Together they created Melpomini Production Company, named after the Greek goddess of human tragedy.18 Having a script, cast, and equipment, Berry was ready to begin shooting.

Elaine with a Bottle of Alcohol, a Vice for the Wife of Lee Hansen.

Elaine would have her own struggles in the film surrounding alcohol usage.

Shooting began June 10, 1962, and combined unique conditions of filming in a small Indiana town and the limited budget realities of the production. One of two major shooting locations was the abandoned Sam Jordan mansion. The dilapidated house, owned by the Berry family and slated for demolition after the movie finished filming, was creatively remodeled for the capture of the perfect film shots. A local electrician rewired electrical connections to allow film lighting to be used throughout the crumbling mansion. Further, Berry and others demolished aspects of the house to shoot scenes, tearing out fixtures, stairs, and even ceilings in the quest for the perfect shot.19 To protect the camera and film equipment, Berry slept in the old mansion by himself, stating to local newspaper reporter David W. Jackson at the time, “‘The only light comes in from a streetlamp a block away,’ he [Berry] said. ‘I get a lot of ideas for new stories while I’m there.’”20 Shooting at night was also required for many of the mansion scenes, with the crew often working until 4am or later.21 Night filming was due in part to the necessity of horror scenes taking place at night and also from issues with sound interfering with shots during the day. Even at night, filming was noted to have stopped due to thunder, cars, and even the sound of crickets.22 With the odd hours and commotion, local residents formed rumors of mystical happenings at the abandoned house. Berry told one newspaper locals thought they were a cult and gossiped to others in town, “‘They told a neighbor that we lie on the floor with our arms outstretched and vanish.’”23 When not filming at night, Berry and the crew used red filters on the camera to simulate recording in the darkness.24 The abandoned mansion was the centerpiece of the film and thus of filming efforts.

Robert Berry and Pauline Elliott Re-Recording Their Lines

Most lines of the film would need to be re-recorded and dubbed in through post-production due to audio issues. A major unexpected challenge for the young cast and crew!

Other spots around Decker and the surrounding areas were utilized by the young crew. Berry secured the use of his mother’s house, away that summer on a prolonged trip to Bloomington, for the many scenes depicting Lee and Elaine’s home.25 A few select shots came from outside of these two primary filming locations, including a much anticipated shot at the Vincennes bus depot and at a church in Decker.26 Both of these would require the participation of locals as extras. In Vincennes, the bus depot was not shut down for filming. Instead locals were coached for about two hours beforehand and the scene was filmed in-between real bus traffic.27 Berry’s ambition for challenging shots and innovation on a budget was shown in full force through the recording of Bird’s Jaguar spiritedly being driven. To achieve this, the crew managed to mount a camera to the back of the Jaguar and film the vehicle on nearby U.S. Route 41. During an interview with reporter Bill Bridges, Berry reminisced about filming with the Jaguar, recalling, “‘We must have looked like a Jeep with a machine gun,’ Berry said, ‘Some people pulled completely off the road after they passed us.”28 Even with some scenes shot outside of the direct town of Decker, the entire filming process was highly concentrated. Vincennes, Indiana, is a less than 15 mile drive from Decker, and while the exact location of road shots on U.S. Route 41 are unknown, the distance from Decker to the highway is about one mile. Truely, House of Dreams was a local horror film, and a hoosier endeavor. 

Challenges to the release of House of Dreams would not end with filming. Unexpected audio issues and the costs of post-production editing added complexity for the first-time movie maker. Although the camera equipment rented by the crew had the ability to record sound, which they did, during post-production the audio was discovered to be inadequate for theatrical release.29 Berry’s solution was bringing in the actors to record their lines and to dub the new recording into the film. Almost every line in the film was re-recorded, a daunting undertaking. Moreover, dubbing could prove hard to get right with the captured lip movements already recorded. The results were imperfect, with regular sync issues in the final film between lip movement and the spoken dialogue. Some viewers would take the dubbing decision as intentional, claiming it created a distinctive dream-like quality to the film.30 Post-production also required Berry to send off the film for development, and to edit the film down to a digestible and fluid level for audiences. After sending the materials off for development in labs located in Kansas City and Chicago, Berry had about 10,000 to 11,000 feet of film.31 In short order, Berry narrowed that down to a tight 3,000 feet.32 Cuts were hard to choose. Berry stated to newspapers at the time that during filming the shots expanded as new aspects of the story were added.33 Upon finishing, House of Dreams went to a film editor in Chicago which set about making the final 700 feet of cuts to the film.34 Possibly through connections to Ed Stewart, the final product was transferred from 16mm to 35mm for commercial use by Republic Studios.35 Afterwards, the film was turned over to Abbe Gesben, a concert pianist affiliated with IU, to create the soundtrack.36 At last, the film was ready for public viewing.

Constructing Berry's House of Dreams