Clean Water, Screen Fodder: The R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant

October 8, 2016: Hey look, it’s a water treatment plant. A Canadian one. Except that where local Toronto folk see a beautiful complex kicking out 950 million liters of clean water a day for them to moisten their Slip’N Slides with, I see a looming insane asylum, one where Sam Neill scrawled crosses all over the padded walls of his cell, where John Glover walked down marble halls with a haircut that was obviously a painful outward expression of the lunacy he managed every day, where David Warner sat and listened with incredulity to a tale of madness. And mouths.

That’s right, like the Black Church, the R.C. Harris Water Treatment plant is a filming location for John Carpenter’s 1995 In the Mouth of Madness, used as both the exterior and interior of the insane asylum where Neill is incarcerated and from where he tells his story of an evil horror author and the Lovecraftian monsters he is bent on unleashing. Its exterior is in the first shot in the movie, in fact.

I was originally planning to just stick a photo of the waterworks at the end of the Black Church article, but when I arrived at the site, I found the sprawling plant a pretty amazing place. It looks like a villain’s lair or an alien palace and perches on a hill at the edge of the mini-ocean that is Lake Ontario. Even better, the grounds surrounding it are a public space called Victoria Park.

Built on the site of a 19th century amusement park, the building became a fully operational Death star in 1941 after nine years of construction. Named after the city’s commissioner of public works who was responsible for the project, the plant was meant to be more than a mere operational facility. It was a statement. And that statement was that Toronto is an awesome place to drink water. The edifice’s Art Deco design and sweeping marble interiors got it the name “Palace of Purification,” which to me conjures images of religious fervor in an esoteric sect of adherents. In other words, like something from the movies.

And, in fact, it’s been used in other movies than In the Mouth of Madness. From what Wikipedia tells me, it’s been an asylum twice, a prison five times, and a villain’s lair four times (including the brewery in the 1983 flick Strange Brew). It has not yet been used as an alien palace.

The treatment plant is at the end of Queen Street East. You can walk right up the steps to read its historical plaque, or head down the hill to the shore of Lake Ontario.

As we walked away from the building, I remembered the last scene in In the Mouth of Madness, where Sam Neill did the same. Except his walk was across grounds littered with trash and wrecked cars, while a radio announcer intoned a stunned play-by-play of mutating people and mass murder as Neill realizes that Sutter Cane’s monstrous apocalypse has come to pass.

My day at the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant was a bit more pleasant than that.