Early Cronenberg body horror tackles sexual politics and disease.
The Sentinel. 1977. Directed & Written by Michael Winner; based on the novel by Jeffrey Konvitz.
Starring Chris Sarandon, Cristina Raines, Martin Balsam, John Carradine, José Ferrer, Ava Gardner, Arthur Kennedy, Burgess Meredith, Sylvia Miles, Eli Wallach, Christopher Walken, Jerry Orbach, and Beverly D’Angelo.
Universal Pictures/Jeffrey Konvitz Productions.
Rated R. 92 minutes.
When I really started to become a horror hound years ago, The Sentinel is a haunted house horror movie I’d heard about yet could never get the chance to see. Years later, finally, I was able to and it blew me away. Personally, it’s my favourite haunted house-style film. There’s an intimacy to its depiction of haunting that really gets to me and lingers; sort of how I feel about Robert Wise’s The Haunting, another haunted house movie I feel is built on an intimate feel of perspective. Even more than that, Michael Winner’s movie is such a creepy, slow burn style horror, as well as the fact it draws on religious elements to achieve its supernatural thrill.
Haunted house movies are incredibly common. It’s hard to set a movie aside from the pack and say “This is the best.” So many are actually good, too. In my mind. You’ve got the aforementioned Wise film, The Legend of Hell House, The Shining (even if it’s not as good as King’s book), The Changeling, and the list goes on. What makes The Sentinel special for me is its pacing, the interesting and slow building screenplay Winner adapted from the Jeffrey Konvitz novel is tight. Then there’s all the imagery.
Trust me, this is a hellish ride.
Model Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) and boyfriend Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) are on the verge of marriage. However, Alison would rather be independent and have a place of her own instead of moving in with Michael. Just in case. So she rents an apartment in a seemingly ancient New York brownstone, where the landlady gives her a nice price and all the eccentric neighbours come out for a visit. Though, after a little time in her new home, Alison starts to feel strangely. First, her own motor skills start to cease functioning correctly causing bedlam all over the place from home to work on photo shoots. Then she begins to witness eerie happenings throughout the apartment, the apparition of dead people from her past, and it only begins to get worse.
Eventually after some investigation Michael starts figuring out what’s been going on at the apartment building. By the time Alison clues in it may or may not be too late for her to do anything about it.
The brownstone may have its new Sentinel yet.
Immediately the score from Gil Mellé is noticeable. Such a lush sounding composition from the start, as we’re introduced to Alison (Raines). Then suddenly Mellé spins everything down in this strangely appropriate dark twist. You’re almost jarred out of place by the music, explicitly made aware there’ll be spookiness to follow. A required element for any proper haunted house horror is a chilling score. I mean, okay, it’s not required, but I think they benefit greatly from having a refined sound behind it.
The score works so well at other times because it isn’t just a bunch of single pieces linked together. Mellé incorporates his compositions into the sound design – shrill strings whittle away at your nerves in certain moments of suspense, other scenes have an ambient swell surrounding them and an electronic feel, then he also brings out the church bells and other ominous sounds to mix their presence with everything else into magic. This is one horror score I could easily sit and listen to, completely out of context; not many of those out there aside from John Carpenter’s scores and maybe a handful of others. The music here becomes its own entity, and without it the tension and suspense of many scenes wouldn’t be as effective.
When Alison first comes across the ghost, or zombified ghost, of her father it’s full-on terror. Some impressively executed practical effects here, as she hacks at his face with a knife, slicing him and cutting off a chunk of his nose; it’s vicious stuff! You don’t expect it to happen, really. Nice surprise. These macabre aspects continue throughout, though, that’s probably the most outwardly violent thing to happen.
Except for later, once things get worse and worse for Alison, her mental state deteriorating almost exponentially day to day. At one point we get a glimpse of the two strange lesbian women apparently feasting off the dead corpse of a man, bloody leaking out, some on their faces and mouths. So, I suppose the cannibalism would be even more violent. Still, I think probably the best moment is the previous one between Alison and her dead father. Just such a visual jolt I’d not been expecting; always the best kind. And the way her father sort of shambles out of the shadows at her, his face revealing in the bit of light, it’s a subtly effective horror technique instead of going for a ridiculously nervous jump scare.
Overall, Winner does such a nice job crafting the screenplay with intense visuals, from the look of how its shot to the actual horrific elements. I love the beautiful, vibrant colour in this movie; particularly I find the scenes in the church stick out, with the heavy burgundies, the wood tones of the pews, and so on. Cinematographer and director of photography Dick Kratina does the film justice by capturing it so well. Not is there just nice looking visuals on a surface level, some of those spooky bits throughout are all due to the way Kratina manages to frame the scenes – his use of shadow at various points, from Alison’s first walk around the apartment at night to when Michael (Sarandon) explores the entire building alone, is very good and casts everything in an unsettling light.
Once the final ten minutes begin, especially after Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith) calls out to the other ghosts, The Sentinel evolves into pure terror. There are deformities, burn victims, rotting dead corpses, the lesbians cannibalizing Michael’s body, and more. It’s an intensely visceral sequence, which again pits Alison against her dead father; his makeup is scary, he creeps the hell out of me whenever I see him. Just the whole finale, it works on you and it does my head in every single time I watch this movie. Winner paces this scene so perfectly, too. He could have had a very frantic set of shots, typical modern styled horror we see too often nowadays. Rather, instead of going for the adrenaline he makes your pulse pound, he makes the suspense ramp up in your gut and the tension tickle your veins, and by the time we hit the finish Winner has the audience in the palm of his hand. Again, Mellé’s ominous sounding score comes out in an amazing wave that builds up to a crash, really putting the cherry on top. Couldn’t ask for a better finale. It’s weird, it has a bit of blood and unnerving shocks, there’s pure emotional terror at work, and the plot’s conclusion kept me wanting more in the right sort of sense.
5 stars for Michael Winner and The Sentinel. This one has all the greatness of the best haunted house horror, as well as the fact it’s got plenty of unique charm. We get a heavy dose of classic horror, plus Winner brings innovation to his adaptation of the source material and gives us an odd, quirky piece of terrifying cinema. There are lots of practical effects to gorge on – something of which I’m a massive fan – and then the spooky moments will genuinely make you uncomfortable and scare you proper. You’ve got to see this soon because it’s an underrated and lesser known gem from 1977, before some of the best known haunted house pictures.
The Creeper a.k.a Rituals. 1977. Directed by Peter Carter. Screenplay by Ian Sutherland.
Starring Hal Holbrook, Lawrence Dane, Robin Gammell, Ken James, Gary Reineke, Murray Westgate, Jack Creley, and Michael Zenon. American Pop Classics. Rated R. 100 minutes.
This 1977 horror-thriller, The Creeper a.k.a Rituals, is one I’ve heard about for about for well over a decade now, almost two. Horror fanatic since the age of twelve, when I first discovered Hal Holbrook outside of those interests I soon came to discover he’d been in an early slasher type film. So sticking that in the back of my head, at the time with no real way to see the movie since it wasn’t at my local video store, I hoped someday I’d be able to finally see it. Somehow. Some way.
Well recently I tracked down a digitally remastered copy from American Pop Classics, which was reasonably priced and pretty decent looking for such a rare cult horror flick. This one came out on the verge of slasher horror becoming super popular, due to John Carpenter. It wasn’t the first, with classics such as Black Christmas coming out in 1974, Psycho having been released seventeen years prior. But still, I think The Creeper did some interesting things. This movie might not have hit it big, it didn’t at all from what I gather, don’t let that sway you. There’s a good bit of backwoods horror here and most certainly anyone who has seen it will find themselves influenced by its creepy qualities.
A group of doctors get together in the Canadian wilderness. They’re dropped off by plane out to some remote part of the forest. The men head to a place called “The Cauldron of the Moon” by Aboriginal peoples. Hiking through all sorts of terrain, the doctor friends camp for a while. However, once they’re shoes go missing, except for one man, things start to get scary.
The one with his shoes left decides to walk out for help. It’s after he leaves when the others discover something disturbing is happening in those woods. A deer head appears outside their camp, then the terror truly begins.
There’s a bleak atmosphere from the beginning of The Creeper. Everything is isolated, so far up into the backwoods. Even further, director Peter Carter captures the desolate feeling with a ton of great wide shots; the forest and the mountains together swallow up each of the characters. There are so many beautiful scenes. Even when one of the doctors ends up with his decapitated head on a pike, and another of them throws it down the mountain in anger, there’s this sweeping shot that goes over Hal Holbrook’s head as the head/stick goes flying; strange for it to be a beautiful shot, but it certainly is that.
Another thing I think helped overall is that this screenplay wasn’t the typical slasher horror writing either. Perhaps because it was one of the earliest slashers, a prototype, it didn’t fall for all the exact similar things later slashers made into the genre tropes. Better than that, the characters themselves were decently developed. There were a few points where I thought the development was subtle, things didn’t get spelled out obviously right in front of us; for instance, a conversation around the fire has two of the doctors revealing bits and pieces of their lives before the events of the film, sort of filling in gaps to who they are as people. A lot of modern slashers try to jam pack loads of exposition into their screenplays. Here, there’s enough to hook us, but also leaves some things to our imagination. Part of The Creeper‘s charm is, evidently, the way it sort of creeps on you. Between the isolation, the wide and desolate shots, as well as the characterization, everything in the film will grow and fester in you until the events start to get real terrifying.
The moments of slasher horror, so to speak, are pretty damn effective. From the beginning, when the deer head shows up, things are nasty enough. Solely because of the malicious intent. But things only get worse and worse. The decapitation, as I mentioned. Afterwards, one of the doctors ends up tied to a a stake and lit on fire. There are several truly gruesome aspects to the film.
I think it’s the very finale I found most jarring. There a two instances where the sound design uses an echo, which was interesting. It worked and had a strange effect. It’s unsettling, yet I can’t say exactly why. Sort of amplified the emotions happening at the time, almost as if the echoes were in the characters’ own heads.
Ultimately, what makes so much of The Creeper work in terms of its outright horror is the solid acting from Holbrook. He really has great skills. Even when the rest of the acting isn’t all perfect, Holbrook keeps us grounded and his intensity, the anxiety he gives us through his character, all the tension in him, it helps the horror and terror of the plot become more plausible, it feels more real. In particular, there’s a scene where Harry (Holbrook) discovers a deep cut around his femoral artery, and he stops for a moment, regrouping, as his friend is tied to the stake; the way Harry is calm compared to the other man, the demeanour he displays, this gives us such an excellent impression of this man’s character. I imagine Harry as a good doctor, someone who doesn’t allow the pressure to bear down on him. These few moments were great in this respect. Not only that, the entire sequence following after is horrific and Holbrook makes it come off spot on.
The final shot of Harry sitting on the highway was amazing – panning back behind him, the open road ahead, such a fitting way to end things after all the chaos. Everything becomes sunny, open, beautiful, as opposed to the darkness and horror in the forest. Love this finish.
While there are some aspects which could’ve been improved upon, The Creeper deserves a 4 out of 5 star rating. I truly feel this is a good slasher, especially considering this came a year before John Carpenter’s Halloween. With a good lead actor to hold things in place, some nice writing and very effectively creepy effects at key moments, this is a solid cult classic. It’s tough to find and the quality of the DVD I found isn’t even immaculate, nowhere near. But you’ll be surprised. This is a very subtle and low budget film, though, its merits are evident once you get through the film. For a rare movie, I’m pleased to have even gotten a copy. Check this out if you’re ever so lucky. You’ll find a nice dose of slasher horror in an unusual package.
The Hills Have Eyes. 1977. Directed & Written by Wes Craven.
Starring John Steadman, Janus Blythe, Peter Locke, Russ Grieve, Virginia Vincent, Suze Lanier-Bramlett, Dee Wallace, Brenda Marinoff, Robert Houston, Martin Speer, James Whitworth, Michael Berryman, and Lance Gordon. Blood Relations Co.
Unrated. 89 minutes.
★★★ (eOne DVD release)
I want to start off this review by talking solely about Wes Craven. It’s hard to pick a top director in horror for me because there are many different, talented individuals in the genre who have put out a ton of great work. But at the top of the list, you’ll always find Craven.
With his first feature in 1972, the now infamous The Last House on the Left, Wes Craven announced himself to the world as a young and angry filmmaker with not just balls, but with a vision. I truly think many of his movies can be looked at as more than just horror, they often have a bit of message buried deep down; sort of in the similar way George Romero instills his zombie films with a bit of political/social commentary from time to time.
He went on to do The Hills Have Eyes, but his career was only beginning to cook with gas around this time. Another 7 years in, he had movies like Deadly Blessing, Swamp Thing, and a much hated (but a movie I actually enjoy a bit) sequel The Hills Have Eyes Part II. Then came A Nightmare on Elm Street, and from then on it was Master of Horror Wes Craven, not simply Wes Craven.
Also just to note, I’m a big fan of his movie The People Under The Stairs. If you feel like it, check out my review here. I’ve got a lot to say about it and I won’t take up your time any more here than I already am!
So needless to say, in regards to Wes, I love a bunch of his movies. Even despite what others might say and how they may feel, I’m a big fan of the first three Scream movies; the fourth wasn’t terrible or anything, just not my cup of tea. Most people I know hate the 3rd, sort of like the 2nd. Some I know don’t even like the very first one. For me, they came at a time when I was just on the verge of high school – the first came out when I was 11 years old. So I’m not sure, maybe nostalgia plays a part in it. But I still watch Scream at least a couple times a year, plus the other two usually get a view not long after.
Back to The Hills Have Eyes, though. This is one of those 1970s horror movies that hits you right in the gut. I know that Craven is a big fan of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, so there’s no surprise to me even the cinematography is a little similar. Above all, I think Craven probably meant bits of his film to be – at least in small part – an homage to Hooper’s movie. I don’t know, but it feels that way to me. Not at all saying Craven rips TCM off. This is its own beast. Comparisons probably come from a few of these minor points: 1) Carter family is out in their car/camper driving on a roadtrip, 2) they’re in an unfamiliar place, and, 3) a family (of sorts) descends upon them and terrorizes each one. Other than that I don’t see anything else similar, totally different stories. Each a great horror in its own right.
What The Hills Have Eyes has going for it is a genuinely dreadful atmosphere, in part through the cinematography and direction, as well as everything from the music by Don Peake to the locations Craven used while filming. A truly horrific movie that smacks of realism while also drawing in almost urban legend-like fears to make the audience experience the terror of the Carter family in a visceral fashion.
The Hills Have Eyes sees the Carter family on vacation – Big Bob (Russ Grieve) and his wife Ethel (Virginia Vincent) driving their car along with their teenage kids Bobby (Robert Houston) and Brenda (Susan Lanier); in the camper out back is the oldest daughter Lynne (Dee Wallace), her husband Doug (Martin Speer), and their baby Katie, as well as the dogs Beauty and Beast. At an old gas station, they stop and meet a man named Fred (John Steadman). He advises to keep on the main road, but the Carters further on end up running off the road and crashing the car. Once they’re stranded, Bob leaves for the gas station to find Fred and get help. At the same time, one of the dogs – Beauty – runs into the hills where someone attacks her. When Bobby finds Beauty’s body, torn up and bloody, he’s terrified, but falls and knocks himself out. Coming to, he’s afraid to scare his family.
Meanwhile, Big Bob witnesses Fred killed and hung in an outhouse by a crazed lunatic: a hideous looking man named Mars (Lance Gordon) hiding in shadows. Once all hell breaks loose, the rest of the unsuspecting Carter family lays in wait out in the darkening desert, unaware that Bob will not be returning.
But somebody will. And he’s bringing his brother.
I honestly love this film. Though, I do love the remake by director Alexandre Aja a tiny bit more. Shoot me, whatever.
Reason I say this is because one thing I do enjoy more in the original is the scene involving Big Bob Carter (Grieve) and the old man at the gas station, Fred (Steadman). First of all, their acting is solid. Each of them holds their own. What I like most is how Fred lays out a little bit of the history about the people in the hills; he makes mention of whacking the “devil man”, as he calls him, right in the face with a tire iron. Not that it’s anything earth shattering, I just like how later when we get our first good look at Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth) there’s that noticeable, jagged split in his forehead. Mostly, I think John Steadman does a fantastic job with the short supporting role of Fred; it’s brief, but the story he tells Big Bob at the gas station is creepy, sort of unsettling. An awesome bit of drama with the horror to follow.
Much of what I think appeals to a lot of horror fans, like myself, is the fact Craven gives the film such a low budget style and it effectively brings us into its realism. Sure, the story is out there. At the same time, parts of it are so very raw and realistic that it’s hard to deny how scary The Hills Have Eyes can be at times.
For instance, one real perfect scene in terms of being unsettling is when Bobby (Robert Houston) first hears a bunch of noise out in the bushes in the dark. It’s an eerie few moments. The way the camera tightens in on his face, the darkness around him. We see little glimpses of Papa Jupiter making noise out in the desert bushes.
But then the worst of all happens, as Bobby goes back to the camper where he finds himself locked out. Rattling at the door, Craven gives a peek inside where Pluto (the amazing horror actor Michael Berryman) is waiting with his hand right by the handle. The Carter women – Ethel and Brenda – sleeping soundly. Highly effective scene, and the way in which it’s presented really makes it work. Craven served as editor on this one, so I love some of the techniques he used. In my mind, if he’d chosen to let Bobby go on and wake up Doug/Lynne, then went back to show Pluto inside, this would’ve been far less shocking. It’s the way we watch the camera almost move through the door, Craven cutting from Bobby outside, to see Pluto’s hand, and then the camera slowly crawls up to reveal his face. Amazing example of how editing can do all the work in terms of an effective creep-out moment.
Another part of why this movie is a hit amongst horror hounds has to do with the viciousness of it all. This came even a year before John Carpenter’s Halloween, but films like Peeping Tom, Psycho to a certain extent, and most certainly the fantastic Black Christmas had already begun the slasher trend; even if it was in its early stages at that point. What The Hills Have Eyes does is take away the slasher gimmick. In turn, it tries to aim for that real life feel, as I’d mentioned before. I’m glad Craven didn’t go with everything he’d initially planned, as it was meant to be a modernized version of Sawney Bean. Apparently it would’ve been nearly 20 years into the future, and honestly it all sounds like a real mess.
With the film we know today, Craven brought a sense of reality to it all. I think Alexandre Aja did a good job updating things and including other real life situations into the remake. But here, there’s very much a gritty, visceral atmosphere throughout the entire movie. It’s a savagely emotional horror, as we’re watching this normal family on a roadtrip together become fodder for a bunch of cannibalistic serial killers living out in the desert. And I think that’s another aspect of what takes The Hills Have Eyes away from the slasher sub-genre more than it already is – the whole family is involved. Not only do some of them get killed, it isn’t one sole survivor left as is so often the case in the typical slasher horror movie; Doug, Brenda, and Bobby are the three last bastions of civilization left out in the desert once their loved ones are killed and the baby is stolen. I find that a neat aspect. Particularly in 1977, I think though Craven went on to do some slasher stuff he did a nice job of not doing the same old thing everyone else was doing. Even some of the nasty stuff in Black Christmas, a favourite of mine, doesn’t compare to the brutality of Craven. Furthermore, while we do get a bit of explicit terror here, there is an excellent use of shadow in all the locations in which Craven films, adding a mysteriously creepy quality. Just goes to show also what you can do on a budget. Not everything in horror requires tons and tons of cash being thrown into special effects and whatever else; part of it requires innovation and a keen eye for natural lighting, as seems to be the case here.
Producer Peter Locke does a good commentary on the DVD release from eOne Entertainment, alongside director-writer Wes Craven. Pretty enlightening stuff. Also, it’s fun to hear these two guys watch the movie and be captivated by it. Funny because so many artists, filmmakers particularly, don’t actually like to sit and watch their stuff much. Or at least that seems to be the gist of opinions and even more so with actors. Craven and Locke both admit at one point they forgot to say much because they were sucked in watching; Locke had recently watched it again to prepare, Craven says he hasn’t watched the film in years.
Moreover, I think Craven puts a point on what I’d said earlier about his films. One line from Mars has him say “I’m in yer out!”, as he gnaws on Big Bob’s forearm and rants at a dead, burned Bob. Chilling scene. But what Craven says is that this is the white man’s ultimate fear, that the outsiders are going to get in and then they’ll be ousted. So again, I think behind even some of Craven’s most outrageous horror there are poignant pieces of knowledge. Maybe they don’t always come across perfectly, especially for those who aren’t deeply into horror. However, I don’t think you can deny it once you look at it long enough and think about what Craven says. Of course you can always make your own subjective meaning out of movies, but this one really does fit. Aja picks up on this aspect of the original and amplifies it during the remake, which is a reason why I enjoyed it even a little more.
Finally, the acting is all solid. From Michael Berryman, always a treasure onscreen in horror, to Papa Jupiter played by James Whitworth who is extremely unsettling each time we see him. Most of all, I thought Susan Lanier as Brenda did an impressive job with her character. As Pete Locke says on the DVD commentary, you actually feel for her situation and you feel that she’s beyond broken, it’s sadness you get out of her in so many scenes. The one scene with Susan Lanier and Virginia Vincent, as her mother Ethel who is all but fully dead, is heartbreaking and amazing all at once.
All over, I think the acting helps this film’s script, as the actors all put in their good work to help everything off the page come alive.
Overall, I love this movie and it is most certainly a 4 out of 5 star horror. Some of the acting could’ve been a little better, but most is excellent. My biggest problem is with a bit of the costuming and the makeup. Naturally, the budget was less than a quarter million dollars, which in terms of movies is a very low budget independent project. So I can’t knock them terribly. All the same, it still could’ve been better.
Either way the little problems I have with the movie don’t take away from its greatness. This is a classic of terrifying horror cinema. Wes Craven has created so many memorable horror characters and films that it’s sometimes impossible to believe it. There’s seemingly no end to it at times. The Hills Have Eyes, no matter if it’s one of his first, will always be one of the best Craven movies and I can watch it again and again. Solid horror with creepy performances and an unsettling premise.
Check it out if you’ve never seen it, I always recommend it as a classic horror from the late ’70s. The DVD from eOne is nothing spectacular, though, it does contain the commentary which I enjoyed thoroughly. I’d love to pick it up on Blu ray soon to see if there are any further features. I’d love to see some of what was cut because it sounds vicious and pretty wild horror fun!