The original night of Valentine's Day terror, when the '80s was getting full into the swing of horror. A true slasher classic.
Vampires and love on the run.
The Mind’s Eye. 2016. Directed & Written by Joe Begos.
Starring Graham Skipper, Lauren Ashley Carter, John Speredakos, Larry Fessenden, Noah Segan, Matt Mercer, Michael A. LoCicero, Jeremy Gardner, Patrick M. Walsh, Brian Morvant, Josh Ethier, Susan T. Travers, & Chuck Doherty. Channel 83 Films/Site B.
Not Rated. 87 minutes.
Not sure how everybody else felt about it, but I loved the debut feature Almost Human from Joe Begos – it was on one of my favourite lists after being released in Canada finally. He proved to have a knack and a love for old school filmmaking, as well as the science fiction and horror pictures of a few decades ago. In that first film, Begos channelled a Fire in the Sky vibe into his own brand of retro horror with a fresh, exciting story. The Mind’s Eye bears its obvious Cronenbergian influence particularly right on its sleeve. Yet there’s so much more to it.
I knew just from the trailer that Begos was hugely influenced by Scanners. Not that he copies Cronenberg. Not at all. There’s a more personal, emotional plot that serves as foundation for The Mind’s Eye, as opposed to Scanners. Begos is focusing less on a metaphorical psychokinesis, much more on the action and horror elements. The pacing does most of that job, keeping us edgy the entire time. Again, after his fantastic debut, Begos proves that you can go over-the-top and still keep things satisfying. His science fiction-horror cocktail is better than the mere label of a throwback film, or any of the buzzword headlines you may read. It’s not perfect. However, it is everything the awful Scanners sequels could have been. Perhaps when Begos first saw it, this story began to brew in his mind, bit by bit. Until years later he’d fleshed out this entirely new tale of psychokinetic power and those who seek to control it. With Graham Skipper (also the star of Begos’ previous effort) and the ever wonderful Lauren Ashley Carter as the two main characters with psychokinetic powers, on the run from a doctor gone mad, the story sells itself through interesting performances and a load of practical, bloody goodness.
In his previous movie, Begos didn’t really have much action outside of some gunshots and frantic behaviour – not a bad thing. Mostly, it was straight up horror and sci-fi crossed together. Here we get to see him go for a different type of atmosphere. On one hand, Almost Human was great; it required different storytelling, a slow build of terror after the initial scene involving some alien craziness. On the other hand, The Mind’s Eye plunges into an action-oriented plot. As I mentioned, the pacing keeps everything pretty wild. We move along fast, as the main plot kicks in real quick. Essentially this is a road movie crossed with the sci-fi and horror elements in heaps. Or rather you could see it as a chase movie: a series of confrontational events stretching out over this insanely tense cat-and-mouse game between Zack and Rachel (Graham Skipper & Lauren Ashley Carter) and the doctor who tried to use them as guinea pigs, Dr. Michael Slovak (John Speredakos). Of course there are sections of the story where we slow down, get a bit of character development. The awesome motherfucker that is Larry Fessenden plays Zack’s father, Mike Connors, so there are more than just the main characters to find interest in. These brief reprieves in the chaotic pace of the action are just long enough to make us feel settled. Before Begos rattles us down the drain again and into the rabbit hole. A great place to be with a filmmaker who so admires the age of practical effects, as opposed to one totally dominated by CGI and jump scares.
THE EXPLODED HEAD! THE FUCKING EXPLODED HEAD!
Can we talk about it?
I mean, that sequence came not at all as a surprise. And behold, a savage, perfectly executed practical effect. Better still, I love the moment before that when Rachel is holding the guy up in the air – with her mind – and then POP! Just properly accomplished all around. You combine wild practical effects, good doses of bloody mess, a truly enjoyable score from Steve Moore (The Guest, Cub), you’ve got yourself a stew, baby!
I have to say that while I loved Skipper in the other Begos film, he wasn’t always as strong as he could have been, or needed to be either. Still, I loved his performance because you can see the genuine effort in some actors. In the role of Zack you can literally see the maturity of his acting coming into being. That’s not a bullshit line to throw out there; it’s a genuine observation. For instance, the scene where he and Rachel sit together and he tells her about his mother, his performance reaches the perfect pitch. He is so believably real it makes the character grow all the more quickly, in the best sort of way. If you weren’t rooted in his story emotionally yet, this scene should cement that.
Oh, and Carter? She’s phenomenal, as usual. Most recently, her turn as a damaged woman on the verge of a breakdown in Mickey Keating’s Darling blew me away. But back to Jug Face, The Woman, even her one episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, she is fairly consistent in her quality as an actor. Each character carries their own vulnerability yet are vastly different. As Rachel Meadows, she is another damaged character and this time with more than enough power to take whatever revenge she deems necessary. I like that Carter keeps what seems to be her inherent sweetness while simultaneously being capable of being a strong, determined woman – Rachel’s only in distress as much as Zack, so in a sense they both enable one another in certain ways. This also lets them each be a fully developed character, rather than simply a half of one whole. Carter’s charisma as a bit of a bad ass gets to come out here, which is lots of fun to watch.
A 4-star action romp across science fiction-horror territory. Begos may not have won everyone over with his first feature – he had me sold – but I just can’t believe that The Mind’s Eye won’t impress. It is exciting and fun above all else. The story isn’t overly innovative. Instead, Begos makes it feel fresh, intriguing. Because he takes the Scanners influence, all that love of the ’80s and early ’90s filmmaking, then moulds it into a tightly knit ball of tension and weirdness, in great ways. I’m not sold on the whole cast, although Skipper and Carter are so excellent. What I dig most is how the heart of the film beats loud and proud. Begos never pulls any punches, giving us exactly what we expect in such a way that isn’t boring or expected in the slightest. If you can’t have fun as a horror (or sci-fi or both) fan, then I’m not sure what to tell you. It never needed to be perfect. Part of the appeal of the ’80s and the early ’90s felt like things didn’t have to be totally polished, pristine like porcelain. Personally, I dig my movies with a bit of girt, in every sense. I’d like to think Begos understands that. At least that’s how he makes it feel. The Mind’s Eye gives its all with a ton of adrenaline and blood-soaked spirit.
Man Behind the Sun. 1988. Directed by T.F. Mou. Screenplayby Mei Liu, Wen Yuan Mou, & Dun Jing Teng.
Cast: Jianxin Chen, Hsu Gou, Linjie Hao, Haizhe Jin, Tie Long Jin, Yuanrong Jin, Bolin Li, Pengyu Liu, Xuhui Lui, Zhaohua Mei, Zhe Quan ,Jiefu Tian, Gang Wang, Runsheng Wang, Shennin Wang, Jiang Wen, Dai Yao Wu, Guowen Zhang, Yongdong Zhao, & Rongming Zheng. Sil-Metropole Organisation.
Rated R. 95 minutes.
In a quest to try and watch any/all disturbing films out there, good or bad, I’ve heard about Man Behind the Sun (the correct translation, though titled most places as Men Behind the Sun) for many years. At an early age, I saw a clip on a website – possibly eBaum’s, or something similar – though, I never was able to find a copy. Living on an island at the far East Coast of Canada, the horror especially didn’t always find its way to the video stores; many movies as I did get to see, the real cult stuff was that for which I had to wait. So in lieu of actually being able to see this one I dove into the actual history behind Unit 731 – during World War II this particular unit lead by Major General Shiro Ishii committed heinous war crimes testing tactical biological warfare (resulting in small outbreaks of plague and cholera), which includes attacks via airplane on localized areas, later escalating to injecting plague directly into live subjects, among many other atrocious experiments such as infecting Allied POWs with glanders (a disease that primarily affects horses, donkeys, mules), dissecting POWs and other citizens, they even subjected women to rape and forced pregnancies, among too many other hideous things to list.
So straight away, you know Man Behind the Sun is not to be trifled with, neither should you assume it’s not as bad as people say. It is, absolutely. Now I can still sit and watch it, managing to get through. Regardless, this is one of the most horrifying films I’ve ever seen in my life. It is brutish, ugly. You’ll think twice about going on. There’s no shame in not making it all the way. However, I have to say that there’s an almost important merit to this piece of cinema. While I do not condone the use of real corpses (both human and animal; the film’s most controversial ‘cat scene’ is actually a practical effect, albeit an impressive one that involves a real cat covered in honey being licked by rats), director T.F. Mou argues that we must try confronting the past, no matter how disgusting, no matter how bad it feels or looks. There’s an exploitative aspect to the entire film, no doubt. Foolish to say otherwise. Although I can’t discount the merit which lies beneath.
If you do venture ahead to watch, please know – only the hardcore horror hounds are likely to handle what they’ll see. That’s no joke. If you’ve got the stomach, hang for a ride.
There’s not a whole lot I have to say about the acting. It isn’t much good, at all. Though there are moments. On the whole this film is all about the hypnotically shocking gamut of realistic horror through which it grinds the viewer.
One scene that’s just downright unsettling is the drinking glass. You’ll know what I’m talking about. I won’t spoil it for those who’ve not yet seen the film. Rest assured, as someone who considers himself a hardened horror movie watcher, this even felt nasty to me. Specifically because the actor doing the drinking from said glass plays the moment so well. A creepy, brief scene. There’s not much good acting from here on in, aside from the young boys watching on under command of the General, as well as some of the victims in the experiments.
Later, the scariest element to so much of the horrific imagery we see is the fact these high-ranking men are training a bunch of young boys, they’re having the fact engrained in them that certain people they deem lower are considered not even people, as fodder for experimentation. Despite the graphic, visceral images, the disturbing part is this brainwashing, and if it’s at all possible this actually makes the nasty bits even nastier.
Maybe the most disturbing to me is the frozen arms of the woman, her reaction. It’s of note that those arms are actual corpse arms. Yes, you got that right. Real, dead, human arms. Only person willing to hold them was the director’s own niece. So they really froze them, she held them. It’s insanity. You always hear people rag on Ruggero Deodato for his filming of the natives killing animals, nobody’s over here worried about the dead bodies Mou used for his horror flick. Good lord. There’s one scene Mou claims is actual autopsy footage of a young boy. Not sure if this is true. If so, I’d hope there was some form of consent in order to use that. But then again, I highly doubt it. Turns out that the autopsy is real: the parents signed over consent to let the autopsy be filmed, and Mou dressed the doctors performing up like they were from the WWII era. There are huge questions about morality concerning whether Mou ought to have made the film this way. Apparently the special effects industry in China at that time did not exist, essentially. So partly he had to resort to what was available, which meant using connections of his with local police to inform him of cadavers matching the descriptions he required. Part of me then wonders if this was necessary. At the same time, was that maybe his aim? In confronting actual atrocities committed in the past, does something sickening like real corpse parts in a film about said atrocities somehow make the realism better? Certainly makes it real. Just not sure if it makes anything better. In the end, I’m conflicted.
Respect must be given to the legitimate practical effects in this movie. Forget the rats and all that controversial stuff. The practical special effects accomplished here are terribly impressive. They’re even able to surprise and disgust someone like myself. For instance, as I wrote this the scene where the guy’s intestine pops out made my eyes go wide. I didn’t get sick or anything, but I mean, it gave me pause. That doesn’t happen often. All I could do was stare a moment, horrified at the scene. They put him in a sort of audio chamber, jam on the high frequency until the guy can’t do anything but lay in pain on the ground, and then BAM – intestine, right out his asshole. I know that sounds cheesy, and rightfully atrocious. It is the latter. Unfortunately, it’s too well executed for me to say it has a cheese factor. The effect is ghastly.
Don’t believe it stops there. So much of runtime is spent in an endurance test as the audience. Rarely do we get time to break from the hideousness and settle our stomachs. Only now and then.
It’s hard for me to give this 3 out of 5 stars by saying the film is good. In terms of technical aspects, some of what Mou did as director works in the name of realism. In other ways, Man Behind the Sun is purely an exploitation flick, a torrid bit of hardcore genre filmmaking. Again, I’m completely conflicted when all is said and done. One side of me thinks what Mou did, in terms of using real corpses and animal parts, is downright despicable. The opposite side insists there’s value in Mou’s confrontation of a dark period in Japanese (and Chinese) history. Somewhere in the middle of the road lies an understanding.
If you want to test your ironclad stomach, do so at your own peril. Like I said, this didn’t make me sick. It did actually make me question, for the first time in 4,200 films: why am I watching this? Could be awhile before I figure out the answer to that one.
Scarce. 2008. Directed & Written by Jesse Thomas Cook and John Geddes.
Starring Steve Warren, Gary Fischer, Chris Warrilow, Thomas Webb, John Geddes, Jesse Thomas Cook, Stephanie Banting, Gavin Peacock, Matt Griffin, Jaclyn Pampalone, Jackie Eddolls, & Jason Derushie.
Bloodlife Films/Two Door Four Door Pictures.
Rated 18A. 93 minutes.
Some movies are so bad they’re good. Others are just downright bad, to the point you’re unable to enjoy anything about them other than fleeting moments. Often times you can find enjoyment in a bad film because it’s fun to laugh, poke fun, point out all the bad effects, performances, and whatever else makes you chuckle a little. In certain situations depending on the film, this can make for a so-bad-it’s-good cinema experience.
Then there are horror flicks like Scarce, which cross over into the so-bad-it’s-embarrassing category. This little Canadian horror is never quite able to find its footing. A few scenes are creepy, a bunch are gory and nasty. Other than that it’s poor acting, uninspired directing, and a general mash of ill conceived attempts at tackling the backwoods cannibal horror it so clearly reveres.
Funny. I had a better time watching the Making Of documentary included on the DVD than I did watching the film. That’s only half a lie. I always try to find the good in each movie I watch, no matter how bad it gets. Problem being that there just is not good in every movie. Not all art is art – some of it’s pop, some of it’s art, some of it’s trash. Those are the odds. And odds are, you’ll also agree with me on this one.
One of the immediately awful parts about Scarce is the fact it’s a Canadian production, clearly filmed in Canada and with Canadian actors, yet they’ve insisted on making it out as an American setting. First off, the accents of a couple actors give away this whole fact. Secondly, I’m not entirely sure why they would bother doing this when there are plenty of backwoods locations across Canada where you can set an isolated film such as this one. Often it’s to appear more commercial, though I’m still not sold on that being of any use.
Later, it isn’t just the performances that are weak. Even little moments that are meant to be scary or dramatic come off as weakened thuds, rather than landing with any impact. For instance, at one point Ivan (Steve Warren) whacks Dustin (Thomas Webb) as he exits the outhouse, and this not at all any type of large stunt, it’s not expensive or intricate, but it looks like absolute dog shit. Small moments like this come off as poorly conceived and executed, which does nothing for the film overall. Only makes the amateur, low budget feel of the movie more evident – this doesn’t always detract from independent cinema, only when it’s painfully obvious, almost pathetically so like here.
The acting is what really does Scarce no justice. While certain elements of the plot and a couple nasty bits of blood are intriguing enough, there’s no good acting to be found. And I don’t care how interesting of a story, or how creepy any of the scenes can get, without solid acting there’s no way any movie can rise above its flaws and feel enjoyable. Although, I have to give it to Steve Warren. Sometimes he can be the worst of them, in terms of performance. All the same, in comparison with his murderous counterpart played by Gary Fischer, his work is decent. In a couple scenes he’s terribly cheesy and forced, but every now and then he’s eerie beyond belief. So even if his acting isn’t close to great, he’s certainly one of the better parts about the performances even if he shits the bed in his role from time to time.
The backwoods cannibal sub-genre in horror has been done time and time again. Many of us horror fans love a good dose of cannibalism, especially if it’s going down in the isolation of secluded, wooded areas. Right back to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a personal favourite of mine (and so many others), and all the way up to the mostly yawn inducing Wrong Turn franchise. Most of Scarce just feels lazy. As if the writer-director pair opted to take many of the cliched elements in the sub-genre and jam them into the single plot. A lot of the writing itself is lame. There are absolutely unsettling qualities. However, dialogue such as when Ivan talks about how they’ll soon be “nothing but [his] shit” and other of his/Wade’s ramblings make the story and the its characters more laughable.
Visually, there are some moments I enjoy quite a bit. The biggest is when Ivan and Wade take the guys out in the morning to let them free in the woods, before hunting them with a rifle, and there’s this excellently eerie piece of music from the score along with a stylized, brief sequence of Wade hauling the two victims by their chains, them bloody and worn down. This was a solid, if not too short scene. A little while later once the guys are running through the forest, there are some nice shots. It’s too bad this couldn’t have extended to the rest of the sequences where everything felt overwhelmingly bland. These couple minutes actually look great and then we quickly return to the film’s laziness.
Finally, it’s the hole blown in Ivan that takes the cake for best effect. They probably blew a large portion of budget on this one gag alone, as it’s a combination of CGI and practical work. Nevertheless, it definitely works, and the hole in his torso looks genuine. A nice dose of gore in the the final ten minutes to really try and impress us. Too little too late, but a noble effort indeed.
I can’t give this any more than 1&1/2 stars. Even then I’m not totally sure it deserves that much. Still, there are little elements in Scarce that give you enough to hold onto, if only for a little while. You certainly won’t be blown away, by anything. Not once.
At the same time, give it a chance and at least see the effects. There’s a bit of sloppy gore, some wild blood. I own it simply because I bought it on a whim for $10 somewhere. Definitely not something I’d seek out to buy otherwise. At least there’s partly some spirit of horror alive in this flick. Underneath so much less than mediocre fare.
Irréversible. 2002. Directed, Edited, Framed, & Written by Gaspar Noé.
Starring Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel, Jo Prestia, Phillipe Nahon, Michel Gondoin, Jean-Louis Costes, Mourad Khima, Hellal, Nato, Jara-Millo, Le Quellec, & Isabelle Giami. Lions Gate Home Entertainment/Muse Productions/StudioCanal/TechnoVision/Eskwad/Nord-Quest Production.
Rated R. 97 minutes.
“Time destroys all things,” says L’homme (Phillipe Nahon), his only name in the credits.
More fitting, perfect words have never been spoken at the start of a film. One of the most infamous films post-2000, Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible certainly earns that moniker. When Noé brought it to the actors, it was simply an idea, an experiment he hoped to try. What came as a result is one of the more daring and innovative films of the past 15 years. Yes, it is brutal. Yes, Noé is uncompromising in his vision. But behind the brutality and the sexual violence contained in the film, Irréversible is all about how we react to the visceral, terrifying events which sometimes happen in life. Starting with the end of the story, then slowly working back, the story moves in a way which we’re not used to; the audience is accustomed to seeing things in a particular order. So this technique subverts what we see as a normal film experience, especially if it’s part of this sub-genre. Noé uses this to force us to watch, to keep us involved, and once the inexcusable act of violence in question happens there’s almost no coming back – it is, quite literally, irreversible. We are not able to go back in time. We’re already headed backwards, anyways. By doing so, the revenge thriller becomes an examination of the lives of those involved, and opens the door to humanity as animal emotion, as well as the realization that at any moment life can take a nosedive into cruel fate without so much as a warning.
Another interesting point, before I dive in head first, to the opening scene with L’homme is that he is likely the exact same character from Noé’s bone rattling feature film debut in 1998, I Stand Alone (French title: Seul contre tous). So there’s a continuation of that character here, his misanthropic view of the world joining quite easily with this film’s plot.
The line he gives us – “Time destroys all things” – is a perfect summary of exactly what Noé is doing here with Irréversible. We start from the credits, then literally work our way back scene by scene until arriving at the beginning. Whereas a regular film of this type will begin with the characters, helping you get to know them and ingraining us into their lives, Noé immerses us into the violence committed first. The movie goes from revenge, to the act which drew out the need for revenge, to the happy beginnings. So what this effectively does is put us in a position where we have to see it all in reverse – therefore, the initial act of revenge is astonishingly savage, including a head bashing of the likes you’ll rarely see (only in other films with awesome practical effects). But this is Noé’s strategy. He confronts you with the violence first, and afterwards you’re forced to slowly move back through the motions until figuring out why this revenge has happened. This comes with no catharsis. Rape-revenge thrillers, such as The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave, give us the lead-up, then the shocking violence, and finally we’re privy to the violence returned in revenge, so there’s almost a sense of relief, as if the audience is also getting revenge onscreen. Noé throws us into an uncomfortable position where the catharsis comes first, leading us to think it’s needless savagery. Then we’re left to confront a nasty, awful scene of sexual violence which prompted it, and there’s no rest for us, there is no revenge. By putting things in reverse, Noé really subverts the expectations of viewers who’ve come to his film with pre-knowledge of the sub-genre of rape-revenge thrillers. Aside from all the horror we witness, Irréversible is an exercise in form, which takes guts to get through, but believe me is worth it.
Note: You don’t have to watch the rape scene – though the act itself is a big part of the screenplay, it isn’t necessary to physically watch it through, as long as you know it happens there’s still an effect to it all.
Apart from the reverse format of Noé’s movie, the style overall is incredibly infectious. It’s like actually being there alongside the characters. The camera floats along through Paris, as we’re privy to all sorts of views into the world these characters inhabit. Even in the opening scene with L’homme, the camera wavers between him and another man chatting, the camera only staying still on them now and then. Also, going further through the film, as we technically move closer to the beginning with each scene, the frenetic handheld style of camerawork and Noé’s direction get more steady, more framed and gentle. So while we’re following Marcus (Cassel) and Pierre (Dupontel) in The Rectum club, back through the cabs and on their way to find La Tenia (Prestia), everything is chaos, rarely is anything centered and fixed in the frame. So it isn’t simply going back to front with each frame, Noé makes us truly feel the emotions, as the camera eventually evens out and gets more controlled the further we get to the end (a.k.a the beginning). And everything works well here. The look and the atmosphere of the film is still raw and gritty while there are plenty of instances of almost psychedelic-looking techniques used to keep us off-balance for quite some time. You make not like Noé or enjoy the plots/themes of his films, but you cannot deny his visceral effectiveness as a director, and as a storyteller.
I’m also highly interested in the characters. Alex (Bellucci) is a strong and beautiful woman, someone in love and with a joy for life – part of the enjoyment in her character is that we’re privy to the aftermath of her beating/rape before ever getting to know her. And also there’s a point here: it doesn’t matter who she is. There’s nothing that brought on her rape, nothing that ever could, so Noé subtly points out that even if she were a horrid, whore-ish woman after working back to the beginning (/the end), there’s nothing to justify the horrid act of violence brought upon her. Instead, the tragedy of the act becomes even more weighty, even more horrific, as Alex goes from a bleeding, broken victim to a living, breathing, loving woman. With a tendency for society to judge victims of sexual assault and rape, Noé almost abolishes this possibility because of the form, and so there’s a sense that he isn’t allowing us to pre-judge her (not that we should at all). Getting straight to her assault without ever seeing her before is a way of pushing through the typical patriarchal view some viewers take when considering rape.
Then there are Pierre and Marcus. They’re each very different men. But what’s so intriguing is seeing the opening, watching Pierre bash La Tenia’s face in after saving Marcus from also possibly getting raped himself. Then we’re moving backwards, as Marcus is shown in greater detail, and his hypermasculinity bleeds through the screen, his need for revenge described as his “right” and an almost necessary requirement for his masculinity to continue. It’s not even so much about Alex, it’s more about his need to destroy the man who destroyed his girlfriend. So there’s something in that, which speaks to the idea of the rape-revenge thriller, as well: the man is always the one looking for revenge, out to get it, and it’s usually the man involved with the woman assaulted. Yet we know Pierre, Alex’s former lover, is the one who kills La Tenia. And before the act, he was trying hard to steer Marcus away from what he calls “B–movie revenge“, so where does his violence come from? Perhaps Noé is further getting at the trope of men avenging women. Not only does her boyfriend want so bad to destroy La Tenia, her ex-lover, a man clearly still with feelings for her, has to step in from outside the relationship and take his own revenge, too. Above all else, Noé speaks to the heart of revenge, and even love, as both men do what they do for love, regardless whether or not it’s truly for Alex or if it’s more about their male ego. There’s still a beating heart of love at the center of this film, next to all the brutality.
Noé’s Irréversible is a 5-star film. It is flawless. Although the themes and the shocking violence are not for everyone, this is an important piece of cinema. Reversing the regular order of a film might seem like a gimmick. But believe me, this is no shtick. It is a legitimate technique used here to transform a rape-revenge thriller into something far more interesting and poignant. Often, we’re left at the mercy of filmmakers who push us through violence and sexual abuse in order for the film itself to pay-off in the end. However, by turning his plot in reverse and working backwards from the moment of revenge, to the assault, to the happy beginnings of a day in the life of a Parisian couple, Noé is effective in his attempt to forego catharsis. More than that, he punishes us, forcing his viewer to focus on the assault, and deprives us of an act of revenge to counterbalance what we’ve seen. Full stop, this is an exercise in form that need not be ignored. Noé is a modern auteur, no matter what you think of his ideas.
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.