The Sentinel (1977)

The SentinelThe Sentinel is a lesser known film that was allegedly created as Universal’s response to The Exorcist which was made four years prior. And while it does in fact have some thematic elements that draw comparisons to that film, it actually seems to garner more inspiration from Rosemary’s Baby. So, the question naturally becomes “does it stand up those monumental horror classics but was unfairly relegated into near obscurity? Or is there a reason why it doesn’t often come up in the conversation when classic religious-based horror is discussed?”

The story follows model Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) who is devoted to her slick, lawyer boyfriend Michael (Chris Sarandon) but at the same time looking for her own apartment because she wants her own space. Despite the fact that her wealthy father soon dies, money seems to be tight so she opts for a spacious but somewhat creepy apartment where her top floor neighbor is an old blind priest who does nothing but “stare” out the window. As you can imagine, shit starts getting creepy when she’s there alone and her and Michael must figure out the truth about the building before it’s too late.

Now, I’m a big fan of slow-burn tension but forty minutes into this film I honestly had the thought “how is this even classified as a horror movie?” While The Sentinel tries to establish a world full of palpable tension where things are not as they seem, a la Rosemary’s Baby, the effort largely falls flat, resulting in large stretches of monotony. This is not to say that there aren’t scenes where the film earns it’s horror stripes. A surprisingly gruesome encounter with a ghost about halfway through and a climax that is both incredibly creepy and very inventive do help to redeem the film a great deal, even if it does come off as rather overt Christian propaganda.

Clearly, the studio had high hopes for this being an effective horror vehicle and a lot of thought did go into assembling the supporting cast, but with mixed results. Faded star Ava Gardner’s Transatlantic Accent comes off as stagy and out of place from the reset of the cast. In addition, fantastic character actors such as Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum show up as minor characters but are squandered on insignificant roles. On the other hand, Burgess Meredith actually does deliver an effective performance that deftly transitions from friendly old coot to one of genuine menace.

In conclusion, The Sentinel does have an original concept and some great scenes interspersed throughout (that one with the cat eating the bird certainly had a chilling weight to it) but the overall picture isn’t engaging enough to really make it worth it. If you are religion-themed horror completest, there will probably be enough here to keep you interested to the end but frankly you’d have a better time just putting in The Exorcist again.

2.5 Stars Red

Grotesque (2009)

GrotesqueThe term “Torture Porn” was first coined back in 2006 by film critic David Edelstein describing the emerging trend of films like Hostel and Saw which featured very graphic scenes of torture and dismemberment. While scenes of graphic violence have been a staple of horror films for decades the new crop of early millennium extreme horror films brought the violence to the next level by dwelling on graphic and explicit carnage to an extent not previously seen in mainstream films. The structure of these types of films also typically mirrors the structure of a porn, hence the name, in that the primary focus of the film is a series of set-ups and titillating, explicit pay-offs. Now, I’ve seen a lot of Torture Porn films, probably all of them, but none in my experience better capture the essential nature of what a Torture Porn film is better than Koji Shiraishi’s exercise in extreme brutality, Grotesque.

The film opens with a young man and woman (Hiroaki Kawatsure and Kotoha Hiroyama) being attacked on their way back from their first date by a nameless sketchy loner in a van (Shigeo Osako). They wake up to find themselves tied up in a room at an unknown location as the nameless man begins to torture them. What follows is an hour long endurance test for the viewer as the man tests their wills to live, telling them he will free them if they can sufficiently excite him.

It would be easy to dismiss Grotesque simply as shock-value meant to titillate the most twisted and jaded of horror fans with it’s graphic and unflinching depictions of violence but that is far from the whole picture. What you really have here is an incredibly bold and fearless piece of independent filmmaking that gives the finger to every convention of watered-down Hollywood cinema that shoots for the middle and only cares about profits. This is what happens when a filmmaker doesn’t give a fuck what people think of his movie and makes the kind of film that he wants to make. It’s an incredibly punk-rock approach to filmmaking.

However, a film can have all the best intentions of being subversive and shocking but if it can’t properly execute the effects it will come off as nothing more than cheap and laughable. Rest assured though, Grotesque does NOT suffer from this problem and the gore effects are mind-blowingly realistic, making the violence all the more shocking. Eye-gouging, genital mutilation, disembowelment, to name just a few, are all pulled off with the kind of masterful realism that would make Tom Savini proud.

What I also find interesting about this film is how the audience’s emotional journey simultaneously mirrors both the villain and the victim’s. You cringe as they are brutalized and cling to hope for their survival at the same time indulging in the visceral thrill (you know you do) that the villain himself is going to such great lengths to experience. This is of course true of horror in general but it’s far more front and center in this film. It also raises an interesting point about how far some people will go to experience certain feelings, no matter what the cost. Drug addicts, gamblers, murderers, so many people in the real world take the pursuit of feeling a high to extreme and destructive lengths.

In summation, this is a harrowing and visceral experience that is not for the casual horror fan. The story itself is very stripped-down and simple and Shiraishi wisely opts for a tight 73 minute feature that keeps the tension up rather than drawing the plot out further just to reach the 90 minute mark. The story does take an unexpected sharp turn into surreal territory towards the end which is jarring at first but ultimately works to bring the story to a perfect conclusion.

4 Stars Red

Black Christmas (1974) vs Black X-Mas (2006)

Black Xmas vs Black Xmas

Sometimes comparing an original to a remake is very simple. When the original is a masterpiece with a brilliant story that is simply watered down and cheapened by the remake then it’s a no-brainer. However, when neither film is exactly outstanding it actually makes the comparison trickier. Such is the case with Black Christmas but to it’s credit at least they waited a few decades before trotting this middling slasher out for a new coat of paint.

Both films center around a sorority house on Christmas that begins receiving disturbing phone calls from an unidentified creep. After that it’s not long before the residents of the house, in true slasher fashion, start getting gruesomely knocked off one by one by an unseen killer.

The set-up for each is basically the same but for some reason, perhaps to add more of a sense of menace, the writers of the remake decided to add an additional storyline involving the villain Billy escaping from a mental hospital for the criminally insane. This actually had the opposite effect pushing the film deeply into campy territory and taking all the power away from the scene where the first mysterious obscene phone call is made, which is a truly unsettling moment in the original film. This is also true of the copious amounts of flashback scenes, and the addition of the character of Billy’s sister, the remake included seeking to flesh out Billy’s backstory. In reality this only ends up slowing down the story and making the villain far less frightening than the mysterious killer from the original who lurked in the shadows and seemed to strike out of nowhere.

That being said though, the original does suffer from issues of it’s own. The film is punctuated by a few good kills and some effective scenes of tension, the creepy phone calls really are masterfully done, but it does spend most of the time between them with a story that severely drags. This is not helped by some comic relief scenes that further drag down the story (although that line about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is a rare moment of comic brilliance).  However, I do want to acknowledge that in the context of Horror history the original does play a significant role as an early precursor to the Slasher subgenre.  It’s contribution to the genre in general has been an important one but many aspects of this film just have not aged well.

As underwhelming as the cast of the original is, they look like master thespians when compared with the utterly unbearable cast of pretty “actresses” they assembled for the remake. I swear I have never wanted a cast to die more badly in my life, so at least there was some satisfaction to be had when that began occurring in brutal ways (btw what’s with all the eyeball ripping in the remake? They’re obsessed!)

I will give credit where credit is due and say that the last half-hour or so of the remake does become more engaging as it builds towards the typical Final Girl climax. The fundamental problem with the remake though is the fact that the entire film itself has such a cheesy “campfire ghost story” kind of feeling to it. I’m surprised characters aren’t putting flashlights under their chins every time they talk about Billy’s unrealistically bad childhood. Every single shot is exaggerated, stylized and devoid of any substance or realism so you never forget you are watching a Hollywood movie.

So, despite some pacing and character development issues I am gonna give the win to the original in this case because at least I never felt like I wanted to stab my eyes out with an icicle rather than watch another minute of the witless banter between a group of actresses that prove the casting couch is alive and well.

Winner Black Christmas 1974