It’s Halloween, and time to talk horror movies, four in particular. Why these four? Because they’re the four I happened to watch in the past week. Chosen at random, will we find mysterious and terrifying connections between them? If by “we” we mean “you,” then by gosh I think we’ve got a chance. Let me know what you come up with.
I’ll begin with the worst of them and move up from there.
The Sentinel (’77)
Released to little notice, poor box office, and something between critical outrage and annoyance, The Sentinel, a religious horror flick in the vein of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen, and any other popular religious horror hits of the era worth ripping off, looked ripe for a reassessment.
And so I looked.
What did I see? I saw a movie, but what was it about? I didn’t know. Halfway into it, I still didn’t know. I knew there was this woman, Christina (Alison Parker), a sexy commercial model who assures her friend she’s been fine since “the incident,” and who still won’t commit to her slick lawyer boyfriend, Michael (Chris Sarandon). But why was this movie about her?
Christina rents an apartment in a big, spooky building from a weird lady. She has weird neighbors like Burgess Meredith and Beverly D’Angelo who throw a birthday party for a cat and masturbate luridly in front of her (guess which actor does which! (and my apologies for tricking you into imagining Burgess Meredith masturbating)).
Only then we learn: No one lives in the building. She imagined the whole thing! Or—wait for it—did she? Is something fishy going on with her only real neighbor, the ancient, blind priest on the top floor?
I didn’t know. And I wouldn’t until late in the movie when Michael breaks into a church, roots through some documents, and in a rapid fire speech explains absolutely everything.
Might have spread out some of that info over time, my dear filmmakers, instead of boring me to death for 70 minutes straight.
Turns out it’s a bit of a Being John Malkovich deal. A Sentinel must guard the gates of hell, which I guess are in this apartment building? And Christina is next in line. Her non-Sentinel body will die, and she’ll be reborn a blind, ancient nun. Hooray! See ya later, Satan!
The weirdest thing about it is the cast. It includes Jeff Goldblum as a fashion photographer, Eli Wallach and Christopher Walken as a pair of cops suspicious of Michael (whose previous wives died mysteriously in a plot point having nothing to do with anything), Jerry Orbach as an irritable TV commerical director, Arthur Kennedy and José Ferrer as mysterious priests in on the whole Sentinel gambit, Ava Gardner as the creepy real estate agent who might be a minion of hell, Tom Berenger billed as “Man at End,” and still more familiar faces in every single role. It’s creepy as hell.
But the movie? The movie is not creepy. It’s beyond senseless. The only arguably good part is when at the end all the twisted weirdos from hell, led by an evil Burgess Meredith, try to stop the passing of the Sentinel torch. Many of these demons are played by actually deformed, dwarfish, limbless people. Must have been one hell of a casting call. Using such people to terrify in a horror movie might reasonably be called tasteless. On the other hand, maybe it’s just lazy and boring.
Is this supposed to be good? I feel like I keep seeing it talked about as a great recent horror movie. This is the problem with listening to people. You end up watching movies like Orphan when you could have spent two hours plucking your nose hairs or eating a box of Cheerios, one by one.
Orphan tells the extremely tired story of a couple, already possessed of two darling children, who adopt a third, a real creeper named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), who’s last foster parents died in a mysterious house fire in Russia.
You know the rest. Esther starts doing weird things like making gruesome black-light art, killing a nun, and breaking her own arm so it looks mom did it. Will she finally get her way and get dad to screw her? Not in a movie this unimaginative.
As directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows), Orphan is highly polished and professional. Vera Farmiga gives a solid, emotional performance as mom. All the pieces fit in place. It looks like the kind of movie you should be impressed with.
And that’s its problem. Everything is way too pat. Nothing surprising happens, nothing transgressive happens. The best horror is always transgressive. That’s what horror exists for.
Worse still, it’s the kind of movie where at least every five minutes a character could do or say something that would put an instant end to Esther’s plans…but they never do. The writer (David Leslie Johnson) wants his characters to do what he wants them to do, regardless of logic.
I give Orphan two large yawns.
Halloween III: Season of The Witch (’82)
I liked this movie as a kid. Hadn’t watched it since, I’d guess, 1983. Word creeping around the nerd-o-sphere is that it’s an overlooked horror gem now considered at least mildly awesome. Hence my giving it another shot.
Like The Sentinel, Halloween III tanked when it opened. The reason everyone came up with is because it has Halloween in the title but isn’t a sequel to the first two movies in the series. I think this misplaces the blame. Halloween III is, in quite a few ways, awful.
John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill envisioned the Halloween series telling unique stories, one per year, every Halloween, and this one was to kick it off. It’s written and directed by Tommy Lee Wallace (art director on the original Halloween), and to his credit it’s kinda loopy.
Instead of a slasher movie, it’s about an evil Irish toy manufacturer, Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy, whom you may recall from Odd Man Out, Fail Safe, The Last Starfighter, and Robocop), who, now that he’s stolen one of Stonehenge’s stones (nice job!), has his personal army of robot slaves chipping away at it and putting its magical, Druidic rock-dust into the circuit boards attached to his new series of halloween masks. Makes sense to me.
The circuit boards, when activated by a broadcast on Halloween night, will turn the heads of all the children wearing the masks into swarming heaps of snakes, locust, and other creepy-crawlies.
This, I grant, is an impressively wack-a-doo plot. As a kid, the part that really weirded me out was the victims’ heads melting and bugs and snakes crawling out. It was creepy, gross, and eerily inexplicable. My favorite part of the movie watching it now is when our hero, Dr. Challis (Tom Atkins), in desperation asks Cochran why he’s doing such a horrible thing. “Do I need a reason?” he reasonably answers.
Indeed, the important thing isn’t why he’s turning children into heaps of bugs—it’s that he’s doing it at all. Who else would?
Well, he explains himself a little. It’s what the Celtic witches used to do. They made sacrifices because the planets were in alignment. Which they are again, now.
You can’t argue with planets.
Problem is, aside from the general aura of weirdness, Halloween III is kind of a snooze. Nothing anyone does makes any sense, and everything’s too easy, especially the heroic escape and destruction of the toy factory, caused by opening a cardboard box and spilling out its contents.
Some notable tidbits: The score is by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth (not, alas, one of their finer efforts, but it at least provides that synthy Carpenter vibe people like me enjoy), the computer is voiced by Jamie Lee Curtis reprising her computer voice role from Escape from New York, and the movie is set in the sleepy town of Santa Mira, named after the town in Invasion of The Body Snatchers.
Still and all, it’s better than Orphan. Why? Because it’s weirder, and it doesn’t have a happy ending.
From Beyond (’86)
I’d always thought of it as director Stuart Gordon’s lesser follow-up to his masterpiece, Re-Animator, and yes, Re-Animator is still a more perfectly perfect nutso horror movie, but From Beyond isn’t far behind.
Jeffrey Combs is research assistant Crawford Tillinghast, working for bondage aficionado and all-around mad genius Dr. Pretorius (Ted Sorel), creator of the Resonator—basically four big, glowing tuning forks which when turned on, as Crawford does in the opening scene, reveal the demon fish swimming around us all the time.
Also released—an unseen monster that eats Pretorius’s head. I’m a sucker, I admit, for head-eating monsters.
Well, a bit of this and that happens, and before you know it, Bubba the cop (Ken Foree of Dawn of The Dead fame) and Dr. Katherine the psychiatrist (Barbara Crampton) join Crawford in repeating the experiment. Their pineal glands start growing, heightening their sex drives, and various and sundry monsters show up to drool and attempt to eat more heads.
Also, in one oddly long, highly sexualized scene, Katherine gets into the bondage gear, taking the movie in an unexpected direction.
Less unexpected are the fabulous goopy monsters, including Crawford’s awakened pineal gland, or “mini-head-penis,” if you will, and Pretorius’s final bizarre incarnation as a giant snake-necked slug-beast (which Slither paid homage to in ’06).
There’s not a dull moment in here. It’s crazy from top to bottom. Didn’t do nearly as well as Re-Animator when it came out, I’m guessing because the sexual angle is a little unsettling. Not often, especially in those days, is a woman in a horror movie given as much agency as Katherine, especially in matters of her own sexuality. It’s not exactly transgressive in the Cronenberg sense, but for its time and for being in an otherwise funny, insane horror flick, it pushes buttons.
If you need a horror movie to watch this halloween, From Beyond is a fine choice.