Review of The Sentinel

TheSentinelCaradineWatchingOn previous occasions I have reviewed Haunted House stories where the house serves as a portal to some other dimension. First on my list were the some of the houses in H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. These include The Strange High House in the Mist, – a tale of house that sits on a mountain top with a door that opens into The Heavens for any celestial deity who happens to be in the neighborhood, and Dreams in the Witch House – an account of a house possessed with “unearthly geometry” that allows a brilliant mathematician to visit dark worlds.  The second “house as a portal story” that I reviewed is House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson. The protagonist of his stories lives in a house that transports him across space and time.

Now I have a third one for ya! The story comes from a book by Jerry Konvitz, published in 1974. I have not read it. Instead I saw the corresponding film in which Konvitz wrote the screenplay. Both the book and film are called The Sentinel (not to be confused with the political thrill which came out in 2007). Let’s examine the film’s title as it relates to the theme I was discussing in the first paragraph.

A sentinel is a guard. As mentioned, the film fits into the theme of houses that serve as portals to other dimensions. One might then conclude that perhaps the “sentinel” of this movie guards this mystic door. If this “one” does in fact arrive at this conclusion, than this “one” would be correct. Question: What kind of portal does this sentinel guard? Answer: The doorway of Hell! It is a door to hell and, more apropos to the film, from Hell.   See, not too many people here on earth are knocking each other over to go through the door. But, I bet there are plenty of beings that just can’t stand the heat down there and want out. Hence, a sentinel is needed to keep these hellish folks at bay. And where might this doorway be? In an apartment complex in New York City! I mean, where else could such a portal be located? So understand – any crime, debauchery and ill-will that arises in this city ( I think there just might be some of this is good ol’ NY city) just might be due to the sentinel being asleep on the job! I’m just kidding! Any kind of nasty shenanigans that happen on the streets of New York is not on account of the things that slip through this door. These things are confined to the apartment complex and its many units.

Along comes unsuspecting Alison Parker. She is a fashion model with a troubled past. She had been placed under psychiatric care for suicide attempts. Determined to make it on her own, she refuses her live-in boyfriend’s marriage proposals. She moves out of his place and into an apartment complex where the rent is startling cheap. See what I did there with the word “startling”? I was giving you a hint as to what kind of apartment complex this is. Maybe it’s the one I was referring to earlier; the one that has a doorway to hell? Ya think? Well you “think” correctly!

Right off the bat, Alison is freaked out by the blind priest that does nothing but stare out a window from a top floor unit. What’s the deal with that guy? Miss Logan the real-estate agent, tells her that he is harmless. But she does not divulge any other information about him. Maybe Alison’s new neighbors know something about him? She asks Charles Chazen, an older gray haired guy that walks around with a parakeet on his shoulders. He says to forget about that priest. He’s just a strange but harmless guy. Speaking of strange, Mr. TheSentinelPartyChazen is little bit offbeat himself. The two “lesbian sisters” that live below Alison are not exactly normal either. Nor is the gathering that is being held for all the tenants. Mr. Chazen leads Alison to one of the apartments where – surprise, surprise! A party is going on. The lesbian lovers (sisters) are there, as well as several other tenants. There is dancing and music, all in honor of the birthday celebrant – Charles Chazen’s cat!

After a while, Alison is disturbed by all these neighbors. Their parties that take place in the apartment above her are too loud. Her bedroom chandelier is always shaking at three in the morning. She complains to Miss Logan about this, only to have her tell her that she has no neighbors. Father Halliran (the blind priest) is the only other tenant in the complex. So who were all those people at the party? Who is Charles Chazen? Where did those sister lovers come from? Are they all byproducts of her disturbed mind? Nah, they are just people who died and went to hell. Didn’t Miss Logan tell her about that doorway to the underworld? No, I guess she didn’t. Maybe she herself doesn’t know about that feature of the property, but I doubt it. She does, however, take the time to show Alison all the units where she claimed there were people living and partying. Inside all that existed was was cob-webbed emptiness; dusty rooms with paint peeling off the ceiling – rooms void of furniture.

I remember seeing some of this movie on TV when I was a wee young lad. Of course, all the R-rated stuff was removed. But it fascinated me until I was sent to bed long before the movie was over. Finally, thirty-five years later, I got to see the ending. It’s a very good ending, by the way. But how about the rest of the film? Did I like it? Mostly. Sort of, you know. A little bit.

There are several things that are great about this movie and several things that are not so great. As a matter of fact, the “not so great” stuff is downright sucky! But let’s begin with what makes this film great, and that is – the supporting cast. What a great supporting cast it is!

Ava Gardner  plays Miss Logan. While this character is not a scene grabber, Gardner’s subtlety makes a believable character out of this real-estate lady. John Carradine has never looked creepier playing the blind priest with white, pupil-deprived eyes. And then TheSentinalLadieswe have Burgess Meredith who who with charm and grace gives a stunning performance as the eccentric and festive neighbor Charles Chazen. Then there’s Sylvia Miles. She may not be as well known but she shines and the eccentric lesbian neighbor Gerde who partners with Jennifer, the mute exhibitionist who masturbates in front of Alison. Jennifer is played by Beverly D’Angelo who might be best knows as “Ellen Griswold” in the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies. Eli Wallach is good as the cynical detective.

There are also now-famous actors that have brief roles, including Christopher Walken, Tom Berringer, Jeff Goldblum. Supposedly Richard Dreyfus has a walk on role but I totally missed him.

It’s a thrill watching this ensemble. The cast that portrays those wacky neighbors shine in scenes where they are altogether, like the birthday party. What is not a thrill is watching the two main characters. Ho Hum!

Christina Raines plays Alison Parker. Her acting is bland. Even worse is Christopher Sarandon who plays Michael Lerman, Alison’s lawyer boyfriend. He’s stiffer than a board!

Unfortunately, this former husband of Susan Sarandon has a lot of screen time. Too much! Large chunks of the movie revolve around him as he confers with police and priests. See, he is using his skills as a lawyer to research the haunted apartment complex and discover more about the strange blind priest. Oh God, I wish he didn’t! I found myself shouting at the TV, “Just stay out of it Mr. Mustachio Douchebag! (he dons a cheesy mustache. I don’t know if he has “that other thing”) I want to see more of the neighbors and the haunted complex and less of you and your research!”

TheSentinel

Finally, at the film’s end, the neighbors make a screen welcoming return. They bring with them several deformed people. Hell is emptying! And there’s the blind priest – The Sentinel! A terrific scene this is!

By the way, I am recommending this film despite the snore-fest that is Raines and Sarandon. The supporting cast makes the film, as does the atmosphere within the apartments. It’s a decent idea too, a hell portal inside a New York apartment building.

In the land of the novels, there is a sequel book (The Guardian) and another on its way.

But there is only one movie. Maybe I’ll read the novels. They are probably much better TheSentinelMerediththan the film. But I say – give this movie a chance. If nothing else, get a hold of the DVD and watch only the scenes with Burgess Meredith. I love that man!

 

A Review of Night Things

nightthingsWhat a noble effort! A publishing company dedicated to reviving rare and out of print books. I am referring to Valancourt Books. Some of their specialties include gothic and horror literature. Take these two genres, get them drunk and throw them in a room together. What will spring off from this mating? Haunted House novels! There are plenty of such novels available for purchase at their website. The subjects of some of my previous reviews are books re-released by Valancourt Books. They include Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco and The Elementals by Michael McDowell. Of course I read an original copy of The Elementals and the publisher listed was Avon Books:  A Division of The Hearst Corporation,  but still, it is available today at Valancourt Books.

I loved both Burnt Offerings and The Elementals. I’m sorry to say that I can’t share this love for the novel that is up for review in this blog entry, another title rereleased by Valancourt Books. I’m loving me some Valancourt Books, but I’m not feeling it for Night Things by Michael Talbot, originally released in 1985.

To be fair I liked the first half of the book. It’s the second half that ruins it for me. I felt as if one writer began the story then threw down the pen and went off to go sailing. Then it seemed a second wannabe writer was snooping around the first writer’s study and came across the half-completed manuscript and then decided to finish it. This seems so at least from the perspective of the plot. The writing style is consistent.

Night Things has a promising beginning. It includes a backstory of a woman shrouded in mystery, who, as a young girl, has been plagued with haunting visions. As an adult, she had fortified herself in a custom designed house. Its interior is like that of a labyrinth with connecting rooms and long corridors, all built utilizing uncanny geometry. Some reviewers have compared this house to the houses of The Haunting of Hill House and House of Leaves.  But I cannot indulge in this comparison since Night Things is inferior to both of these novels.

Many years later, a newly formed family of three is set to stay in the house for the summer. Relationships are strained. Lauren’s new husband Stephen does not take to ten-year-old son (approx. age) Garret, nor he to him, and this tension sets forth some interesting character dynamics. Late in the night a ghostly phantom begins to visit Garret in his bedroom. Shit is getting good! All the ingredients for a good haunted house novel are in place.

But then…

Stephen takes a long absence from the story and this absence creates a conspicuous void in the pre-established story. Myth and spiritualism and “the explanations of it all” are awkwardly dumped into the story by passerby characters. The “Night Things” lose their mystery. One such “thing” has the hackneyed title of “The Master”. He leads around pathetic man in the likes of Dracula’s Renfield or Frankenstein’s Ygor.   The Epilogue doesn’t seem to fit with the ending developments.

I wish I could have enjoyed this book more, not only for the sake of Valancourt Books but for the author as well. Michael Talbot died of Leukemia in 1992 at the young age of 38. NightThingsTalbotHow sad. It should be noted that his accomplishments in writing come not from his fiction pieces such as Night Things, but from his works of non-fiction. He was a writer in the fields of science and new age. He wrote several pieces for Omni  and Village Voice.  Perhaps his most noteworthy work is The Holographic Universe, which is free online:

 

https://archive.org/stream/HolographicModelOfTheUniverse/holouni#page/n3/mode/2up

Here’s an excerpt:

“. . . there is evidence to suggest that our world and everything in it. . . are also only ghostly images, projections from a level of reality so beyond our own it is literally beyond both space and time”

 

In Olav Hammer’s “Claiming Knowledge: Strategies of Epistemology of From Theosophy to the New Age,” Hammer states that Talbot postulates that “Consciousness affects material reality.”

I have read similar theories. Whereas I do not subscribe wholeheartedly to these theories, I find them fascinating. Perhaps I will explore Talbot’s work in these matters and leave his fiction behind. Night Things notwithstanding, it seems that Talbot was an interesting and highly intelligent person.

 

Review of The Houses October Built

 

houses_october_builtWe’re still in October, right? Oh yeah, we’ve left that month of Halloween shenanigans long ago. We’ve already said our thanks in November, went a jingling all the way through December and then somehow ended up in a different year – 2016. Being that it is late January, why am I reviewing a movie about five friends on a road trip seeking out the ultimate Halloween attraction – the haunt to end all haunts? Shouldn’t I have reviewed The Houses October Built in, well, October? I suppose so. But perhaps, if anything, this January review of an October based film will help to take your mind back to a warmer season while you momentarily escape the bitter and miserable cold. Plus, there are no holidays on the immediate horizon. Yeah, yeah, there’s Valentine’s Day coming up around the corner, but who wants a pink-tinted day of lovey-dovey when they can be revisiting Halloween?

The Houses October Built is a “found footage” film, modelled after The Blair Witch Project. It’s the same plot formula – a group of kids go on an adventure, seeking to find the location of rumored site of terror, only to get in over their heads. In the Blair Witch Project, the site is a witch’s house in the middle of the woods. In The Houses October Built, the site is a haunted attraction that takes terror to the extreme. While touring the haunted attractions of Texas in their RV, they get wind of an attraction that is by invite only. It operates secretly and is not bound by rules, ethics and regulations. You know, those “killjoys”. But in the end, things other than “joy” might end up dead. Through word of mouth, chat-groups, email and Facebook, they come across clues that hopefully will lead them to their coveted destination. Little do they realize that the extreme haunt has already begun. They are the-house-october-built-headerbeing stalked by masquerading performers from the haunted houses they have frequented. These stalking occurrences happen repeatedly – from town to town, at this festival, at that campground, on this road, inside their RV. What is going on?

My impressions of this movie are perhaps as strange as the film itself. At first, I decided that I didn’t like it. But I kept thinking about the film, revisiting certain scenes in my head. So then I asked myself, “Hey self, if you dislike this film, why do you keep dwelling on it?” To answer the question, I had to reassess my evaluation. I returned for a second viewing and “skim-watched” the film. After this, I decided that I did, in fact, enjoy the film.

I’ll try to make sense of all this. Wish me luck – here I go!

Sometimes these “found footage” films rub me the wrong way, but not always. I loved Paranormal Activity and while I did not have a love affair with The Blair Witch Project, I didn’t hate it either. The filming of The Houses October Built was choppy. Too often the camera just shut down during some tense nighttime scene only for the film to pick up again the next day on a sunny road. But I get it. It’s supposed to mimic the video recordings of your average tourists on a road trip; unprofessional and at times random. But every so often I felt that it was too self-conscious as a “found footage” film. When the five friends converse in their recreational vehicle – sometimes the scene seems natural and sometimes it does not. Now and then I was left with an ever so slight taste of “Reality TV.” Just so you know, I loathe Reality TV as much as I loathe liver. This is partially due to the interspersing of filmed interviews with the proprietors of haunted attractions. During these interviews, they admit to the existence of “shady” goings-on among the backwoods actors. I guess I prefer the old style. I prefer a reel of storytelling film over chopped up “candid” videos that try to portray “real life drama.” For me, when a film makes no attempt to be anything else other than the piece of fiction that it is, the drama seems more real than a pseudo-documentary that tries so hard to “dramatize the reality.”

The Houses October Built does not always succumb to these trappings. But its overall style does become distracting at times. Now, how about I throw an oxymoron at you?This style of moviemaking enhances the scare factor when the friends begin to encounter the costumed haunters afterhours. The amateur video-capturing from these consumer-based cameras brings out more of the “freak” from these freaks. The cameras highlight them in an uncanny way.

houses-october-built-01What’s scary about these encounters is this – we’re not sure if these costumed stalkers are merely role playing or if they are in fact surrendering to their horror show persona. Then we are left to ask – are the people that are behind the masks scarier than the monsters they are portraying? While the friends sit around the campfire, a man in white makeup appears from the surrounding woods. He says he works at the nearby haunt but he lives in the woods. There’s something creepy about him. He takes offense at one of the friend’s “backwoods” comment. Then there’s the clown who assaults them in a parking lot, claiming that they were improperly videotaping. There’s the girl with a porcelain face mask that wanders into their trailer. She sits, shifts her eyeballs, and does not answer any of their questions. She then screams and quietly leaves the vehicle. Weird stuff and there’s a whole lot more.

These freaks from the haunts – these are the things that stuck with me when the film was over. In this way I am plagued with the same set of circumstances as the five movie-makers. But not exactly – my life isn’t act risk. (Well hopefully not).

Overall this is a scary and very original film. At times the “found footage” format is distracting but at other times it helps to set a bizarre tone.

Now I shall digress into another topic. I ask myself, “Hey self, is this film appropriate for this blog?” And I ask you, “Does this movie qualify as a Haunted House film?”   Definitely not is the usual sense. It is not centered on one huge house. There are no ghosts or paranormal phenomena. It’s a movie about the haunted houses that are the recreational attractions for the thrill seekers. But, a haunted house is a haunted house, right? You say “right.” I knew you would see it my way! So yes, self, this movie fits right into the theme of this blog.

Review of Burnt Offerings – The Novel

burntofferingsHappy New Year! Gone are our outmoded ways. Fresh on the scene are new beginnings! It’s all part of the cycle of life, with death being an integral part of this eternal succession. How timely it is that I get to review Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings  – a book about a timeworn yet rejuvenating house that feeds off of the life force of its human occupants.

Approximately two months ago, I reviewed the corresponding movie.  I praised the film then and I continue to like it. But I like the book even more. It’s a darn good novel. I think I can go so far as to say I love it! It’s unique and intriguing with page turning suspense. And yet, I do believe it’s a relatively obscure piece of work.

 

Remember, I said “relatively.” I’m sure many of you know about this book. But I’m willing to bet there are many other lovers of haunted house fiction that have never heard of this story. This is ironic, because the book is as monumental to this genre as The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.  It has been said to be a major influence to Stephen King’s The Shining.

The latest edition of “Burnt Offerings” includes a foreword by horror author Stephen Graham Jones.  In the intro, he praises the book as a masterpiece. Also, he offers an interesting contrast between two types of haunted houses. How could I not appreciate such juxtaposition after I myself wrote a piece delineating two haunted house themes; the house as a stage for ghosts to perform vs. the house as an entity in and of itself.   Jones’s comparison is simpler and perhaps more interesting. He states that there are those haunted houses in literature that want you to stay away (i.e. the Amityville Horror house). Then there are those houses that want you inside their walls so that they might possess you, swallow you, kill you. Burnt Offerings is a chilling tale of the latter kind of house.

An aged brother and sister by the sir name of Allardyce have a summerhouse to BurntOfferingsAgainrent. Ben and Marian Rolfe, along with their little boy and elderly aunt, lease the house from these strange siblings. The deal seems too good to be true. The house has more rooms than they can count. There is a swimming pool and beach beside a lake. But they didn’t know about the “extra charges” – their hidden essence pays for these hidden fees! However, they did know about what they presumed to be the one and only catch – the elderly Allardyce mother would remain in the house throughout the Rolfe’s stay. Oh but she would be no trouble at all! She would recluse herself to an attic bedroom in a wing of the house. The Rolfes might never even see her! All they had to do was leave a tray of food outside her closed bedroom door three times a day. They accept these terms and their chilling and suspenseful tale begins. What does this elderly mother look like? The renters never see her. But in the end, Marian Rolfe will “experience” her. Or perhaps the whole Rolfe family will share this experience. I guess this depends on the reader’s interpretation concerning the nature of the old mother.

The movie and book differ only somewhat. They have slightly different endings; two distinct paths, both equally compelling and enigmatic. However the final resolution remains the same; both paths find their way to the same place.

I highly recommend both the book and the film. Nevertheless, the book is better. It just might be my favorite piece of haunted house literature. Maybe. It’s difficult to single out the “best from the rest,” but it is certainly one of the leaders of the pack!