Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Sentinel (1977) Apartment For Rent, Cheap, Creepy Priest Included

Apartment hunting is never easy. You want just the right amenities, the right utility plans, perfect space, tolerable gets complicated, to say the least. If the apartment you choose just happens to sit over the mouth of Hell, then you might a few more problems than just a few cockroaches or neighbors who loudly air out their problems at four in the morning. That sulfur smell is only the beginning of your grievances.

1977's The Sentinel is a film about New York apartment living, gates of Hell, oddball neighbors, pencil-thin mustaches, and unwavering fate. Directed by Michael Winner (Death Wish), The Sentinel sports an all-star cast featuring Chris Sarandon, Burgess Meredith, Martin Balsam, John Carradine, Ava Gardner, Jose Ferrer, Sylvia Miles, and Eli Wallach. There are even small (some non-speaking) parts for future stars such as Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, Jerry Orbach, Beverly D'Angelo, and Tom Berenger. Quite the cast, really.

Alison (Christina Raines) is a very successful model with more than a few problems on the emotional spectrum. As a flashback tells us, as a teenager, she once barged in on her depraved father having a cake-filled tryst with two women of ill repute. She had tried to commit suicide then, and had more problems later in life. She wants a place of her own so she can have her own down time, even away from loyal lawyer boyfriend, Michael (Sarandon). A meeting with a realtor (Gardner) uncovers a nice old apartment in Brooklyn with an insanely cheap rent, fully furnished rooms, and a creepy old priest, Father Halloran (Carradine), who spends his days staring out of the window.

Father Halloran's simple hobby notwithstanding, Alison simply can't pass up the opportunity, especially when the realtor lowers the rent even more. It's like Alison was meant to rent the apartment. She moves in and before long, starts to feel at home in the huge apartment. I mean, this thing is cavernous.

While her boyfriend uses his less-than-reputable resources to find out more about the place she's rented, and about this mysterious Father Halloran, Alison begins to meet her new neighbors. Charming old codger Charles Chazen (Meredith) introduces himself and his pet kitty and birdy, even bringing her a picture of himself to spruce up the apartment. He seems like a decent guy, maybe a little on the goofy side, and Alison enjoys his visit.

Michael finds out more about the place, and about Father Halloran, and it doesn't bode well for Alison. It's no spoiler to say that Father Halloran isn't the first person a mysterious church brotherhood has tapped to be a "sentinel," and he won't be the last. Alison's suicide attempts have pushed her to the top of the candidate list. We also find out that Michael's a bit of a slippery character himself, but he denies any wrongdoing. Admittedly, he does seem to want the best for Alison, so maybe he's a victim of finger-pointing for an accident that happened years before (as constantly brought up by Wallach and Walken's police characters).

Things get weirder for Alison. One visit to loopy couple Gerde (Miles) and Sandra (D'Angelo) makes Alison a little...shall we say, uncomfortable. Gerde is the very definition of an aged "cougar" and Sandra enjoys...I'll just mention that she's a big fan of her own body and leave it at that. Alison slips away from that scene, but gets to meet more of the tenants at a birthday party for Charles' cat. Alison ends up having a wonderful time (who wouldn't? - there's cake and a cat with a party hat) before being spooked by noises in the apartment above her, where no one should be. She tells Miss Logan, the realtor, about it and Miss Logan drops a bomb about the population of said apartment building. Now Alison, and those around her, start to doubt the brightness of her porch lights, if you catch my drift.

At one point, Alison sees an apparition of her dead, freaky father and attacks it for probably the goriest part of the movie. With unexplained pains in her head, a strange connection to a dead private eye (a friend of Michael's in a subplot I won't spoil), and an increasingly weird home life (seeing all of a book's English text in Latin), things aren't going well for the model. Michael takes it upon himself to investigate the building and get to the bottom of this Father Halloran/crazy neighbor/church conspiracy thingy.

Finding a blocked-off area on the wall in the lobby, Michael breaks it apart to reveal a warning that ends with the ominous, "Abandon hope, ye who enter here." Right about this time, Father Halloran makes an appearance, and tells Michael that the building sits on a portal to Hell. Michael still demands answers and follows Father Halloran back to his apartment, where he attacks the old man out of frustration before being bludgeoned by an unseen assailant.

The great John Carradine.

Alison arrives at the building just in time for Hell's welcoming party to arrive. Charles leads them all into enticing Alison to kill herself so that she doesn't become the next Sentinel. Hordes of demons appear - controversially played by extras with real-life disfigurements and amputations - and corner Alison in Halloran's room. Just as she is about to go through with it, Father Halloran and Monsignor Franchino (Arthur Kennedy), an "advance scout" of sorts sent to aid Alison's "transformation," arrive to rescue Alison. For me, the creepiest part of the entire movie was watching the hordes of Hell retreat slowly and vanish into the shadows. Really great editing here.

Alison then takes Halloran's place in the chair at the window and later, while Miss Logan presents a refurbished apartment to a new couple (one of which was played by Tom Berenger), we see that Alison has fully accepted the position of Sentinel, nun's outfit and milky eyes included.

The Sentinel is a great piece of 70's atmospheric spookiness. Not only is it a horror film, but it doubles as a mystery as the pieces are put together to form the hows and the whys. There is more to each character than you think, and by the end, you discover more about them. It was also quite fun to play "Which Star With A Bit Part Will Be An Even Bigger Star?" with all the appearances by those I mentioned earlier. The movie builds with an even tension, so audiences with short attention spans (the kind Hollywood loves now) might get bored after a while, but it's worth the wait. The climactic sequence is one of the most visually striking and disturbing scenes you may see, and not for gore or anything spectacular. The use of shadow and the lack of special effects is combined for a jarring effect. Burgess Meredith is as charming as ever - even when he's pure evil - but the one problem I had with the movie was Christina Raines as Alison. Her acting came off as wooden and forced in many scenes, although she looked the part of a successful 70's model.

Love this old VHS cover - reminds me of working in a video store during the 80's.

You can do a lot worse than watching The Sentinel on a dark, preferably stormy, night. It's good, old-school spooky with touches of drive-in depravity that are doled out in just the right doses to make you squirm.

Plus you get to see a cat in a birthday hat.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977-ish) Wait, What?

I almost didn't have any words for this movie. At first glance, it appears to be a knowing-wink kind of thing. You know, tongue-in-cheek and full of wry, subtle in-jokes. I mean, a film about a bed. An evil bed that eats people. Why didn't I think of that? Then, I experienced it. And I wished to all that is holy that the trusty crew of Mystery Science Theater 3000 had been there to hold my hand through the syrupy, surreal morsel of oddball that is Death Bed: The Bed That Eats.

At least we got one of those nifty title cards.

A film that - like its narrator - sat in limbo for about 25 years before its official release in 2003, Death Bed is a strange neo-art-horror-camp-comedy-experimental piece written, produced, directed, and eventually forgotten by George Barry. It gained cult status through pirated videotapes and mentions by comedian Patton Oswalt, the "fame" seemingly a surprise to Barry himself. But, hey, I'd be pleasantly surprised, too, if a film I made then forgot about gained notoriety.

And oh, what a film.

Let me tell you a little something about how it all goes down. The epilogue, or "breakfast" (seriously, a graphic tells us just that), shows an amorous couple sneaking into the tomb-like room where the bed resides. Where the bed is sleeping...and snoring. The ghost of an emo artist is trapped behind one of his own drawings of the bed, and he conveniently narrates the procedures for us. The couple get busy on the bed, which sneaks a bite of their apple, drinks their wine, and...seriously...polishes off their bucket of fried chicken. Then, it moves on to the couple, pulling them into its oddly green pool of digestive juices. We know it's eating them because we hear eating noises. Funny how everything it eats sounds like it's made of apples.

The bed in question.

The narrator fills us in on his relationship with the bed while it dreams of eating people in a city, as told by the ol' spinning newspaper. Several years pass, and a trio of ladies arrive at the house to check it out for a lawyer friend of one of the women. I would say that one, Diane, is headstrong, that another, Sharon, is her good friend, and the last, Suzan, is mousy and insecure. I would say that, but character development and acting aren't around to make it easier. Suzan is left alone to get some rest, but falls victim to the bed. The others discover her missing, and the bed reacts harshly to the presence of Sharon. When the ladies leave to look for their friend, the bed pulls in Suzan's suitcase and yes...wait for it...drinks the Pepto-Bismol.

Yes. The bed that drinks Pepto-Bismol.

A lot of the bed's history is revealed, especially that it had multiple owners, including a gangster (whose gun sounds like it's firing, but looks like a toy), a "sexual therpist" whose orgy kept the bed full for a long time, and the artist himself, who had consumption, which he theorizes is why the bed "rejected" him. The bed's origin ties in with why it is so affected by Sharon. Seems a woman was seduced by a demon who created the bed, but died. In his strange grief, the demon cried blood and the tears possessed the bed. Sharon has eyes just like that woman, who lies in perfect shape in her grave on the property. Yep, you heard all that right.

One of the random objects the bed likes to snack upon.

When Sharon goes for help, Diane decides on a nap. After a bizarre dream, she tries to get up, but is pulled in by the bed. She is able to escape, but her bloody legs are useless. And thus begins one of the longest several minutes you will ever experience. Diane drags herself to the door, and we are there to witness every last second of it. A sloth on Robitussin would've lapped this scene twice before it ended. The bed pulls a "haha, psych" and pulls Diane back with a well-tossed bedsheet. Sharon returns just in time to see this happen, and her mind goes bye-bye.

Longest. Crawl. Ever.

Through this whole movie, 70's singer Leo Sayer Sharon's unnamed brother searches for and eventually finds Sharon curled up in the bed's room, afraid to leave and probably hearing calliope music in her mushy mind. The bed taunts them with strange sounds and random eyeballs, leading the brother to attempt stabbing the bed. In my favorite scene of this thing, the bed spits the knife out and consumes everything but the bones of the guy's hands. When he settles down to stare at his hands, his reaction is...well...underwhelming. Almost as if he were to say, "Huh. Skeleton hands."

"That's strange. Skeleton hands. Hm. Did I leave the stove on?"

That was the best. Well, moving on, the artist had said when the original demon sleeps every ten years, the bed will be vulnerable. He instructs Sharon to build a ritual circle to transport the bed to another circle, which will also awaken the bed's original "mother." Sharon must die for this to happen, though. The re-animated woman then "couples" with the handless brother to close the circle and the bed is destroyed.

What a ride. Like trying to race a Hoveround on its lowest setting through mud. The pacing of this movie only moved due the advancement of time, not any plot or acting. Every second of that slow time that passed, I could hear Crow T. Robot in my head, lampooning each scene. It was the only way I could maintain my sanity, and there's very little of that left. Still, the film has just enough charm to become something of a more recent Rocky Horror Picture Show. Somebody out there, please make that happen.

Until next time, folks, sleep comfortably on your beds tonight and have as much fried chicken, wine, and apples you want.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Monster Squad (1987) His Name Is Horace!

There's that term we're all familiar with as movie fans: "feel good movie." It's usually reserved for inspirational movies mass-produced by Disney or romantic comedies that feature at least one montage showcasing a modern indie ballad. For me, a "feel good movie" is one that gets me to smile, maybe gets me to reminisce a little about good times in my life. 1987 was a good time. I was in college for the first time, at Central Michigan University. I wasn't balancing my studying time versus my partying time very well, but I was in the midst of the heady 80's decade and enjoying my blossoming social life.

1987 was also the year that The Monster Squad came out. I remember seeing it a couple years later, but it must have been late night or right after a party, because I only recalled very small snippets of it. I've been meaning to revisit it for years now, and finally I couldn't wait any longer. Some things age well with time. The Monster Squad is one of them.

Seems 100 years ago, Abraham Van Helsing had one climactic battle with Count Dracula (a hell of a performance by Duncan Regehr) over the fate of the world. During the skirmish, Van Helsing opens up a portal in the hopes that Dracula and his allies of evil will be sucked into a limbo dimension. In the words of the prologue script, he and his good allies "blew it."

Dracula arrives in modern times along with The Gill Man (think Creature of the Black Lagoon), The Mummy, and Frankenstein's Monster (the wonderful Tom Noonan, who plays outright evil in Manhunter and The House of the Devil). He also enlists the help of The Wolf Man (played by Jonathan Gries - Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite - in his human form). His plan: obtain the amulet of concentrated good hidden by Van Helsing so that when the clock strikes midnight, he will be in a position to rule the world.

Enter The Monster Squad. Think The Goonies, but with fouler mouths. Led by Sean (Andre Gower), it's made up of smart-ass Patrick (Robby Kiger), bully target Horace a.k.a. "Fat Kid" (Brent Chalem), youngest member Eugene (Michael Faustino), and newest member, tough kid Rudy (Ryan Lambert, looking like a young Adrian Zmed). Sean's little sister Phoebe tags along, and eventually earns membership in a big way. These guys are convinced that monsters exist, and when Van Helsing's diary falls into Sean's lap, things get dangerous for the club. Dracula sends Frankenstein's Monster after the kids, but the big lug befriends Phoebe and finds himself - for the first time in his artificial life - accepted as a real friend by people who should fear him.

Sean and Patrick enlist the help of "Scary German Guy" (character actor Leonardo Cimino), a neighborhood recluse who the kids all fear, to read the German notes in Van Helsing's diary. Scary German Guy turns out to be a sweet old man who "knows something about monsters," as his concentration camp tattoo reveals. The amulet is vulnerable that very night at midnight, and by destroying it, Dracula will inherit the world. But performing a ritual, read by a virgin, the portal to limbo will open, pulling in all the monsters.

The race is on, as Sean gets his hands on the amulet, but is pursued by Dracula and his remaining evil friends. "Frank" is taken out by a collapsing roof, and Scary German Guy helps speed the getaway. But Dracula terrorizes Sean's family, destroying the clubhouse and blowing up Sean's father's police partner. The climax is one of the most enjoyable portions of the entire movie, a well-choreographed battle in the middle of town. Everybody gets their moment, like Rudy's showdown with Wolf Man and Dracula's brides, and Sean teaming with his father against the aforementioned lycanthrope. But the moment that made me smile belonged to Horace. Desperately seeking a weapon to use against the advancing Gill Man, and getting no help from bullies E.J. (Jason Hervey of The Wonder Years) and Derek (Adam Carl), Horace picks up a shotgun and shakily - but effectively - kills the Gill Man. When E.J. congratulates him, still calling him "Fat Kid," Horace cocks the gun. "My Horace!"

Friggin' awesome.

When Plan A goes wrong - having Patrick's older sister who claims to be a virgin read the incantation - the Squad takes a chance by having little Phoebe read it. It works, and the portal opens, taking a still-fighting Dracula with it. Sadly, it also takes Frankenstein's Monster, which brings tears to little Phoebe's eyes. Finally, when the Army arrives - summoned by an innocent note sent by Eugene - the Squad proudly announces their presence. It is they who have defeated the monsters.

Naturally, any movie with kids embarking on a bigger-than-life adventure is going to be compared to The Goonies. There are some similarities, but you won't find two more different movies. The Goonies has no trace of the supernatural, but The Monster Squad is full of magic and monsters. Both movies have characters with distinct traits, but the Squad kids are more streetwise, and aren't afraid to say what's on their mind - tad bit more swearing among those fellas.

The Monster Squad
is just damn good fun. The script pops with some real gems, and although the story is basic, it's dressed up in its finest Ray Bans and pastels. These monsters don't fool around, and there is a big body count by the time the battle's done. Director Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps) moves the film along with a great love for the material, and there are some great quotes in that script by Shane Black and Dekker.

Horace: Wolf Man's got NARDS!

Many of my peers love this movie, and I can very safely say it now comes highly recommended by yours truly. It's going to make a fine addition to my collection when I get a little more cash in my pocket. Good, old-school 80's fun - political correctness be damned in some cases - with a flair for adventure and touches of comedy and warmth. Want a good time? See The Monster Squad right away.

Me? I might hire those kids to take care of my zombie problem.

Stay safe, friends, until next time...and enjoy some clips from this fine flick:

Monday, September 6, 2010

Survival Of The Dead (2009) Teach Them To Eat At IHOP

I love George A. Romero. I really do. He introduced and fine-tuned the modern living dead template as we know it: slow, lumbering dead people who have been re-animated into vessels of hunger, spreading the contagion to those they don't devour. The original trilogy, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead is placed at the top of horror lists the world over. The subsequent fourth installment, Land of the Dead, was disappointing yet still entertaining. The reboot, Diary of the Dead, was a fresh, updated take on Romero's mythos with a few little missteps here and there.

There are many who say Romero should hang up the zombie spikes and be done with the genre. Admittedly, it would be extremely hard to measure up to Dawn of the Dead, and maybe that's unfair to Romero. I know I'm guilty of holding him up to that film, and it's because Dawn of the Dead is my favorite horror movie, and it's an amazing film. M. Night Shyamalan is often held up to The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable (my favorite movie of Shyamalan's), and maybe that demand is unfair. Because, as everyone knows, nothing measures up to the original blitz of originality and creative flair.

That said, here's my stance: I don't think Romero should give up on the genre. Maybe the movies aren't as good as Dawn of the Dead. But if he's got more stories to tell, and they're at least halfway entertaining, I'm willing to give them a chance. I had middling hopes for his most recent Dead film, Survival of the Dead. I went into expected to see a sad shadow of Romero's past work, but was somewhat surprised to find that it not only held my interest, I was okay with the whole deal.

The story follows an incidental character who appeared in Diary of the Dead. When the main characters of that movie were robbed by renegade military guys, they were threatened by Sarge "Nicotine" Crockett (Alan van Sprang), who advised them to "turn the camera off." In this movie, we find that Crockett passingly remembers those "college kids" and became a minor Internet celebrity when that video was posted. He and his crew have decided to desert and are just searching for a way to escape the rapidly dying (and reviving) world.

Earlier in the movie, we met the feuding families of Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) and Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), two Irish rivals whose families have settled on Plum Island, off the coast of Maine. O'Flynn wants to eliminate the zombies, while Muldoon wants to save them. O'Flynn is forced into exile and makes a living on the mainland as a modern pirate. He accepts payment for the use of boats, then sends people to Plum Island to bug Muldoon, who hates strangers.

After rescuing a wise-ass kid from abusive zombie hunters, Crockett's unit discovers O'Flynn's online "advertisement" for escaping the mainland. Arriving, they engage in a gunfight with O'Flynn before one of Crockett's men, Francisco (Stefano Colacitti), jump starts a ferry. They are able to escape with O'Flynn barely making it aboard after all his men are attacked by zombies, and he forms a truce with the military deserters. Francisco is feeling a bit queasy, though, after biting the finger off a zombie that tried to drag him under while swimming to the boat.

Things just under the water. Cue the chills. Remember, that kind of thing skeeves me out.

When they reach the island, they find that the Muldoons have been trying to rehabilitate the zombies. They also have been killing the innocents that O'Flynn sent to "bug" his rival, but he never guessed they'd go that far. A couple Muldoons attack, resulting in Kenny (Eric Woolf) being killed (then shot by Crockett to prevent re-animation). They also meet O'Flynn's horse-loving but living dead daughter, Jane, who stayed behind when her father was exiled. Angered, O'Flynn stalks off to find allies while the unit heads to a nearby meeting hall.

Francisco wanders off to kill himself when he accepts what has happened to him, but Tomboy (Athena Karkasis) follows and tearfully does the job for him so that his "soul wouldn't be damned." Then, she's taken prisoner by the Muldoons.

When Crockett passes out from his wound, the kid heads to try to find water, but runs into someone familiar, yet new. Turns out zombie Jane has a twin sister, Janet, who has arrived to help. She has no love lost for her father, but changes her mind when he admits she was truly his favorite.

When O'Flynn and Crockett, along with their allies, head for the Muldoon ranch, they are forced to lay down their weapons and observe what the elder Muldoon has been trying to achieve: conditioning the undead to eat something other than living people. It has been unsuccessful, but now he has Jane in a pen with her horse and the other living dead out of their pens to watch.

Janet arrives with the discarded guns and evens the odds. There's a battle, and the zombies run loose to do what they do so well: tear and eat. Janet tries to connect with her zombie twin sister, only to be bitten on the hand. O'Flynn and Muldoon face off, and Muldoon just wants O'Flynn to admit he's wrong. Not wanting any more bloodshed, O'Flynn agrees and asks for a moment with Janet. Muldoon coldly shoots O'Flynn in the back, but is gunned down by O'Flynn's hidden sleeve gun. The others begin their escape as Janet watches her sister suddenly take a bite out of the horse.

She runs to tell the others, but is shot by her own father, who is on his last legs. Any last hope of holding the key to conditioning the dead goes to the grassy grave with Janet. O'Flynn shuffles off while Crockett, Tomboy, and the kid return to the ferry, passing up the chance to live on Plum Island, not wanting to become warring tribes like the O'Flynns and the Muldoons.

Zombies devour the horse (the only time I cried "noooo!" in the whole movie) and, against the backdrop of a full moon (looking oddly like the poster for Dawn of the Dead), the undead O'Flynn and Muldoon aim empty guns at each other, their hate never dying.

Like I said, I was okay with this movie. Some of the zombie kills are played for laughs, and some of the acting is dubious, something that occurs in Romero's films. The deus ex machina of the twin sister was a little "okay, really?" and I found people sneaking up on other people with surprising stealth that didn't seem plausible. Really, Tomboy couldn't hear those Muldoon goons coming? And the accents. My, my. Francisco's dialect seemed forced, and O'Flynn reminded me of Malcolm McDowell imitating a pirate. Oddly enough, I still liked the character.

I did like the "message," that the rivalry among humans will continue even at the worst of times when unity and teamwork are needed most. I know...I just know...that if something like the zombie apocalypse were to happen (and, will), humankind will still find ways to blame each other. Political parties will say the other caused it and won't sign on to a good solution the other might have to rectify it. Religious groups will blame each other and "non-believers" as the cause of the dead rising from their graves. Neighbor will blame neighbor. Nation will blame nation. A never-ending cycle. The only winners: the zombies. They don't care who you voted for or what church you go to. They're just going to eat you.

Ah, well, I've waxed philosophical enough for now. To sum up, I did like Survival of the Dead. I know that opinion will be at odds with others' opinions, but that's fun of it all. It's not a bad way to pass a little time, enjoy a little Romero while you're relaxing at home on a lazy afternoon.

Just steer clear of Plum Island. They don't seem to like strangers.