Monday, June 29, 2009

There ought to be Freaks.

There's nothing like a neck injury to help you catch up with a backlog of unseen 1970s horror films... especially if you leave the remote painfully out of reach. Now you are paralyzed anyway so it may as well be with fear... so bring on... THE SENTINEL!

I don't know what kept me away so long from this 1977 gem, but I'll never leave again! It's got it all: super young Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum in bit parts; PSYCHO co-stars Martin Balsam and Sylvia Miles; Burgess 'the Penguin' Meredith as a mincing elderly gay stereotype; Beverly D'Angelo as a freaky young lesbian stereotype... yeah, you heard me! she and her partner use masturbation as a weapon of uncanny frisson to creep out our already-very creeped-out (straight) suicidal heroine (Cristina Raines), who is very naturalistic, and sexy, and screams well.

I can't reveal another detail, but let me just add some more classic old faces: Ava Gardener, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, John Carradine and Eli Wallach, and I must mention the very hot scenes in which Cristina investigates strange noises while wearing a sexy negligee, armed only with flashlight and butcher knife (see bottom last pic)... but forget it. You don't even need all that, because there are real freaks.

Real freaks. Genius! When have we seen real freaks outside of 1933's FREAKS (above)? Here in THE SENTINEL, the bizarre Thanksgiving parade (gooble-gobble!) of Browning's children comes to its final resting place 45 years later. THE SENTINEL reflects a time when homosexuality was akin to being a pinhead or a bearded lady and was all part of the exploitation of deformity and difference on which our circus sideshow culture is based; a last, armless bow before the onslaught of liberal PC brainwashing "saved" the freaks by  putting them out of work. 

I could swear I recognized one of the pinheads from Browning's 1933 film--looking suitably older--in amidst the madness. Had these poor souls been traveling the carny back-roads all this time? Retured in Florida? Suffice it to say, this film provides a nice breather from political correctness not just in its callous exploitation of freak frisson, but of homophobia as well. As I recall from my childhood street-corner conversations in those pre-AIDS days, the very idea of same sex kissing and fondling was considered stomach churning, hence the pro-gay flak thrown at the lurid depictions of William Friedkin's CRUISING (1980), for example, which plays up the same sideshow affect. A little behind the times, Friedkin's film's hostile reception showed we'd already matured a little as a cinema going public by 1980, to the point where the perceived "freaksploitation" of homosexuality drew outrage instead of titters, at least in some papers.

If it's not quite in the same league as its 1970s compatriots (like LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH), THE SENTINEL'll do until some other movie with Bevery D'Angelo as a creepy lesbian masturbating in a leotard comes along. And as for the poor freaks, I am sure they appreciated the humanitarian concerns of not being exploited anymore, but they probably missed the paychecks. And isn't it sad this great American institution is gone forever leaving only a bunch of insane but non-deformed humans hammering nails into their noses and swallowing swords down at Coney Island's Sideshow by the Seashore?

THE SENTINEL is one of those great last gasps of 1970s split-level thinking: we're meant to recoil from the lesbians as if Robert Aldrich was directing, and to recoil from the freaks as if they're demons from hell, making this a conservative horror pic when all's said and done, validating the patron's conservative "wholeness" in contrast to filmic celebration of the grotesque and abject. In 1977, NYC was still where one went to recoil in horror from X-rated film marquees, wobbling hookers and urine-stained winos--not lug the kids around Disney Stores and Nike flagships--and THE SENTINEL's not trying to impress you with its liberal bias, it's trying to scare you and creep you out, like a day trip to what NYC used to be--one giant sideshow up and down Times Square. See Ratzo Rizzo, half rat, half man! See Jackie Superstar! She thought she was James Dean for a day! Step right up!

There is underlying it all a rationale for the use of lesbianism and physical deformity as signifiers of horror--at least in the past--for when used as a measuring stick these films reveal our current culture to be more progressive than we sometimes give it credit for. Being publicly skeeved out by the thought of gay sex was on its last gasp, but still a permissible reaction, in the 1970s, and movies like CRUISING (w/ Pacino, pictured above) and THE SENTINEL played on that, but in the process they helped audiences grow acclimated. If familiarity breeds tolerance, it's repetition-compulsion disorder that breeds familiarity, and it's shock and horror that breeds repetition-compulsion disorder, therefore: Repeat repulsion = eventual tolerance = le mepris.

After all, even more skeevy than deformity and homosexuality back then was the most commonly used "free" horror effect: old age!  First introduced in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) and ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), the idea that old age was inherently demonic--as in emaciated corpses with shambling gaits and nightmarish dentures--faded in the all-drenching teenage blood wake of Halloween and Friday the 13th, but man it used to scare the shit out of us! We recently saw David Lynch use old people for creepy effect in MULHOLLAND DRIVE, but you have to be a certain age yourself to be afraid of the elderly, and now Lynch is. Just as Niagara Falls is lovely from a window, but terrifying if you're stuck in the current; it's a matter of proximity.

So what is left now that old age, homosexuality and deformity are all no allowed to be horrific in and of themselves? Instead of "one of us! one of us!" we have ghosts coming through the computer screen. Instead of horror we have horror signifiers strung together cheerlessly like gold dollar signs in a rap video: an eye through a key-hole, water leaking in the basement, a girl with dark hair drawing a pentagram, thunder! a chainsaw! a girl in a shower seen from outside the steamy stall door; Satanic graffiti, hands scribbling in a journal while monks run down stone staircases; partial nudity highlighted in thick felt markers, and golden-hued car commercial subtext-- all bathed in a sugar crust of flashy editing and served with nu-metal flatware, and then the credits: please exit quickly the next show's about to start there will be no refunds step right up!

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Read Tenebrous Kate's valuable take on Cruising here
and the Costuminatrix on The Sentinel here.

5 comments:

  1. Oh, this is awesome. See, you're smart and literate and bring up all these excellently-researched points, and I just pick on the costumes. ;)

    By today's horror-film standards this seems so tame and dated, and yet I always come away from it feeling kind of creeped out and like I need to take a shower. I think it's the director's sheer deliberacy in setting you up with all the bit parts and respected character actors and then suckerpunching the hell out of you with the sleazy bits. Why are Raines' dad and his partners so grotesque? Why is Beverly D'Angelo masturbating in front of someone she just met? Why are there freaks lining the staircase? WHO CARES? Are you creeped out yet?

    ;)

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  2. We love THE SENTINAL as well (and enjoyed your essay), but we love something even more that we must take issue with: we feel the lesbians in Aldrich's SISTER GEORGE are certainly not meant to appear grotesque. Certain characters are -- such as Coral Browne's nasty, manipulating creature. Sex with HER is depicted as horrific, due to the extraordinary and hideous power she holds over Susannah York's Childie. Aldrich also uses York's "adorable" looks as a contrast to the other, more butch lesbians in the cast to make the audience understand and sympathize with Beryl Reid's unstoppable jealousy and fear of losing her to someone else. And, similarly, we think there is a misunderstanding over your assessment of Aldrich's BABY JANE. Again, the idea of an old person isn't demonic; it's the effects of alcoholism that can turn you into a monster. Baby Jane was a demon since she was born. Alcohol made it worse. Fear of aging is addressed but only through Jane. And it really is just a reaction to how she has allowed herself to decay -- from denial about her alcoholism -- that enrages her. Notice how all the other older women in the film look compared to Jane. It's her own rotted soul that is exploited, not age. We think Aldrich always goes out of his way to find understanding and sympathy in his characters, no matter how grotesque the individuals may inwardly be (take Shack in EMPEROR OF THE NORTH or Ulzana in ULZANA'S RAID for extra examples). There may well be films that fit the stereotyping you describe, but we loudly disagree that your Aldrich examples are the ones.

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  3. My brothers, I respect your strong feelings on this matter. By horror of old age I really meant the one scene where Bette scares herself in the mirror (she forgot she wasn't cute anymore).

    I've been experiencing that dreadful horror myself as I float past 40. Facial changes have a way of sneaking up on one, jumping out and saying BOO when your guard is down....

    As for SISTER G, I confess a lot of my revulsion stemmed from just the very scene you described, though I found Beryl Reid just as icky, especially the cigar eating petty sadism and all that. You could say I had a gut reaction to it, meaning that the movie made me sick to my stomach... but I love Aldrich too, KISS ME DEADLY for example! In fact, I may have to go watch that right now...

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