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The House of Burgess Meredith

Emboldened by Jovanka Vuckovic’s favorite horror movies, Ashley and I went ahead last night and watched The Sentinel (1977). It’s a pretty weird movie, if not entirely successful, with a hodgepodge of disturbing imagery, plots that go nowhere, and all the veteran Hollywood actors the 1970s had to offer. It’s your typical gateway-to-hell movie. Alison (Cristina Raines), a model with some severe daddy issues, doesn’t want to marry her mustachioed boyfriend (Fright Night‘s Chris Sarandon) just yet, so she goes apartment-shopping in New York and finds a cheap, spacious place with no neighbors – other than a blind priest in the attic, some lesbian ballerinas, and a cat-obsessed Burgess Meredith who’s [spoiler] actually kind of Satan.

But Alison is not easily fazed. Even when the dizzy spells start, even when all hell breaks loose right above her ceiling, and even when her real estate agent proves that her neighbors don’t really exist, she goes on living there. However, when she hallucinates (?) stabbing her dead zombie father, that’s the last straw. And that’s when detectives Eli Wallach and Christopher Walken get called in. Yeah, if there’s one thing The Sentinel has, it’s big names of the past and future. Jeff Goldblum, on the road to stardom, shows up as a photographer; Psycho‘s Martin Balsam plays a Latin prof. I mean, Ava Fucking Gardner is the real estate agent!

I love how 1970s Hollywood had all these past-their-prime legends just sitting around, and could insert them into character parts. Need someone to play a slightly threatening monsignor in your slightly sleazy horror movie? Well, how about five-time Oscar nominee Arthur Kennedy? The upshot of this trend is that we get to see dozens of our favorite old actors in amusing if undignified roles. This is the basis for much of The Sentinel‘s entertainment value. The rest of it comes the creepy shit that engulfs Alison courtesy of Dick Smith’s special effects.

Much digital ink has been spilled about the climax, wherein a mob of giggling demons, led by hell’s emissary Burgess Meredith, follows Alison into the attic and tries to get her to kill herself. It’s scary, yeah, and it has some troubling ableist implications, but for me the creepiest scene comes about 45 minutes in. It’s the one that made Bravo’s “100 Scariest Movie Moments.” Alison wanders through the darkness, flashlight in hand, when something crosses her path. And hey, it’s that zombie father I mentioned earlier! The blood, the nose-hacking, and the naked female zombies make it that much worse.

So yes, The Sentinel has some scenes that made me curl up into a fetal position (while maneuvering my arms so I could still see the screen). Unfortunately, it feels like it was written by several people who weren’t on speaking terms, but each picked a different set of genre clich├ęs to use. It’s ostensibly a psychological horror movie, but it veers off into a police procedural in its second act, then decides it actually wants to be a religious conspiracy thriller. The Wallach/Walken episode is the funniest manifestation of this disconnect, as they go from character to character, digging up extraneous but lurid back stories in generic cop fashion. (Walken only gets a few stray lines! That’s the real horror.)

But even though the parts don’t cohere into a sensible whole, The Sentinel is enjoyably ridiculous enough for me to recommend it. The all-star cast, the build-up and reveal as a septuagenarian John Carradine enters the picture, and Burgess Meredith’s sublime hamminess all paid out great dividends on the time I invested. When the movie finally gets focused, it manages to be a fairly terrifying, oddball foray into the demonic. You could say it’s the best 1970s apartment-centered horror movie that Roman Polanski didn’t direct.

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Pictures at a Revolution: good film history and a great read

I recently finished Mark Harris’s thrilling volume of film history, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, so I’d like to write about it briefly. In his book, Harris (the husband of Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner) writes at length about the planning, production, and reception of 1967’s Best Picture nominees. (To be specific, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Dr. Dolittle, and the winner, In the Heat of the Night.) In the process, he’s able to give a wide cross-section of a Hollywood in flux, caught between the studio system’s gradual demise, and the industry’s impending renaissance.

Harris also frames his meticulously researched history as an exciting narrative, full of characters on every end of the roue de fortune, some set at cross-purposes to each other. There are the real-life clashes between Warren Beatty and Jack Warner; Rex Harrison and the cast and crew of Dr. Dolittle; and Stanley Kramer and the late ’60s film criticism community, just to name a few. And they all build up to this greater, intergenerational conflict, in which The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde ultimately win out, aesthetically and financially.

But at the same time, Harris doesn’t oversimplify these struggles, as each major player is presented objectively through interviews, letters, newspaper accounts, and various archival sources. When uncertainty exists, as with the sexualities of Tracy and Hepburn, he footnotes it. Unlike many books which profile movie stars, he fact-checks scrupulously, giving the reader a well-rounded account. For example, he portrays every side of the layered star image of Sidney Poitier – from the viewpoints of black radicals, film critics, filmmakers (like Kramer and In the Heat of the Night director Norman Jewison), the general public, and Poitier himself.

It’s also a book that gives equal time to each part of its dense story, as the films’ production schedules are charted alongside each other. Harris uses the contrast to show how multiple types of filmmaking coexisted in the late ’60s, with intentions, production models, and end results as different as The Graduate and Dr. Dolittle. And within this broader depiction of rapid, industry-wide trends, Harris finds time for dozens of smaller stories to illustrate points about film history, like how The Sound of Music‘s success helped lead to the New Hollywood. (Studios placed their bets on other big-budget musicals like Camelot, Hello, Dolly!, and Sweet Charity, which turned out to be crippling flops.)

After reading Pictures at a Revolution, my immediate reaction is that I want a book like this about every Oscar year. Preferably by Mark Harris. Since it talks about an era of such social and cinematic upheaval, every event is investigated for historical relevance, but he doesn’t draw conclusions where there aren’t any. But when, say, Oscars host Bob Hope makes unfunny jokes about the ceremony’s two-day postponement (due to King’s assassination), there’s a clear generational divide at work. It’s a symptom of a rift, signaling that one part of (film) history is ending, and another is about to begin. It’s these little fissures that Harris diagnoses so well through what would otherwise seem like trivial anecdotes.

That may be the book’s greatest triumph: using these fascinating stories about filmmaking (which really do make it a fun, accessible read) to back up serious historical arguments about changes in the methods and substance of American cinema, and their significance amidst the broader cultural turmoil of late ’60s and early ’70s. I recommend Pictures at a Revolution both for those seeking new knowledge and understanding of beloved films (like Bonnie and Clyde‘s early history being passed around between Truffaut and Godard), and those with an interest in the greater sociocultural context. Harris provides a helpful window into one of the more intriguing times in film history, and American history in general.

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