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From AN AMERICAN HAUNTING to BUFFY: The underappreciated roles of Donald Sutherland

Can you think of anything more terrifying than the words “Based on true events” placed on a title card at the beginning of a horror movie? Few of us want to believe that the scares we’re about to encounter on screen could be real. You’ll come across that warning before Courtney Solomon’s AN AMERICAN HAUNTING, which kicks off Sundance Channel’s SCARY POLITICS–films as frightening as the issues themselves–Tuesday, Oct. 16th at 9P. It also kicks off our chance to take a look at some of the less appreciated roles of one of the film’s stars.

The film casts Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek as John and Lucy Bell, actual Tennessee farmers forced to combat the demonic witch who tore away at the mind and soul of their young daughter, Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood). It has most of the classic ingredients we look for in an exorcism thriller: an isolated location (in this case, a rural farm); a skeptical priest (played by James D’Arcy); an adolescent victim; and veteran screen actors capable of lending credibility to a ghost story that tests our faith in things that go bump in the night.

Few caught HAUNTING when it opened back in May 2006, though. Sutherland’s last film — an “indie” known as THE HUNGER GAMES — probably made more in its first hour of release than HAUNTING made in its entire domestic run. But it’s a solid supernatural thriller that deserves a look, for Spacek and Sutherland’s stoic performances alone.

That got us thinking about other Sutherland features that flew under the radar. Everyone associates the versatile character actor with Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H or Robert Redford’s brilliant ORDINARY PEOPLE. Which titles would you pick, though, if you were programming a festival of Sutherland’s underappreciated roles?

You’d have to start with THE DAY OF THE LOCUST, John Schlesinger’s disturbing, disheartening depiction of Hollywood failure and loss that cast Sutherland as Homer Simpson — not that Homer Simpson — a sexually repressed accountant who falls for an aspiring actress (played by Karen Black). Schlesinger’s adaptation of Nathanael West’s cynical novel views 1930s Hollywood through a cruel lens. But Sutherland’s choices, particularly during a brutal final act, were uncompromising.

Because I’d want to liven the mood after that, I’d switch over to John Landis’ ANIMAL HOUSE, where Sutherland scored laughs by playing a candid college professor. Virtually everyone remembers ANIMAL HOUSE for John Belushi, but Sutherland steals scenes … and he gets to bed Karen Allen.

Sticking with a lighter vibe, I’d send you back to 1970. While audiences were flocking to Altman’s Korean War ensemble comedy and celebrating Sutherland’s turn as the anti-establishment physician Hawkeye Pierce (and with good reason), the actor also was sending up vintage war-heist stories with the star-studded KELLY’S HEROES. He joins Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas and Don Rickles on a mission behind enemy lines to retrieve a stash of Nazi gold. If you liked Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, you’ll love Sutherland’s off-kilter performance as Oddball in Brian G. Hutton’s underrated gem.

Finally, let’s conclude our tribute to Sutherland’s off-the-radar performances with a screening of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. Before Sarah Michelle Gellar helped turn Buffy into a household name (and long before creator Joss Whedon went on to make THE AVENGERS), Sutherland understood the camp value to a story of a vampire-killing Valley Girl. His bone-dry performance as Buffy’s mentor, Merrick, helped ground the broad material and laid the foundation for the outstanding work Anthony Head would contribute to the BUFFY television series as Giles, the watcher.

So while Sutherland enthusiasts likely will run right to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, DON’T LOOK NOW, JFK or even KLUTE when asked to pick the actor’s finest features, it’s movies like AN AMERICAN HAUNTING, THE DAY OF THE LOCUST and — yes — BUFFY that we want to remind people to watch. You won’t be disappointed.

AN AMERICAN HAUNTING is part of Sundance Channel’s SCARY POLITICS. Watch films as scary as the issues every Tuesday at 9P.