From the late ’60s and throughout the 70s there were some very successful horror movies dealing with Satanic forces; poor Mia Farrow getting knocked up by the Devil in Rosemary’s Baby, little Linda Blair being possessed by a demon in The Exorcist, or Gregory Peck finding out his son is the Anti-Christ in The Omen, but one little gem that didn’t make as big a splash as it’s contemporaries was a little flawed gem called The Sentinel. Today we will delve into where this horror adaptation went right and where it failed.
Based on the book by Jeffrey Konvitz the story of The Sentinel deals with a young woman who moves into an old brownstone apartment building, meets a group of eccentric neighbours, and then learns that almost everyone around her has malicious intent and sinister motives. Now, those of you who have read or seen the film version of Rosemary’s Baby can clearly tell that this story is a tad derivative but it still does manage to be rather effective, mainly due to the amazing cast director Michael Winner managed to assemble and the film does provide enough creepy moments to make a viewing warranted by any fan of the genre.
Our heroine is a fashion model by the name of Alison Parker (Christina Raines), who has several mental issues stemming back from the time she walked in on her decrepit father having sex with a pair of prostitutes, her father’s brutal reaction to said interruption and her following attempted suicide is just the foundation of her problems. Though she is dating successful lawyer Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) she’s still not ready to tie the knot and wants an apartment of her own, and this leads to her being shown a gorgeous furnished brownstone apartment in Brooklyn by real estate agent Miss Logan (Ava Gardner). The place does look amazing, that is if you let slide the fact that there is creepy blind priest Father Halliran (John Carradine) who lives in the attic and does nothing but “stare” out the window all day. When the agent quotes the rent as being $500 dollars a month Alison tells her, “I’m afraid that’s too much” Miss Logan responds, “$400 is not excessive.” This is our first clue that things may not be exactly on the up and up with this place, and that’s before she runs into her neighbour Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith) who puts the X in eccentric.
Alison’s life begins to take a downward spiral as she starts to suffer from crippling headaches, nightmares and insomnia, the latter not being helped by the stomping and banging every night from the person living in the apartment above. This is the first problem with the film’s plot as Alison’s staying in this apartment becomes more and more unbelievable as time goes on. Being invited to a cat’s birthday party and dancing the polka with Burgess Meredith is one thing but then you have a bizarre lesbian couple played by Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo (in her screen debut) who masturbates in front of Alison while her partner is making coffee, this stretched credulity a tad, and when Alison asks them what they do for a living she is told…
I’m all for healthy displays of affection but I don’t normally masturbate in front of somebody in the first five minutes of meeting them. But the real kicker is that when she complains to Miss Logan about the odd tenants she is told, “My dear Miss Parker aside from the priest, and now of course you, nobody has lived in that building for three years.” And what does dear Miss Parker do after learning that little tidbit? Why, she returns to the apartment to try and get a good night’s sleep, of course. It’s at this point I lost what little sympathy I had for our lead character, she doesn’t come across as a plucky young heroine determined to crack the mystery of this building, instead she’s more the kind of bloody idiot who when sucked through the gates of Hel, we as an audience, would only sigh and say “Well, we totally saw that coming.”
It’s at this moment in the film that the largest horror cliché is rolled out, when she is Agana awoken by strange noises at night she decides to investigate them, armed with a knife and flashlight while dressed in her bloody nightie. I will admit as silly and moronic as her motivations are, and you can feel the believability meter practically breaking down under the strain, the scene is still rather effective and downright spooky. She stalks the dark rooms until eventually being attacked by the living corpse of her recently deceased father.
I will give her some credit here as she stabs the shit out of her walking-dead dad, but once she makes it to the street her character kind of checks out of the movie. Christina Raines is a fine actress but she isn’t given much to do here, not helped by the fact that apparently director Michael Winner was a complete shit to her on set, and once she survives this horrific encounter with the ghost of her father the movie kind of switches into mystery-solving mode with her boyfriend Michael trying to figure out what is going on. So basically her character goes from being rather passive to almost non-existent. The interesting thing here is that once she claims to have murdered her dead father the police get involved, even though there is no body or any evidence of an attack, but Detective Gatz (Eli Wallach) and his partner Detective Rizzo (Christopher Walken) have a history with Michael Lerman as his first wife committed suicide and his mistress died of an overdose. Gatz is sure that Lerman is dirty and though he failed to nail him for the previous deaths he hopes this stuff with Alison will give him another shot.
Unfortunately, this goes nowhere, we get a couple of scenes of them investigating but after they discover that the supposed tenants Alison claims to have seen are all dead murderers, and the body of a private investigator hired by Lerman turns up dead as well, they vanish from the movie. They aren’t even allowed to show up in the epilogue like Lieutenant Kinderman did in The Exorcist. Instead of delving into how law enforcement would deal with supernatural forces, the movie turns its focus on Lerman running his own investigation on the building and its inhabitants, and when he learns that the building is owned by the church he hires a safecracker to help him break in and rifle their files. It’s at this point the big reveal happens, apparently over the centuries a secret organization within the Catholic Church has been finding people who have attempted suicide and then they turn them into guardians of the Gates of Hell. That the Gate of Hell is in Brooklyn makes total sense, Trump Tower not having been built yet, and Alison Parker is to be Father Halliran’s replacement.
When Lerman tries to strangle Father Halliran, to save her from a fate worse than death, he is bludgeoned to death by Monsignor Franchino (Arthur Kennedy) who is the current Church agent behind the Sentinel program. What follows is a nice twist where a now-dead Lerman shows up with the legions of Hell because he was in fact responsible for the death of his wife, and I’m betting trying to strangle a blind and in-firmed priest is pretty high on the “Don’t Do List” of how to get into Heaven. Alison shows up, having slipped away from a party she was told to attend while her boyfriend went off investigating, and she is given the skinny on her new role by the now-dead and damned Lerman. She is then chased by Chazen, and his disturbing minions of Hell, until she is cornered up in the attic. It’s there in the attic that Chazen tries to convince her to commit suicide so that she can avoid the torment of being a Sentinel, but just then Monsignor Franchino and Father Halliran show up (was Halliran on a smoke break during all this?) and with the brandished cross they force back the cursed and the damned. Then like a mindless zombie, Alison takes her place in the Sentinel’s chair.
As horror movies go The Sentinel is not the cream of the crop, nor is it one of the countless dregs of the genre that followed in the wake of The Exorcist, but instead it kind of sits there as a novelty of the “Devil is Here” subset, and it is bolstered up by a cast of veteran actors as well as many up and coming stars; aside from those already mentioned this film includes the likes of José Ferrer, Martin Balsam, Jerry Orbach, William Hickey, Jeff Goldblum and an uncredited cameo by Richard Dreyfus. That’s one helluva cast for a horror movie and if the script had maybe a few more drafts this could have been a classic, but there are just too many abandoned threads and unanswered questions for the whole thing to hold together. Now I’m not the kind of person who has to have every “t” crossed and every “i” dotted but this film trots out tons of characters but then leaves most of them underdeveloped, and it waits till almost the very end of the movie to introduce us to the whole “Sentinel” mythology, which by that point we’ve long stopped carrying about Alison and her problems.
Then just when you thought the movie was over we get this idiotic stinger ending where the film jumps ahead several years, where the old apartment building has since been demolished and a new one has taken its place. Real estate agent Miss Logan is back at it with her finding of new residents as she gives two newcomers (played by Tom Berenger and future Deep Space Nine star Nana Visitor) a tour of their new home, obviously implying that one of them will become the new Sentinel.
But this raises one huge question, “What happened to the Gate of Hell between the time the original building was torn down and the construction of the new one?” Did the Vatican ring up the Devil and call a “Time Out” until they had it rebuilt? Was Alison allowed some vacation time during all this or did they give her a folding chair to sit in among the wreckage? A stinger ending should make you want to find out what happens next not make you wonder what the fuck just happened. That all said The Sentinel is a decent if flawed horror flick and is well worth checking out…but if Burgess Meredith shows up run!
The Sentinel (1977)
This is director Michael Winner’s only real horror film on his resume, and he was clearly not the ideal one for the job, but the cast is overall good and Burgess Meredith once again proves he is the king of playing those characters that are just “a little off” with a side order of danger.