Michael Winner, 1977
Starring: Cristina Raines, Chris Sarandon, Martin Balsam, Burgess Meredith, Beverly D’Angelo, Ava Gardner, José Ferrer
A beautiful, but troubled model is proposed to by her lawyer boyfriend, Michael, but she decides that she needs a little space before accepting. She moves into an old, but lovely brownstone in Brooklyn. Her neighbors are very odd, including a blind priest who sits by the window, an old man who throws a birthday party for his pet cat, and two “sisters” who are actually lesbians. Alison’s father dies and some of her neurotic history begins to return, including fainting spells, nightmares, and elements of PTSD. She later learns from her real estate agent that none of the people - except for the blind priest - live in the building and she apparently hallucinated the whole thing.
Her suicidal thoughts return as she learns that the apartment building is not what it seems and hallucinations begin to consume her life. After one particularly terrifying night, she thinks she killed her father, though he is already dead. She and Michael learn that a group of strange, excommunicated priests own the building. They believe that it is a gateway to Hell and a new guardian is needed...
Based on Jeffrey Konvitz’s novel of the same name, Konvitz and director Michael Winner co-wrote this late ‘70s occult film that will appeal to lovers of the weird and unexpected. Part of The Sentinel’s charm is that so many elements - even those that ultimately come across as unsuccessful or tasteless - are unexpected. The screenplay feels original, even though it obviously borrows from other ‘70s Satanic horror and the earlier Rosemary’s Baby. There are many scenes that are effectively creepy, including a believable and unsettling nightmare scene.
Director Michael Winner is probably best remembered for Charles Bronson revenge classic Death Wish, as well as Oliver Reed vehicle Hannibal Brooks, a prequel to The Innocents - The Nightcomers - starring Marlon Brando, etc. While the directing isn’t all that inspired and relies heavily on the zoom lens, there are some wonderful shots of New York in the ‘70s in the beginning of the film that move deeper and deeper into the increasingly claustrophobic apartment building.
Cristina Raines (The Duellists) stars as Alison and though I’ve heard some complaints that she gives a flat performance, I think she is convincing as the shallow, troubled Alison. Chris Sarandon (Princess Bride, Fright Night) seems out of place as her mustachioed lawyer boyfriend whose questionable past emerges throughout the film. He looks so dated that it’s difficult to look at him without laughing, but at least he doesn’t have to wear the kind of costumes that he would later in Fright Night.
There are dozens of cameos from now-famous actors like Martin Balsam, John Carradine, José Ferrer, Eli Wallach, Jerry Orbach, Christopher Walken, and Tom Berenger, among others. The most memorable is probably from Beverly D’Angelo (National Lampoons Christmas Vacation), who openly masturbates in front of Alison when she visits her neighbors for the first time. The lovely Ava Gardner plays Alison’s fashionable and elegant real estate agent and Burgess Meredith is great as her incredibly creepy neighbor. He becomes the ringleader of the tenants of the disturbing brownstone and adds a layer of the truly disturbing to the proceedings.
The Sentinel is far from perfect and suffers from a number of flaws, including an occasionally dragging pace. The film’s most surprising and offensive element is the conclusion, which introduces a number of physically deformed people as habitants of Hell. In poor taste to say the least, but it adds an element of exploitation that I can’t help but enjoy. Freaks it is not, however, and none of these actors or extras are presented with the least bit of empathy or understanding. While the entire film is steeped in a shallow obsession with the physical, centered on Alison’s unhealthy fixation on her appearance, it really culminates in the twisted conclusion.
The Sentinel is available on DVD and is definitely worth checking out, even if it is an acquired taste and has some questionable elements. Anyone who enjoys ‘70s occult horror will find plenty to enjoy and the ending is a must-see.