The Sentinel (1977)
“There Must Forever Be A Guardian At The Gate From Hell…”
Director: Michael Winner
Cast: Cristina Raines, Ava Gardner, Chris Sarandon
Synopsis: Not ready for marriage, a fashion model moves into an unbelievably nice Brooklyn Heights apartment, where scary occurrences turn into a much more frightening turn of events.
There’s something of the Italian Giallo genre in The Sentinel, a rare foray into the horror genre for self-aggrandising British director Michael Winner. The way in which it seems keener to astonish the audience with striking visuals and occasional splashes of blood rather than deliver anything approaching a tight plot is reminiscent of the work of Argento. Winner was never a particularly disciplined director, and although he occasionally displayed flashes of talent and a desire (if not exactly the ability) to add a dash of flair to his pictures, his pictures — even the successful ones — haven’t aged well at all. Surprisingly, while The Sentinel could never be described as a good movie, it is unexpectedly entertaining even while it displays the typical flabbiness of a director having fun rather than trying to make anything of worth.
Sadly, one of The Sentinel’s biggest liabilities, which it never has a hope of overcoming, is its leading lady Cristina Raines’ lack of acting talent. She plays Alison Parker, a successful model who’s fighting shy of committing to marriage to her lawyer boyfriend Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon), with all the confidence of the junior member of a first-night Nativity play cast, and seems incapable of registering any kind of emotion other than a sort of low-key weariness. Alison decides she wants a place of her own for a year or so before settling down with Michael, and finds a bargain apartment in Brooklyn Heights. But, while the apartment is terrific, the neighbours are a different matter altogether. There’s Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith) a fey little man who holds a birthday party for his cat and walks around with a canary on his shoulder; a pair of aggressive lesbians (Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo), one of whom thinks nothing of masturbating in front of Alison when she pops around for a cup of coffee, and a reclusive blind priest (John Carradine) who spends all day sat in front of his apartment window.
One night, soon after moving in, Cristina is awoken by the sound of somebody noisily moving around in the supposedly vacant flat above hers. When she complains about it to the estate agent (Ava Gardner) who sold her the flat, she’s startled to hear that she and the priest are the only two tenants in the entire building. The next time she hears the nocturnal movements from above, Alison ventures upstairs without even bothering to don her dressing gown or fix the strap of her slinky nightie which has slipped from her shoulder, but is horrified to discover the zombie-like corpse of her recently deceased father and a pair of naked tarts, recreating a particularly traumatic experience from Alison’s pubescence which caused her to slit her wrists…
The plot is as bonkers as it sounds, but there’s a curious inventiveness to it that keeps you watching anyway, and some of the ghoulish make-up is terrific. And that cast, a mixture of old hands and pre-stardom names, has to be seen to be believed: In addition to Garner, Meredith and Carradine, the other old-timers include Eli Wallach, giving easily the best performance of the picture as a completely superfluous police detective, Martin Balsam as a professor apparently slipping quietly into senility, and Jose Ferrer and Arthur Kennedy as a pair of mysterious priests. The up-and-comers include Jeff Goldblum as a photographer, Christopher Walken as Wallach’s largely mute sidekick, Jerry Orbach as a long-suffering ad director, and Tom Berenger as a prospective buyer of the flat once occupied by the hapless Alison.
The movie has been criticised for employing deformed people to play demons from hell, but I can’t really see what the problem is. Nobody forced them to do it, in the same way that nobody forces young black men to play street gangsters, or swarthy men to play Middle-Eastern terrorists, and by all accounts they were well treated. And as for those saddos who condemn the film for associating lesbians with evil, well, their dreary opinions don’t justify space on these pages. As for Winner, well, you might not like his films — in fact the likelihood is that you don’t like his films — but you can’t fault the old boy for going ahead and doing his own thing. Had he attempted high art and failed he would have been ridiculed and derided, but he didn’t: he attempted to making shocking tat, and did a pretty good job of it.
(Reviewed 4th August 2013)