The Sentinel (1977)

‘Believe it or not, I attended a birthday party here last night for a cat.’

A successful young fashion model with a troubled past takes a new apartment to get some perspective on a possible future with her long-term boyfriend. It’s not long, however, before she’s disturbed by strange noises in the night, weird dreams and the attentions of her new neighbours, who exhibit some decidedly odd behaviour…

Satan was big box office in Hollywood in the 1970s, particularly when his activities were transposed to a modern, urban setting. The trend had begun with Roman Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968) and continued primarily through movies made for television in the early 1970s. Then came the box-office juggernaut that was ‘The Exorcist’ (1973). Three years later, ‘The Omen’ (1976) was another smash and this dance with the devil from British director Michael Winner’s followed hard on its heels.

Young and beautiful Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) is the cover girl of her day, appearing in exclusive photoshoots from top fashion magazines and gracing prime time TV in shampoo commercials. On the surface, she’s living the American Dream, but a dark past contains a suicide attempt after breaking in on her elderly father cavorting with some naked prostitutes. Long term live-in boyfriend Michael (Chris Sarandon) wants marriage, but Raines needs some space to think things over. So she rents a big apartment in an exclusive building downtown and moves in. It looks like a steal, but when you’ve got a blind priest John Carradine staring out of the window of the flat on the top floor, it’s best to think twice before signing the lease agreement.

Things start going bump in the night pretty quickly, and that’s not all. Her neighbours are a rum bunch, to be sure. There’s the campy Burgess Meredith, who carries his cat around, and lesbian ballet fans Sylvia Miles and the wordless Beverley D’Angelo, who starts to masturbate in front of Raines as soon as Miles is out of the room. Later on, Meredith holds a birthday shindig for his cat, and Raines gets to meet some more of the residents, who act weird and start turning up in her dreams. When she complains to the local house agent about everything, she’s told that the building’s only other resident is Carradine. When she examines the other apartments with Sarandon, they are deserted and covered in dust.

Based on a novel by Jeffrey Konvitz, this occult mystery struggles to find a consistent tone and engage the audience. The story is very much a slow burn, without a great deal of action or incident, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but in Winner’s hands, the absence of tension and atmosphere is a serious problem. Raines and Sarandon have little chemistry together, and neither exhibits enough presence to overcome their underwritten characters. The script is credited as a collaboration between Konviotz and Winner, although Konvitz was unhappy with Winner’s involvement from the start and is not a fan of the finished film. It’s not hard to see why.

The main issue is Winner’s apparent determination to ‘gross out’ the audience. There is a memorable scene where Raines slices up what seems to be her dead father’s living corpse. It is quite shocking but comes so far out of left field and is so over the top that it’s borderline hilarious, which is obviously not the effect the director intended. However, it is worth pointing out that the film is over 40 years old. The contemporary audience was probably far more unfamiliar with such moments of sudden shock and gore than viewers today. Instead of carrying on along that line, however, the tale then seems to morph into a conspiracy thriller as Sarandon breaks into the offices of the local Catholic diocese, suspicious of their involvement with the building and a mysterious priest played by Arthur Kennedy. Then it’s on to the climax and the solution to the mystery, which is where things get very divisive.

In essence, the climax is just two of the characters shouting at each other in an attic, which is not very cinematic. Winner chose to deal with this problem by showing an army of demons rising from hell to surround the protagonists. Rather than employ practical makeup effects, the director decided to use real-life people with significant physical deformities. There was a precedent for this approach, of course, the most obvious example being Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’ (1932). Jack Cardiff had also employed it for his dreadful mash-up of horror and science-fiction ‘The Mutations’ (1974). However, the crucial difference between the 1932 film and its 1970s counterparts is that Browning portrayed his unusual cast as human beings, giving them dialogue and characters. They were the centre of the drama. Winner in particular merely uses them as window dressing, inviting the audience to gawk at them and be horrified, much in the way of carnival sideshows of a bygone age. Yes, I’m sure everyone was paid for their participation and took part through choice, but it still leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

Elsewhere, it’s an unusual case of ‘spot the famous face’ as the cast is stocked with stars of yesteryear and some whose day was yet to come. Apart from veterans Kennedy, Carradine and Miles, we get Ava Gardner renting out apartment space in New York, Jose Ferrer with a walk-on as one of Kennedy’s ecclesiastical colleagues and Martin Balsam in a pointless scene as an absent-minded academic. As well as D’Angelo, we get future stars Jeff Goldblum as a fashion photographer and Tom Berenger doing a bit of flat hunting and billed as ‘Man at the end.’ There’s also a combination of the two eras with veteran cop Eli Wallach partnered with a young Christopher Walken. The older detective is convinced that Sarandon had his wife pushed from a bridge, a potentially interesting subplot that is never really developed. Finally, there’s a curious ‘blink, and you’ll miss it’ cameo from Richard Dreyfuss hanging out on a street corner, probably waiting for his next call from Steven Spielberg.

Winner is poorly regarded as a filmmaker in his homeland of the United Kingdom. This critical and popular backlash was rooted in the seemingly endless run of sequels to his original hit ‘Death Wish’ (1974), although, of course, such a practice would not raise much of an eyebrow in these more franchise-friendly times. Later on, however, when the film offers began to dry up, he re-invented himself as a food critic, parlaying that into a career as a television personality. Unfortunately, his personal charms failed to win over the public, who disliked him thoroughly, something probably accentuated by his frequent appearances in tv commercials for an insurance company.

The director died in 2013, and his name has come up during recent revelations about the mistreatment of women in the film industry. By all accounts, Raines, in particular, clashed with him frequently during the production, as did several other cast and crew members. In addition, Konvitz has been very vocal about his dissatisfaction with Winner and the whole experience of making the film.

All of which commentary tends to colour opinion on the man’s films, but it does have to be acknowledged when in possession of a decent script; he could deliver an acceptable end product. However, those examples tend to reside in the earlier part of his career when perhaps he possessed less creative control over the process.

An acceptable 1970s horror experience if you can disregard its flaws.