Monday, October 17, 2011

The Sentinel (1977)

Title: The Sentinel (1977)

Director: Michael Winner

Cast: Chris Sarandon, Cristina Raines, Burgess Meredith, Eli Wallach, Ava Gardner, Jose Ferrer, Beverly D’Angelo, Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum


In Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (1981) the suicide of a priest causes the doors of hell to burst open. After that, ghosts/zombies are set loose upon the world and the undead begin to walk the streets, people barf up their innards and maggots fall from the sky. But that’s the Lucio Fulci version of the gates of hell opening. Now that I’ve seen Michael Winner’s The Sentinel, I can see where Fulci might have gotten the idea for his City of the Living Dead, in fact, I’m sure Fulci was inspired by The Sentinel. Both films have lots of similarities in terms of plot, images and situations. This wouldn’t surprise me, since Italians were particularly well known for ripping off American horror films and making lower budgeted versions of them.

 In The Sentinel, we meet Allison Parker a young model living and working in New York City. She’s thinking about marrying her fiancé, Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) but she still hasn’t given him the proverbial “yes”. Instead, she wants to find her own apartment and be an independent person; just to prove to herself that she can survive on her own in this big bad world. And find her own apartment she does; It’s in a beautiful building right smack in the middle of Brooklyn, New York. According to the landlady, Allison along with an old blind priest that lives in the fifth floor will be the only ones living in the apartment building. But is that the truth? Allison hears strange noises in the middle of the night and meets a bunch of weird neighbors. Could there be something more to this apartment building then meets the eye? And why is that blind priest always sitting by his apartment window staring at nothing?  

 So yeah, the similarities between this film and Fulci’s City of the Living Dead are pretty obvious. Girl moves into a new apartment, turns out it’s the gateway into hell. She starts seeing all manner of strange supernatural events. Suicide figures into the plot, as do blind girls. The only thing is that Fulci being Fulci, well he’s take on the “Gates of Hell” theme is way more graphic, and gory and over all, pretty freaking nasty. After all it’s not in every film you get to see a beautiful young girl barfing up her intestines. But such is the nature of a Fulci flick, always aiming to shock you. The Sentinel is a much more cerebral and moody film. It doesn’t aim for cheap shocks, or to gross you out with its graphic nature. Instead, it wants to creep you out with its atmosphere. The Sentinel is disturbing on a whole other level that City of the Living Dead (a.k.a. The Gates of Hell) isn’t. This difference between films with similar premise shows us just how much of a difference on a film a director can make. With these two films we have a similar premise, but two completely different films in terms of mood. Give a movie like this to Mr. Fulci and you get a maggot storm. Give it to Winner and you get human oddities as demons.

 If I had to compare The Sentinel to another horror film in terms of mood and atmosphere, it would be with Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the biggest influence on The Sentinel if you ask me. The Sentinel was made in the late 70’s the day and age of the supernatural horror film. Because of the resounding success of The Exorcist (1973), horror films dealing with the supernatural where the order of the day for Hollywood. So films like The Omen (1976), The Amityville Horror (1979) and The Changeling (1980) were getting made left and right. But in my opinion it was Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby that influenced The Sentinel the most. We have a female protagonist, who is not really right in her head. The film is all about a girl moving into a new apartment, in New York City. She is hounded by a bunch of weirdo neighbors, who may or may not have an evil purpose for her. No one is to be trusted, and just like in many Roman Polanski films, paranoia reigns supreme. The similarities with Rosemary’s Baby are all over the place with this film.

With it's evil old people, The Sentinel was obviously influenced by Rosemary's Baby!

Same as in many supernatural themed horror films, the Catholic Church is the one with all the answers and the powers to stop the evil. And yet again I notice how much these films are used to propagate the idea of Christian faith onto the masses. And once again this is a film in which an unbeliever is taught a lesson and made to pay for her sins. In one moment of The Sentinel the main character actually goes into a church to ask for forgiveness for having renounced Jesus Christ, you see, she’s been experiencing a lot of spooky shit and so she wants to be on Gods side, just in case. This is yet another film which brings Catholic fantasies to life. And a big fat fantasy it is, I mean the gates of hell are on the top floor of an apartment building in Brooklyn! The blind priest who lives in the top floor is supposed to be the guardian of these gates, unfortunately he doesn’t do a very good job at it because demons keep getting out and harassing poor Allison. Characters in this film talk about paying for their sins for all eternity and what not, so yeah, this one is all about Catholic guilt, and Catholic beliefs.

 But I will give this to The Sentinel, it does have some truly disturbing imagery in it. On this film, demons harass Allison, the dead visit her in the middle of the night and she has these weird dreams. And it’s the way that these undead entities are portrayed in the film that brings forth the disturbing and unsettling nature of The Sentinel. Director Michael Winner thought it would be a good idea to use real deformed people to portray the demons. So suddenly, whenever demons appear in the film we are treated to an avalanche of fat, old, deformed, handicapped, human beings.  This isn’t the first time that a film director uses human oddities for a horror film. Other examples of this can be found in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre (1989); actually, any Jodorowsky film can be mentioned here because that’s something Jodorowsky always relied on for his films: the use of human oddities to bring forth a feeling of unease. The use of human oddities on The Sentinel cause some controversy when the film was first released. Is this exploitative? Should it be allowed in films? Is it wrong to use these kind of people in films? Is it ethical?

 Sexuality is also used as a means to convey ‘evil’. For example, amongst some of Allison’s freaky neighbors there is a pair of lesbians. When Allison asks them what it is that they do for a living one of them replies “we fondle each other”. Then Beverly D’Angelo’s character begins to masturbate in front of Allison, in what is without a doubt one of the most awkward moments in the film. A lot of the ghosts appear naked through out the film; in fact, at the crux of the film is a scene in which Allison catches her father in an orgy! So sticking pretty close to Catholic beliefs, sexuality is demonized on this film.

 Finally, something has to be said about the films cast. It’s interesting that the film is filled with so many good actors in extremely small roles. Some of the cast members were not particularly well known at the time, but they were going to be. Bit parts in this film were performed by the likes of Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum and Beverly D’Angelo; all unknowns at the time. The film also has bit parts for famous old actors like Ava Gardner, Jose Ferrer and Burgess Meredith, by the way Burgess Meredith always plays these nice old dudes in his films. I mean, I always remember him as Rocky Balboa's father like figure 'Micky' from the Rocky movies, but on The Sentinel he is this weird old man, he was obviously going for something against the type of characters he was used to playing all the time. We also get Chris Sarandon playing Allison’s boyfriend, I mean, we have a star studded cast for this old school spooky film. And old school it is; The Sentinel has a classic vibe going for it, it is not a film that relies on visual effects or cheap looking ghosts, the emphasis on this one is mood and atmosphere. And I must say that it achieves a spooky, unsettling atmosphere quite effectively. With The Sentinel, you get the feeling that something is not quite right, that there is evil in the air. The Sentinel is one of these ultra-serious horror films from the 70’s; the kind of horror film they don’t make anymore.

Rating: 4 out of 5 


Manuel Marrero said...

Creepy movie. I got to admit this movie is one of the best horror movies ive seen, and i saw it for the first time a couple of years ago. They dont make them like this anymore.

Unknown said...

This is one crazy film but I really dig it. Christina Raines was also excellent in one of the segments for the little seen cult film NIGHTMARES. It always amazes me all the famous or soon-to-be famous folks in this film. Nice review!

Franco Macabro said...

Damn! I remember Nightmares from when I was a kid, I remember seeing that one in theaters in a double bill with Conan The Destroyer if you can believe it.

I wish I could re-watch it but last time I checked it wasnt out on dvd.

Christina Raines was a beauty, but she didnt make many feature films, she focused more on tv.

Unknown said...

Actually Anchor Bay released NIGHTMARES on DVD awhile ago but it quickly went out of print and is pretty hard to find now unless you're willing to spend some $$$. Hopefully, someone will re-release it one of these days.

I had forgotten that she had done a lot of TV. Too bad as she was so good in the few movies she did.

Franco Macabro said...

Agree, she was stunningly beautiful too. I'll wait for a re-release, a lot of companies are re-releasing a lot of 80's cult faves, just this weekend I bought VAMP and HOUSE, two old school 80's favorites. I'm hoping Nightmares gets released soon too, I remember it fondly. Especially the story with the evil satanic truck in the dessert, which kind of reminds me now of THE CAR. And of course, the story with Emilio Estevez and the video game, which is kind of like an evil version of TRON.

Phantom of Pulp said...

I'm a big fan of the film and Jeffrey Konvitz's novel. Thanks for your fine review.

I must recommend THE APOCALYPSE, Konvitz's outrageous sequel.

Franco Macabro said...

Hey Pulp, so the sequel is in novel form? I wonder where the story would go from there...must be interesting considering where the film leaves off...thanks for the info and thanks for commenting.

Anonymous said...

I'm watching the Sentinel now. The movie was recommended from another movie, the Burbs with Tom Hanks.

Funniest thing: Jeff Goldblum is dubbed with a different voice!!! Jeff is given a more masculine voice.


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