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August 25, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #86 - The Sentinel

The Sentinel is a horror movie that kind of gets lost in the shuffle when mainstream folks talk about the horror of the 1970s, and I can't fathom a reason why.  Oh wait, yes I can.  It's because there are things in The Sentinel that can't be unseen.  Naked things. Old things. Naked, old things.  A young version of a beloved comic actress diddling herself in a frantic manner things.  Walk-ons by the likes of Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, Tom Berenger, and Richard Dreyfus that don't let them be kooky things.  Chris Sarandon's weird 'stache thing.
But when you get past all of those things - which does take a considerable effort - there's a lot of awesome to find in The Sentinel.  Cristina Raines stars as New York City fashion model Alison Parker, who isn't quite ready to marry Sarandon and his collection of magic posters and his 'stache, and thus decides to get an apartment of her own.  She finds just the place - a fully furbished pad with a city view and Ava Gardner as the landlord - with only one catch: there's an old blind priest who stares out the upstairs window day and night.
The place gets a little less attractive when Alison meets the neighbors, led by a charming cat and bird lover (played by lovable ol' Burgess Meredith) and a pair of odd ladies who like to fondle.  Worse, Alison soon starts to faint in public and have weird dreams...and then things really get interesting.
Death Wish director Michael Winner - the studio's second choice after the legendary Don Siegel - builds The Sentinel on a mystery that isn't too much of a mystery when you consider the film's title and not-so-cryptic Catholic opening.  But the journey to the final reveal - complete with Polanski-esque dream sequences and random zombie nude old people coming out of the woodwork - is kind of a crazy blast.  The gorgeous Raines is a fine paranoid lead (a positive parallel could certainly be drawn between her performance and the one Jessica Harper gave in Italy around the same time in Suspiria) and the many of the known actors around her do their best to surprise the viewer.
Of course, it's those surprising supporting performances that provide the moments that can't be unseen that I've already warned you about.  And they are probably the film's strongest legacy, because these unsettling moments give a lot of power to the film.  Though the film's story is strong on its own - like most '70s religio-horrors, The Sentinel comes from a book (by Winner's co-writer Jeffrey Konvitz) - but Winner's willingness to show the viewer things that most people don't want to see on screen is a testament to how much faith the writer and director had in the material.  Some scenes do come off as weird for weird's sake, but when the story reaches its tense conclusion it becomes pretty obvious that there was a reason behind the film's madness.
There are times when I feel like I'm overvaluing The Sentinel by saying it deserves to be mentioned alongside "The Unholy Trilogy" of Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen.  Winner's film doesn't have the flair that those films have, and there's something in the film's presentation that makes it a little less powerful when it reaches its boiling point.  Maybe it's all the awkward stuff, maybe it's the fact that there are a few lulls that take too much time fleshing out the mysteries of the building with Sarandon or the priests played by Jose Ferrer and Arthur Kennedy while Raines' excellent paranoiac is kept off screen.  Heck, maybe it's the fact that the coolest thing in the film just might be a birthday party for a cat.
I don't know what it is, and I'm done trying to think about it. The Sentinel is a fine tale of terror, and it doesn't need to match up to more famous films to be that.  There might be a better movie trapped inside The Sentinel, but the film's ability to make the heroine and the viewer feel a genuine unease is unmatched.  It takes a special talent to show some of the odd and disgusting things that make up the film, but it's most likely those things that have pushed the film into its slight cult status.  The Sentinel is certainly not for the masses - especially if they're absolutely opposed to naked old people and Beverly D'Angelo masturbating and Chris Sarandon's goofy lawyer 'stache - but the open minded horror fan (who hasn't just eaten a big meal) might find some real chills.
Just know that you'll see things that are even more awkward than this.



Andreas said...

I reviewed this last October, and I'm still pretty proud of that review, so I'll link to it here:

The tl;dr version: you hit the nail on the head. It's way sloppier and sillier than a lot of those '70s horror classics, but it's still very fun and very scary (and very star-studded). It'd make a good double feature with The Manitou, I think!

R.D. Penning said...

I'm pretty sure I just mentioned this in my most recent post. It didn't make my top ten religious themed movies, but it definitely was worth the honorable mention I gave it. Still some weird stuff going on.

The Mike said...

Nice write up, Andreas! Definitely agree that it's cool to have all the old stars in supporting roles. The weirdness makes it difficult to stomach, but the payoffs are worth some of it.

Russ, you may have inspired my revisit a little bit. :)

: said...

I really need to see this one. I've had a copy FOREVER, but for some reason I've never popped it into the player. Gotta remedy that soon, 'cause somewhere I saw a clip of an old man in the corner of the room and it was terrifying . . . .