The success of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 ushered in a slew of religious based horror features continuing into the 1970s. Polanski’s story wasn’t necessarily a catalyst, but it certainly indicated a trend that, coupled with the Helter Skelter killings, Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation, and the end of the Vietnam War cemented a time of instability and fear, where religion was too often an instigator than a help aid. Michael Winner’s 1977 film The Sentinel holds many similarities to the works of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby with its adaptation from a novel and emphasis on Catholicism, and while its story leaves something to be desired, it certainly showed the fears of the old world of Catholic teachings (coming hot on the heels of Vatican II the next year), and the horrors awaiting in Hell.
Alison Parker (Cristina Rains) is a model uninterested in marrying her boyfriend (Chris Sarandon). She finds a beautifully furnished apartment in New York for the right price and moves in. But when strange things start happening Alison’s already damaged mental state threatens to collapse for good.
Best regarded for his work on the Death Wish series, director and screenwriter Michael Winner creates an air of unease permeating throughout The Sentinel. Despite taking place in the bustling city of New York – and following a model, no less – the lack of people aids in perpetuating Alison’s isolation. Her social circle consists of her boyfriend, Michael and her best friend Jenny (Deborah Raffin), in private. Her public life is equally lonely. Despite the amount of photographers and people during Alison’s modeling shoots, their interactions are highly choreographed and end when the jobs conclude.
Alison’s intentions for even seeking out the apartment hearken back to the increasing prominence of the Women’s Rights movement. Alison refuses to marry Michael and seeks her own space. Although we’re never given any indication, the fact that Michael is being investigated over the death of his wife, certainly casts a pall on their relationship. Alison’s newfound independence comes with its comeuppance, although Winner’s script seems more content at tormenting Alison for attempting suicide than anything related to her gender (but the adultery doesn’t help).
There’s a chicken or egg question within The Sentinel, one we’re never privy to an answer regarding whether the first suicide attempt Alison commits puts her on a downward spiral of meeting Michael or not. We’re told the death of Michael’s wife led to a second suicide attempt but we never see it. If anything, the emphasis is on Alison’s first suicide attempt which is macabre and never properly contexualized. Alison (dressed up like the oldest Catholic school girl) arrives home to discover her elderly father engaging in a little extracurricular sextivites. Her shock, rightfully earned, causes her father to slap her and take out some type of anger towards her wearing a cross. Hence, Alison tries to kill herself.
The above exchange is just one of many instances where Winner relies on shock value instead of providing background. Considering Alison’s father dies during her apartment search, and hasn’t aged a day from the flashback, there’s zero sense of time, nor is there a proper reason for Alison’s suicide attempt. Yes, walking in on your father cheating on your mother is shocking, but the lack of anything outside of that leads the audience to believe Alison is either incredibly impulsive or already emotionally disturbed.
It’s easy ignoring the narrative history once Alison buys the apartment. Much like Rosemary’s Baby, getting an apartment in New York for a steal always equals Hell, in one form or another. The A-list cast – if this were a 1950s movie – lends Rains’ neophyte acting a much needed boost. Ava Gardner, still glamorous, plays the realtor with more knowledge than she reveals. It’s a thankless role for one of the studio era’s most stunning stars. John Carradine and Eli Wallach are also present in small roles.
The scene stealer, though, is Burgess Meredith as Alison’s neighbor, Charles Chazen. In fact, all the denizens of the apartment are sufficiently disturbing and it’s frustrating the script doesn’t spend more time with them and their history. Meredith’s Chazen kills the audience (and Alison) with kindness, arriving with his cat – appropriately named Jezebel. His attempts to befriend Alison aren’t immediately suspect, but there’s a reason Meredith was one of the most popular stars to step into The Twilight Zone. Meredith’s meek and mild routine makes his charming and adorable, but when the scares show up, particularly in the third act, it’s frightening in how ebullient about it he is.
The rest of the apartment’s characters, including a young, mute Beverly D’Angelo are all disturbing in terms of how socially inappropriate they are. Alison’s repulsion to them isn’t unlike how an average person would feel if someone started touching on themselves in front of you. However, the script never deigns to give us any information on how scared Alison should be of these people. One is revealed to be a murderess, while the others are vaguely called killers.
And that leads to the big reveal about the house and its connections to Hell. As a lapsed Catholic, the entry to Hell certainly looks more beautiful than I’d imagine. The horror is meant to be best conveyed to true believers, but Winner has a series of real people with disabilities show up as the residents of Hell, corralled by Chazen. Here’s where the film ultimately fails to do much with its endgame. The various apartment residents are called “devils,” but I find it hard believing that a couple of murderers, one who just killed her lover and his wife, constitute devils. I mean, are we saying the worst hell has to offer is a couple killers who maybe offed one or two people? Nothing on par with Manson, Hitler, and the like? Furthermore, the use of disabled people certainly shocks those who aren’t disabled, but it’s titillation via human “oddity.” The scares are far more effective when they’re limited to playing on Alison’s fears, like the creepy ghost of her father that crops up from time to time.
Scream Factory’s latest Blu-ray release looks gorgeous but the best elements are the three audio commentaries included. I don’t often listen to audio commentaries, but since I’ve watched this films numerous times I gave two out of the three a listen. The commentary with Winner is especially revealing as it seems this was a very contentious film set. Winner doesn’t shy away from commenting on everyone’s acting, or lack thereof. He particularly hated working with Chris Sarandon – who does become the film’s unintentional lead despite all the horrible things happening to Alison. Playing as a companion is Cristina Raines’ commentary where she mentions having a horrible time making this film, particularly dealing with the way Winner directed. It’s not often you get such candid commentaries, and these are great for fans, as well as for those wondering why things feel so wobbly.
The Sentinel is a film whose flaws are numerous and varied, and yet the tone always wins out for me. The scares play on fears of loneliness, letting one’s mind wander in the night when they’re alone. Winner certainly makes the film look gorgeous and there are snippets of fascinating ideas making themselves known. If you’re going to watch any version, Scream Factory’s latest is a must.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.