Written by: Jeffrey Konvitz and Michael Winner
Directed by: Michael Winner
Starring: Cristina Raines, Chris Sarandon, and Burgess Meredith
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďThe angel Uriel was stationed at the entrance to Eden to guard it from the devil. Since that time a long line of guardians... sentinels, have guarded the world against evil."
After most of the other major studios had already done their dance with the devil during the 60s and 70s, Universal decided to conjure up its own Satanic horrors in 1977. Like those studios before them, Universal turned to one of the eraís more respectable directors to elevate its schlock. Its choice was Michael Winner, who was quickly becoming no stranger to schlock, having directed Death Wish, a film that would eventually put him on a collision course with Cannon Films in the 1980s. Winner hadnít quite made it there yet in í77, as he found himself still within the cozy confines of an era that still valued auteurs; as such, it seems as though Universal allowed him to run wild with The Sentinel, a film that lands somewhere between the uber-schlock of the Italian variation on this theme and the more artful American films that inspired them.
Alison Parker (Cristina Young) is a successful but neurotic model and commercial actress; despite that success and her seemingly healthy relationship with attorney Michael Lerner (Chris Sarandon), she canít shake her traumatic childhood. When her father succumbs to cancer, those memories come rushing back and drive her further into neurosis. While she and Michael have lived together for over a year, she decides to seek out her own apartment, and her search yields her a massive apartment with a deal thatís too good to be true. Once she meets the odd neighbors (which include a catatonic priest who peers at her from the uppermost floor) and experiences a series of apparent hauntings, she begins to learn exactly why the place was such a steal.
One of the more unique offerings from the demonic horror cycle, The Sentinel doesnít actually confine itself to one sub-genre. Instead, it acts as more of a grab bag of 60s and 70s American and British obsessions that makes it the successor to everything from The Exorcist to The Devil Rides Out (Sarandon even vaguely reminds me of Christopher Lee from that film). One can see all of the elements from the big American Satanic trio here: the opening with some ominously intoning Vatican priests echoes The Exorcist and The Omen, while Winner returns the sub-genre to the suffocating confines of an apartment building, ŗ la Rosemaryís Baby. The director also successfully replicates the overbearingly ominous tones of those films as well; while its mystery is compelling, The Sentinel is fuelled by an otherworldly sinister feeling.
Despite Winnerís eventual reputation as a purveyor of junk and schlock, he accomplishes this with an old-school, pot-boiling approach that doesnít lean that much on overt gore and shocks. Thereís a general air of luridness: Alison recalls an episode involving her father in bed with a bevy of women (it was so shocking that it drove her to a suicide attempt), while her collection of bizarre neighbors includes a duo of lesbians, one of which (Beverly DíAngelo as youíve never seen her before!) isnít shy about masturbating right in front of her. The rest of the group is just as bizarre, especially Mr. Chazen (Burgess Meredith), an old man who is perhaps overly fond of his pets. In fact, he throws a party for his cat, which brings out even more weirdoes. Such peculiarity sets the stage for the more obviously spooky events, as The Sentinel also taps into the decadeís haunted house craze once the supernatural stuff truly begins to mount.
That the film remains compelling even before then is also a testament to the filmís crackling mystery. The screenplay, co-written by Winner and original author Jeffrey Konvitz, introduces a number of elements to play it up: not only is there a static, unmoving priest in Alisonís apartment, but Arthur Kennedy is also a vaguely threatening presence as another priest watching over him. In this respect, The Sentinel perverts the typical comfort of the cloth, as faith itself may be out to do harm to Allison rather than rescue her. Even worse, her lover Michael may also be suspicious, as the circumstances surrounding his wifeís death have drawn the attention of a pair of detectives (Eli Wallach and Christopher Walken). Between Winnerís bizarre imagery and the well-sketched script, The Sentinel represents top-shelf pulp storytelling, as it moves with a relentless sense of propulsion once things start coming into focus.
I especially donít want to sell Winnerís contributions short; while he never quite ascended to the heights of Polanski, Friedkin, or Donner, he was a very workmanlike director who wasnít afraid to get his hands dirty. The Sentinel is no exception to this, particularly when its director is truly engaged in its more memorable scenes, such as a possible murder and the filmís incredible climax, both of which feature exquisite makeup effects from Dick Smith. During the hellish finale, Smith also gets a hand from a host of extras with actual deformities, which is a source of controversy but undoubtedly adds to the delirious quality of the ending (think Freaks meets Rosemary). Even when Winner isnít engaging in the horrific highlights, he still manages the feeling of a waking nightmare throughout the film. He also gets a boost from one hell of a cast; in addition to the all-star list of names thatís already been mentioned, The Sentinel also features John Carradine, Ava Gardner, Deborah Raffin, Jerry Orbach, Jeff Goldblum, Martin Balsam, Mel Ferrer, and Sylvia Miles (even Tom Berenger and Nana Visitor pop up in extremely minor roles).
As a result, The Sentinel arguably boasts the most impressive cast of the big studio Satanic horrors; however, as a whole, itís not quite as masterful as iconic to make that group a quartet. Still, Winnerís effort rests comfortably just a notch below and is nearly every bit as entertaining as any of those films; this is sheer pulp done very well, and it illustrates how bonkers the 70s could be (itís difficult to imagine something like The Sentinel being made even a decade later, much less now). Universal doesnít seem to be terribly proud of its effort if the DVD is any indication; while the presentation is fine, itís a bare-bones release with the exception of the filmís trailer. As such, itís just as well to stream this one on Netflix (where itís currently available), but horror aficionados will probably want to secure a copy for their library. The Sentinel might not be as essential as its demonic brethren, but itís every bit as worthwhile for those who need to supplement that trio. Buy it!
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