Thursday, July 10, 2014

Throwback Thursday Review: 'THE SENTINEL' (1977)

RUN TIME- 92 Mins
WRITER(S)- Jeffrey Konvitz and Michael Winner
STARRING- Cristina Rains, Ava Gardner and Chris Sarandon
DIRECTOR- Michael Winner

Synopsis taken from IMDb
Not ready for marriage, a fashion model moves into an unbelievably nice Brooklyn Heights apartment, where scary occurrences turn into a much more frightening turn of events. 

 The 1970's took on a different approach to horror films then we do today. The early to mid 70's gave us films like The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Jaws. The entire decade is filled with great movies that have stood the test of time, and they achieved it by scaring their audiences. In the late 70's and early 80's is when comedy started sticking its head into the genre, but before that movies were more cruel in the sense that there was no comedic relief.

The paranormal film, The Sentinel, based off of the 1974 novel of the same title by author Jeffrey Konvitz, was released in 1977. Mind you, that's a whopping 11 years before I was even born, and it wouldn't be until almost two decades after it coming out that I'd see at and have my pants scared off. The Sentinel is the perfect film to use when describing the grittiness and rawness of 70's horror pictures. It's suspenseful, scary and has a great cast. This is the type of movie that sticks to your bones and doesn't leave you for a bit after viewing it.

The story starts with fashion model, Alison Parker (Christina Raines), moving into a new apartment. Instantly, she notices that the woman renting her the space is suspicious, and runs into strange neighbors like Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith)- an old nosy man who cherishes his cat and pet bird, and two intrusive lesbians Gerde (Sylvia Miles) and Sandra (Beverly D'Angelo). Not to mention, there's a blind priest sitting dead smack in the middle of the window on the very top floor.

I have a memory that's burned into my head involving Gerde and Sandra. I remember watching this as a child, and in the scene where Alison first meets them in their apartment, my dad made me turn my head. At the time I had no idea what was going on and why I couldn't watch it. As I got older I started to understand that it was due to the masturbation that happens that was the cause of me missing a piece of the film as a child. However, I think my dad made me look away to save an embarrassing moment between us from happening as much as it being inappropriate for me to view it at such an impressionable age.

What's impressive about movies like this are the characters. One of the things that makes older movies like this better than present day ones, is the depth of character involved in the storytelling. Who cares if there wasn't any fancy hi-tech CGI or groundbreaking Makeup FX? The story is very character based, and it's the ideal approach in putting real characters in spooky situations. When you focus on making the characters real and relative, you open the door to scare the audience. Nowadays everyone sugar coats their motion pictures in over-the-top computer effects and forget all about the character development.

We come to find out that Alison's boyfriend Michael (Chris Sarandon), who's a lawyer, is somewhat irritated that she would rather have her own place than live with him. We get back story when we find out that the reason Alison wants to live alone is because Michael's wife committed suicide upon revealing he was cheating on her. The guilt then drove Alison to attempt a second suicide on herself. The first attempt was when she was a teenager and walked in on her father having an orgy.

The on-screen chemistry is perfect between Rains and Sarandon! You can clearly see that they care for one another, but you can sense the wall between them. And while they have a few romantic scenes, there's others where the tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife. And they do all this through their acting and facial expressions. Their relationship seems very honest and realistic.

Things start to get weird when Alison finds out that her neighbors like Charles Chazen and the lesbian ballerinas are "non existent". Alison refuses to believe that she merely imagined their company, so she investigates a noise on an upper floor in her apartment building late at night. She encounters her long-dead father who attempts to attack her, but ultimately leading to her disfiguring him with a knife. After Michael and the police arrive, they discover that there's no evidence of said conflict. So, everyone including Alison's friends, chalk it up to her being under pressure and suffering from some sort of mental breakdown. What's compelling about this part in the storytelling is that although you know Alison is not lying, you can't help but see the point of view of everyone else, and agree that she sounds delusional.

Alison is under so much "pressure" that she can't film a commercial without passing out. Soon, Michael begins to believe his girlfriend for a moment and does some digging. He breaks into the church and finds hidden files on people who have attempted to commit suicide, and Allison's photo is in the folder right after Father Halliran (John Carradine), the old blind priest who sits in the top floor window.

Once revealing the news, Michael is killed. Now, when you're watching this, you know that whatever Michael read in the folders wasn't good, and with his death happening it left many questions. For me, it seemed for a bit that Michael was almost in on the weird happenings at the apartment building because he was so reluctant to believe Alison. Now, he finally digs his hands in and helps, and dies!

We find out that Michael's wife didn't commit suicide, he killed her. And because of that, he's damned and joins the ranks of Charles Chazen and the other "non existent" oddities occupying the building who are trying to drive Alison to commit suicide before she can take over Father Halliran's position as the Sentinel; a watcher and guardian who ensures the gates of hell don't spill into our world. One obtains the job of being a Sentinel by having tried to kill ones self in the past. Guarding the gates of hell redeems your soul from attempted suicides, and allows you entry into heaven. With a feeble and near dead Halliran helping Alison, she successfully takes her place as the new Sentinel.

This was a movie based in a time when religion was a big deal. Not that religion isn't popular today, it's just that movies of this caliber hit a little harder when it's targeted at believers in God and heaven. It's a very effective film that follows the novel very closely. The second book titled The Guardian, I found to be an even better read than The Sentinel, so it's a real shame that it never got made into a flick. You just don't get flicks like this today, and that's what makes movies like this become classics. There's not a lot of films that have ever scared me, but I'd rank The Sentinel on that list of the few that have. Despite outdated special effects, the still movie remains superior almost 30 years after its release.

BEST SCENE: Definitely gotta give it to Alison stabbing her father. Easily the scariest and most crap-your-pants moment in the film.

BEST QUOTE: This one goes to Michael at his end speech when he tells Alison, "You don't understand? I'm dead. I was killed a short while ago by Monsignor Franchino for trying to strangle Father Halliran. I'm damned to eternal hell for my sins. For having Brenner murder my wife so I can be with you. And for killing Brenner to tie up loose ends. I am one of the legion of the dead!



  1. Wow. Had heard of the film... didn't know what it really was. Sounds KILLER.

  2. It's one of my all-time favorites man. It's creepy down to your bones. You won't find another movie like it!


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