The Sentinel (1977)

In 1977, Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as President of the United States, Apple went into business, and punk rock became commercially widespread. It was a time of unpredictable change. Peter Finch, Joan Crawford, Groucho Marx, Bing Crosby, and Charlie Chaplin died. Jessica Chastain, Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Tom Hardy were born.

Though nobody could have known it, film, and Hollywood in particular, was at a crossroads. A decade earlier, the end of the Hayes Code and a sudden increase of creative control by a new generation of professionally-trained directors– many of them political and artistic radicals– had radically transformed the American cinema in terms of artistry, technique, critical acclaim, and (most importantly for the studios who funded them) box office revenues.

But in 1977, things were changing. Conventional wisdom among some older cinephiles has long held that the aforementioned outpouring of artistic integrity was steamrolled by the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg– men who embraced the Old Hollywood and (the horror) didn’t keep mistresses or drop acid! This attitude is often pushed forward by filmmakers like Peter Bogdanovich and Robert Altman, who were unable or unwilling to adapt to changing times, and perhaps misread why their own films had been popular. In reality, Lucas, Spielberg, and many filmmakers who made their debut in 1977 and soon after were part and parcel of the New Hollywood, and as a decade of experimentation steadily killed the novelty of sex and violence on American screens, and a nation bored of cynicism and despair yearned for new, unapologetic excitement, an industry answered.

the-sentinel-1977-movie-michael-winner-1-450x338

The Sentinel
Dir. Michael Winner
Premiered January 7, 1977

The 1970s, it is well-known, was a golden age for horror movies. The Sentinel is not proof of that.

Based on a book by Jeffrey Konvitz and adapted for the screen by Konvitz and Death Wish’s Michael Winner, The Sentinel was purely an attempt by Universal Studios to copy the success of other, better films. The middle-class New York setting, creepy home environment, and a sexually charged nightmare all recall Rosemary’s Baby; the showbiz protagonist and overbearing Catholic imagery The Exorcist. But with its aimless, meandering plot, zero-dimensional characters, hokey expository dialogue, and tragic waste of vintage cheesecake, The Sentinel is most reminiscent of 1967’s so-bad-it’s-good classic Valley of the Dolls.

If asked what The Sentinel was about, I would have no choice but to recount the entire plot, as it doesn’t really have a story. Model Allison (Christina Raines) is inexplicably wary of moving in with her boyfriend Michael (Chris Sarandon), and so moves into a converted brownstone owned by the Catholic Church. Her upstairs neighbor is a blind invalid priest (John Carradine) who shouldn’t be any bother. But things start to go sideways when she gets to meet her eccentric other neighbors (Burgess Meredith, Sylvia Miles, and Deborah Raffin), and police (Eli Wallach and Christopher Walken) get involved when Allison is convinced that she’s stabbed her perverted father’s ghost in her new home.

Determined to help his beloved, Michael begins sleuthing, and makes a series of horrifying discoveries: not only are all of Allison’s neighbors convicted murderers, they’ve all been dead for years, and only she can see them! What’s more, the priest living in the attic was just a stranger who assumed the identity of a priest after a suicide attempt. And he’s part of a long line of randos who’ve assumed the identity of a priest and moved into that attic, dating all the way back to the Archangel Gabriel. Why? Because, of course, the building is a gateway to hell, and these priests are needed, as “sentinels,” to keep evil from escaping into the rest of the world! And Allison’s next!

If that sounded needlessly complicated, and you find yourself what any of these things have to do with each other, you’re not wrong. The Sentinel is mindlessly convoluted and random, all plot, much of it seemingly cobbled from other films, with no actual story or theme. The characters exist solely to deliver exposition and move the plot, and even then the film can’t settle on a protagonist. Allison is the subject of the film, but most of the time it’s Michael who moves everything along. Both of them are blank slates, but at least they have really long, complicated backstories with no bearing on the plot, as if that will make up for their total lack of personality. And while the film is mostly good-looking, it abandons any semblance of class for a laughably shoddy, rushed climax.

Finally, The Sentinel has no theme, no stakes. What made Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen great is that their supernatural horror was rooted in real fears: the fear of losing one’s mind, of being unable to trust anyone, fear for one’s safety or the safety of your child. There’s nothing genuine to be found here. What would it be? The universal fear of demonic character actor roommates coming to life and annoying you? Of vaguely foreign-accented lesbians masturbating at you? Of awkward, stilted conversations with police? Of being transfigured and mutilated into a nun or priest? Of Ava Gardener (who plays Allison’s realtor)? Yeah, real relatable.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
No women own bras. A realtor assumes Michael is gay because he’s good-looking, in spite of his engagement to Allison. While Allison’s desire to get her own apartment before planning to marry Michael is purely a plot contrivance, I can’t help but feel a subtle attempt by the film to pass this off as a mangled understanding of second-wave feminism.

How Did It Do?
The Sentinel was a non-technical flop, earning $4 million against a $3.7 million budget. Many of the film’s minor actors (Jerry Orbach, Tom Berenger, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken) went on to have far better careers than the film’s stars. Michael Winner went back to making Death Wish movies and becoming an inexplicable punchline for British comedians. If someone can explain that, be my guest.

Reviews for the film were scathing at the time. Time Out decried the film’s allegedly backwards sexual politics, which modern, post-AIDS audiences likely won’t ascertain (I barely saw what they were talking about, and I went to film school). More recent reviews have been increasingly positive, with the film currently holding a 58% rating on RottenTomatoes, but many of those reviews seem to enjoy the film for its camp value, and I don’t find it quite bad enough to enjoy ironically.

If The Sentinel had any influence whatsoever on popular culture, it wasn’t enough to stop an unrelated 2006 thriller from taking its name, or a TV show, or the robots from X-Men.

Next Time: Stroszek

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