I saw Michael Winner’s The Sentinel (1977) on its opening weekend as part of a day long bout of moviegoing. It was the first film of the day and I was frankly appalled by it, but it remains the only movie I remember from that outing (apart from a midnight show of Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend). More, The Sentinel was a movie I couldn’t quite shake. A week later I had bought the novel it was based on—and thought the film did the story better. It was slowly dawning on me that I had been less appalled than I had been disturbed by the film. Oh, the premise was nonsensical, but the sense of almost tangible evil that Winner generated seeped into your bones. I became a kind of secret Sentinel fan. (It’s always a bit tricky admitting you like Michael Winner in many circles.) By the time Justin Souther and I started doing the Thursday Horror Picture Show—three-and-a-half years ago or thereabouts—I decided we should try it on an audience. Amazingly, they loved it—which it to say they were creeped the hell out by it. (One young lady was heard to mutter to her companion during a genuinely tense scene, “Oh, I don’t like this,” which means it was working on her.) Now, it’s time to try it on a new audience…
Here is an expanded version of my review from 2010:
How any self-respecting horror film fan can not like a movie that works on the premise that the entrance to hell is in a Brooklyn apartment building is beyond me. When the movie in question is also nicely splattery, boasts Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo as an outrageous lesbian couple, and throws in a big-name cast in supporting roles—including horror veteran John Carradine—it should become downright irresistible. But that certainly wasn’t the case when Michael Winner’s The Sentinel first appeared in 1977. It was considered excessively gory and incredibly tasteless—two qualities we’ve since learned to appreciate. Truthfully, once you get past the screwy premise—and, yes, it’s a lulu of screwiness—The Sentinel is a solid horror movie with a suitably creepy atmosphere and at least one standout shock scene (which admittedly was a good deal more shocking in 1977).
The Brooklyn-apartment-house setting (the building itself appears to still exist) is a knockout in terms of atmosphere, and Winner’s screenplay does a good job of building the sense that something is very wrong about the place and its peculiar inhabitants. Unfortunately, his screenplay also contains its share of howlers in terms of dialogue, but it offers occasional compensation in the form of rich horror movie lines. Really, who can resist the shock cut to John Carradine (who could not possibly be where he is in reality) hammily announcing, “The entrance to hell!”? For that matter Chris Sarandon hissing, “I am one the Legion,” is pretty choice, too.
The setup has fashion model Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) deciding she needs a place of her own, since she’s not quite ready to marry lawyer boyfriend Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon). She finds—or was deliberately led to—the creepy apartment in question in the even creepier building in Brooklyn. The deal cut her by real-estate agent Miss Logan (Ava Gardner) is just too good to resist, so she takes the place and is immediately beset by strange neighbors who are unnerving to say the least. The exact nature of the building and her reason for being there become slowly obvious.(The film is structured in a quasi-mystery fashion, though you’re probably more likely to just go with it if you know the highly dubious premise. There are enough questions left unanswered as it is—like where does the “guardian at the gates of hell” stay while the building is being demolished and a new one built?)
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the film—apart from Winner’s uncanny ability to woo old pros like Ava Gardner, Burgess Meredith, Arthur Kennedy, Jose Ferrer, Eli Wallach etc. to fill the supporting roles—is that it’s so very much of a piece stylistically with the director’s best work from the 1960s. In particular, it calls on I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname (1967) with its TV commercial shoot that descends into chaos and the editing trick he pulls in a scene where Alison watches herself in a flashback fantasy. In fact, the fantasy sequence and a dream one probably owe much to that film. Considering the extreme differences in material, the film decisively settles the question of whether—for good or for bad—Michael Winner was an auteur.
None of this mattered at the time. The Sentinel—combined with the previous year’s Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood—was such a flop and so critically reviled that it pretty much marked the end of Winner’s big-budget Hollywood movie career. And that’s really too bad, because The Sentinel really is a darn good thriller—ultra stylish and unsettling—that has the misfortune of being housed in a story with a hard-to-swallow premise. (The Gil Melle score helps by adding a sound similar to his Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974) work.) Try it for yourself. It is certainly not the abomination that was claimed at the time—though one critic’s claim (I forget whose) that “Winner quirts gore across the screen for 90 minutes” is only slightly exaggerated. (Hearing some small child in the audience announce, “I want a hot dog, ” at one of the grossest moments in 1977 made it seem somehow worse.)
By the way, if you know the film from the TV print, you don’t know the film at all. Rarely has a TV print been so altered from the theatrical version. Not only are there the expected wholesale cuts (this is a very R-rated movie), but certain things have been added. Why? Apparently, broadcasters were afraid of giving offense to the Catholic Church. The film makes it clear that the whole business of dealing with the entrance to hell is in the hands of one of those super-secret Catholic groups that proliferate in popular fiction. To distance the TV print from that, voice-overs were added—in two places—to establish the fact that this is an ex-communicated faction that has broken away from the Church. To further muddle things, a few totally incomprehensible shots of a painting of Satan and a Satanic ring were lifted from a Night Gallery episode. Those wacky TV censors!
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screenThe Sentinel Thursday, Dec. 19, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.