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 (enhanced by Night Stalker composer Gil Melle’s dissonant score) and at least one standout shock scene (which admittedly was a good deal more shocking in 1977). The Brooklyn-apartment-house setting 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.
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.
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 probably owe much to that film.
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. Try it for yourself.
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.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Sentinel Thursday, Oct. 29, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville, hosted by Xpress movie critic Ken Hanke.