In the wake of “The Exorcist,” horror movies that had something to do with the demonic were all the rage. I guess there’s just an extra level of scary when you have old priests doing battle with the forces of hell… which, according to today’s film, lies on the other side of a wall in a New York apartment building. It’s 1977’s “The Sentinel.”
The film centers on Alison Parker (Christina Raines), a young model with a troubled past. It seems she has twice tried to commit suicide. Once when, as a teenager, she caught her wrinkly father fooling around with a couple of plus-sized naked women. She didn’t even think twice about it! Right after barging in she runs to the bathroom and slits her wrists! The second time came when the wife of her lawyer boyfriend, Michael (Chris Sarandon), discovered the affair and took a leap off a bridge. But, she’s got a successful career and has been living happily with Michael for some time now. Still she feels like she needs to get her own place.
Right about this time, her father passes away, stirring up old memories of the…well, you know. Upon returning to New York, she is more determined to find an apartment. She ends up renting a furnished place in a very old building. It’s beautiful. The only thing that seems strange is the deaf and blind priest who lives on the fifth floor, Father Halloran (John Carradine). He spends all his time sitting in front of the window, staring at nothing. Since the rent is only $400 a month (1977 people, remember) she takes it.
It doesn’t take long for Alison to meet some of the other tenants, and they are a strange bunch to say the least. There’s the eccentric goofball Mr. Chasen (Burgess Meredith) who likes to throw big birthday parties for his cat. Then there’s the two ladies that live downstairs, Gerde (Sylvia Miles) and Sandra (Beverly D’Angelo). Alison is a bit shocked when she learns that these two are lesbians…and even more shocked when Sandra reaches into her pants and starts pleasuring herself right in the middle of tea. But the strangest thing of all is the thumping and clanging noises Alison hears coming from the apartment above her…which she’s been told is vacant.
When Alison confronts the woman who rented her the apartment (Ava Gardner) about the noises she is surprised to learn that she and the strange priest upstairs are the only tenants of the building. She’s now officially freaked out! But it gets worse when one night she investigates the noises and finds a zombie-ish version of her father. In a real gross out moment, she stabs her undead father several times and runs out into the street, splattered with blood.
Now the police start to get interested, what with a young fashion model covered in blood screaming in the middle of the street and waking the neighbors. Two detectives (Eli Wallach and Christopher Walken) start investigating. They are even more interested in the case considering the connection to the lawyer boyfriend, Michael. They are sure that Michael was involved in his wife’s so-called suicide, and are anxious to finally nail him. Meanwhile, Michael starts his own investigation into the strange goings on while Allison begins to seek help by going back to her Catholic roots. The various investigators soon learn that the other tenants of the building are all reincarnated murderers and that the building is actually a gateway to hell. The priest upstairs serves as the guardian, to keep Satan’s forces from taking over the world. It seems that the time has come for a new “sentinel” and the church has got their eye on Allison.
The film is based on the 1974 novel by Jeffrey Konvitz, and I gotta admit, I thought it worked pretty well. Director Michael Winner does succeed in creating a great deal of suspense. The yucky scene where Alison encounters her zombie-dad does brings some shocks, but the film really doesn’t get all that scary until the climax. And scary it is. The horde of deformed minions of hell that chase down Alison as she runs through the building is definitely not for the squeamish.
The cast of the film is quite impressive. There are tons of “hey look it’s so-in-so” moments. Beyond the folks I’ve already mentioned, you also get brief appearances from Jose Ferrer, Martin Balsam, Jeff Goldblum, Jerry Orbach, William Hickey and Tom Berenger. But, as for the lead, I really liked Christina Raines. She brought a definite progression to her character…starting very sexy and confident, but then moving into very believable portrayals of fear and desperation. To put it simply, she makes a great scream queen.
The rest of the cast is also great! I loved Burgess Meredith’s turn as the creepy neighbor and Wallach & Walken (who barely has any dialogue) as the nosy detectives. The only player I didn’t really buy into as much was Chris Sarandon, coming off a bit too mechanical as the crooked lawyer.
I gotta give it credit, “The Sentinel” manages to be a scary film. Horror fans will eat it up…and as for everyone else, well don’t say I didn’t warn you.