Film Review: The Sentinel (1977)

SYNOPSIS:

“A fashion model moves into a house inhabited (on the top floor) by a blind priest. She begins having strange physical problems, has trouble sleeping at night, and has some nasty flashbacks of her attempted suicide. She complains to the real estate agent of the noise caused by her strange neighbors, but finds out that the house is only occupied by the priest and herself, and ultimately discovers that she has been put in the house for a reason.” (courtesy IMDB)

REVIEW:

One of the oldest possession themes of all is the house or building possessed of evil, from The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James (1898) to The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959) to The Shining by Stephen King (1977). In fact the ‘Evil House’ has become so universal it was the subject of The Simpsons first segment of their very first Treehouse Of Horror episode, entitled Bad Dream House. The old New York brownstone seen in The Sentinel (1977) is one of these bad places: Ground floor – masturbating lesbian ballerinas; First floor – Burgess Meredith with a canary and a sinister twinkle in his eye; Second floor – the heroine’s dead father having sex with overweight prostitutes; Top floor – an old blind priest; and one very baffled but glamorous fashion model named Alison (Cristine Raines) who has just moved in and soon starts suffering migraines.

She becomes even more baffled when the real estate agent tells her that nobody else lives in the house, because she had just had dinner with a group of inhabitants who, we later learn, are all deceased murderers. It comes as no surprise to discover that the house is actually a gateway to Hell – an idea done better in Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (1981) – but script-wise it seems to be gilding the lily to have her learn that her boyfriend is also a murderer.

All ends well: Alison banishes the hordes of Hell and becomes a nun, the house’s new sentinel. In a particularly despicable piece of casting, the hordes are played by horribly deformed people and circus freaks. As to the morality of using real freaks in movies, students of such ethical questions could do worse than to study Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) in relation to The Sentinel and Brian DePalma’s Sisters (1972). The Sentinel, in which the freaks are used to symbolise a world of monstrous evil, is pure sadistic exploitation of the worst kind. Sisters, however, is arguably acceptable. Again, the freaks stand for the ‘abnormal’ but this time in a context where the film’s ‘normal’ heroine is being brought face-to-face with her own abnormality.

The one thing The Sentinel has going for it is the amazing supporting cast featuring many famous faces from Hollywood’s past and future. Are you ready? Here we go:

* Ava Gardner was contracted to MGM in 1941 and appeared small roles until The Killers (1946). She became one of Hollywood’s leading actresses, appearing in high-profile films from the fifties to the seventies, including The Hucksters (1947), Show Boat (1951), The Snows Of Kilimanjaro (1952), The Barefoot Contessa (1954), On The Beach (1959), Seven days In May (1964), The Night Of The Iguana (1964), Earthquake (1974) and The Cassandra Crossing (1976).

* Arthur Kennedy appeared in many notable films from the forties to the sixties, including High Sierra (1941), They Died With Their Boots On (1941), The Glass Menagerie (1950), Peyton Place (1957), Elmer Gantry (1960), Lawrence Of Arabia (1962) and Fantastic Voyage (1966), but is best remembered for his collaborations with director Anthony Mann and co-star James Stewart in Bend Of The River (1952) and The Man From Laramie (1955).

* Beverly D’Angelo made her film debut in The Sentinel, which almost ended her career before it started. Fortunately, a minor role in Annie Hall (1977) garnered her a number of hits, including Every Which Way But Loose (1978), Hair! (1979) and Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980). Her biggest break was National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) as wife Ellen Griswold and returned for at least three sequels and a short film. More recently she starred in the independent cult film Gamers The Movie (2006) and could be seen in the television series Entourage and Law & Order: SVU.

* Burgess Meredith, in the late seventies, enjoyed a resurgence in popularity being cast in major roles in films such as The Day Of The Locust (1975), The Hindenburg (1975), Rocky (1976), Burnt Offerings (1976), Foul Play (1978), Magic (1978), The Manitou (1978), Rocky II (1979), When Time Ran Out (1980) and Clash Of The Titans (1981).

* Chris Sarandon was married to actress Susan Sarandon from 1968 to 1979. Nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for his role as Leon in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), he is best known for playing the vampire in Fright Night (1985), Prince Humperdink in The Princess Bride (1987), the detective in Child’s Play (1988), as well as providing the speaking voice for Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

* Christopher Walken has appeared in more than a hundred films and television shows including Annie Hall (1977), The Deer Hunter (1978), The Dogs Of War (1980), Brainstorm (1983), The Dead Zone (1983), A View To A Kill (1985), Communion (1989), King Of New York (1990), Batman Returns (1992), True Romance (1993), Pulp Fiction (1994), The Prophecy trilogy (1995, 1998, 2000), Sleepy Hollow (1999), Joe Dirt (2001), Catch Me If You Can (2002), Wedding Crashers (2005), Click (2006) and Hairspray (2007), not to mention music videos by recording artists such as Madonna, Journey, Run DMC and Fatboy Slim. Along with The Sentinel, Walken’s films have grossed almost two billion dollars in the USA alone.

* Cristina Raines co-starred in the miniseries Centennial, a twenty-six hour epic depicting the history of Colorado, but is probably best known for her role as Lane Ballou in the eighties soap opera Flamingo Road. Other television credits include Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Kojak, Fantasy Island, Hotel, The Love Boat, Simon And Simon, Matt Houston, The Fall Guy, T.J. Hooker, Murder She Wrote, Riptide, Highway To Heaven and Moonlighting.

* Eli Wallach gained fame in the late fifties for his performance in Baby Doll (1956), for which he won a BAFTA award for Best Newcomer. His most famous film appearances include The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Good The Bad And The Ugly (1966), The Godfather Part III (1990) and The Holiday (2006), and has remained active well into his nineties, with roles in recent films such as The Ghost Writer (2010) and Wall Street II Money Never Sleeps (2010).

* Jeff Goldblum began his Hollywood career in Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974) and found success in both mainstream and genre films, including Thank God It’s Friday (1978), Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978), The Big Chill (1983), Buckaroo Banzai (1984), Into The Night (1985), The Fly (1986), Jurassic Park (1993), Independence Day (1996), The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004), and more recently could be seen on television as Detective Nichols in Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

* Jerry Orbach was well known for his starring role as Detective Briscoe in Law & Order and as the voice of Lumière in the Disney animated musical Beauty And The Beast (1991), but was better known for his stage work. Prominent roles included El Gallo in The Fantasticks (the longest-running stage musical play in history), Chuck Baxter in the original production of Promises Promises (for which he won a Tony award), Julian Marsh in Forty-Second Street, and Billy Flynn in the original production of Chicago.

* John Carradine appeared in over three hundred films with titles as diverse as The Invisible Man (1933), The Bride Of Frankenstein (1935), House Of Frankenstein (1944) Sex Kittens Go To College (1960) and Billy The Kid Versus Dracula (1966). Offspring include talented sons David, Keith and Robert, as well as grand-daughter Martha Plimpton.

* José Ferrer was married to singer Rosemary Clooney (George Clooney’s aunt), and the couple had five children, including actor Miguel Ferrer and Gabriel Ferrer, who married singer Debby Boone, daughter of Pat Boone. Films include Miss Sadie Thompson (1953), The Caine Mutiny (1954), Deep In My Heart (1954), Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Ship Of Fools (1965), A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), To Be Or Not To Be (1983), and Dune (1984). He often bemoaned the lack of good character parts for aging stars, but readily admitted that he took on films such as in The Sentinel mostly for the money.

* Martin Balsam appeared in many television drama series, including The Twilight Zone, The Eleventh Hour, Breaking Point, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Fugitive and, in 1973, played the original Doctor Rudy Wells in the pilot episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. Balsam appeared in such films as On The Waterfront (1954), Twelve Angry Men (1957), Psycho (1960), Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961), The Carpetbaggers (1964), Seven Days In May (1964), The Anderson Tapes (1971), Catch-22 (1970), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), Little Big Man (1970), The Taking Of Pelham 123 (1974), All The President’s Men (1976), The Delta Force (1986) and, along with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, appeared in both versions of Cape Fear (1962, 1991).

* Nana Visitor is best known for her television work playing Kira Nerys in Star Trek Deep Space Nine, and Jean Ritter in Wildfire. Other television appearances include Dark Angel, Battlestar Galactica, Family Guy, Star Trek Enterprise and Torchwood. Her most prominent film roles include Pamela Voorhees in Friday The 13th (2009) and the real estate agent in The Resident (2011).

* Tom Berenger is probably best known for his roles in The Big Chill (1983), Someone To Watch Over Me (1987), Major League (1989), Born On The Fourth Of July (1989), Shattered (1991), Sliver (1993), Gettysburg (1993), the Sniper franchise (1993, 2002, 2004), Chasers (1994), and was nominated for an Oscar for his role in Platoon (1986). His most notable television appearance was in Cheers as Rebecca’s love interest, for which he was nominated for an Emmy award, and starred in the miniseries version of Stephen King’s Nightmares And Dreamscapes.

Whew! I just love lists! Anyway, The Sentinel is an abject lesson in how not to make an exploitation film. Scene after scene is cynically set up purely to manipulate the sado-voyeurism of the audience but, because the story is wildly incoherent, nobody cared and the movie (which had a then-huge budget of US$3.7 million) flopped at the box-office. There is more to fantastic horror than a series of arbitrary chills, and the film indeed displays leaden literal-mindedness, not untypical of director Michael Winner‘s work before or since. And it’s with that thought in mind that I’ll ask you to please join me next week when I shall discuss another celluloid stinker for Horror News. Until then, good night and remember, as my old friend Bela Lugosi would say, “Bevare! Bevare of the big, green dragon that sits on your doorstep – and the gifts it leaves on your lawn.” Toodles!

The Sentinel (1977)

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About Nigel Honeybone

Wee Willie"Nigel Honeybone's debut was as Hamlet's dead father, portraying him as a tall posh skeleton. This triumph was followed in Richard III, as the remains of a young prince which he interpreted as a tall posh skeleton. He began attracting starring roles. Henry VIII was scaled down to suit Honeybone's very personalised view of this famous king. Honeybone suggested that perhaps he really was quite skeletal, quite tall, and quite posh. MacBeth, Shylock and Othello followed, all played as tall, skeletal and posh, respectively. Considering his reputation for playing tall English skeletons, many believed that the real Honeybone inside to be something very different, like a squat hunchback perhaps. Interestingly enough, Honeybone did once play a squat hunchback, but it was as a tall posh skeleton. But he was propelled into the film world when, in Psycho (1960), he wore women's clothing for the very first time. The seed of an idea was planted and, after working with director Ed Wood for five years, he realised the unlimited possibilities of tall posh skeletons who dressed in women's clothing. He went on to wear women's clothing in thirteen major motion pictures, including the Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Star Wars (1977), heartbreaking as the remains of Aunt Beru. With the onslaught of special effects came the demise of real actors in these sorts of roles. After modeling for CGI skeletons in Total Recall (1990) and Toys (1992), the only possible step forward for a tall posh skeleton was television, imparting his knowledge and expertise of the arts. As well as writing for the world's best genre news website HORROR NEWS, Nigel Honeybone is currently signed to star in a new series for television presenting the finest examples of B-grade horror. THE SCHLOCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is seen on Friday nights at 10.30pm on TVS Television Sydney, and where ever good Youtube downloads are available." (Fantales candy wrapper circa 2007)

4 Responses to Film Review: The Sentinel (1977)

  1. Victor De Leon says:

    Awesome write up. I watched The Sentinel recently and was bored out of my mind.

  2. The Black Saint says:

    I cannot disagree more with this (Otherwise awesome) review. I have always thought that “The Sentinel” was one of the more effective shockers of the 70’s, I daresay one of the more seminal horror films of the 70’s actually. It is creepy, ominous & suitably gruesome with legitimately bone chilling scares within it’s running time. It’s stellar cast is testament to it’s pedigree except for Ms. Raines who reminded me of a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car more than anything else. But since she was the rookie among the high powered cast I guess that can be forgiven (If not forgotten). I will agree with you over the use of real deformed people as the denizens of hell though. Hardly necessary & demeanong, I remember a large ruckus being brought up over that unfortunate bit of casting when the film was in production/released. But otherwise I think “The Sentinel” stands as one of the more memorable horror films of the 70’s.

    • Hello, good evening and thank you for reading, and for your very kind comments. Admittedly, The Sentinel does get some stuff right – A nightmare sequence is incredibly realistic, in that it actually feels like (and is even presented as) a dream, not some ultra-real nonsense that is revealed to be a dream, something that annoys me more every time it is used. And even if the cast is too large, the novelty value of seeing so many folks looking so young keeps it feeling short; I actually thought the film was less than 80 minutes. Time goes by fast when you’re being distracted by a still young and fully naked Beverly D’Angelo. Arguably, the sprawling cast is also the film’s biggest flaw. By constantly introducing new characters, the actual story gets a bit lost.

  3. The Black Saint says:

    Oopsie! I meant to say “Demeaning”. My apologies.

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