Saturday, July 21, 2012

Vital Viewing: The Sentinel (1977)

 Review by Marie Robinson

Greetings, horror lovers! I’m going to tell you all about a movie that if you haven’t seen, you must. It isn’t very well known among my generation, some people my age know only of the horror movies that rely on sound cues and jump-scares. They don’t know about the golden era of horror, the 1970’s, when the films were original and the scares were real.
This is a movie that can keep you up at night, cowering beneath your covers; a movie that can make you scream out loud not because of the deafening slam of piano keys, but by a figure walking out in complete silence. This is a movie that will make you cringe, giggle, gasp, and applaud by its end. This, my friends, is The Sentinel.

"What's up with the priest upstairs?"
Michael Winner directed this beloved film of mine, based on the novel by Jeffrey Konvitz, who lent his hand to write the script, as well. It stars the beautiful Cristina Raines as Alison Parker, a model with a tragic past who is looking to get a place of her own in Brooklyn. As she arrives to take a tour of an apartment building, the first thing she notices is a man staring out of the top window. The landlady tells her that it is just an old priest, who happens to gaze out of windows although he is blind.

Black and white cat, black and white cake!
Alison takes the apartment but of course all is not as it seems. The first turn-off is the cast of kooky neighbors, including an all too friendly old man who carries a yellow parakeet on his shoulder named Mortimer, and a cat named Jezebel in his arms. Then of course, there are the hospitable lesbians downstairs who insist on walking around in leotards. If that isn’t enough to make her uneasy, at night she is plagued by vivid nightmares, only to wake up to the sound of heavy footfalls in the empty apartment above her.

Her health begins to fail as well. Alison succumbs to frequent fainting spells, she becomes flighty and nervous. Things really take a turn for her sanity when one night she braves the hallways of the brownstone to seek out what is causing the noise night after night. What she finds is more horrifying than she could ever expect.

The beautiful Cristina Raines as Alison
Something is certainly not right with this place; something sinister resides there. Is poor Alison just the unlucky soul who happened upon this hellish place, or is there, perhaps, a reason she resides there?

“So, what’s so great about this movie, anyway?” You Sentinel virgins might well ask. The obvious answer is because it is awesome, but I guess I’ll go ahead and give you the specifics.
 First of all, it is from a time when horror films still valued a storyline. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of scares, a decent amount of blood, and a handful of 70’s boobs, but a solid storyline is what makes The Sentinel the masterpiece that it is.

The atmosphere is set more by the characters than the setting, for the apartment itself is gorgeous. I mean, that is why Alison picks it; a well-off model like herself isn’t going to go out and pick a cheap, spooky-ass flat. However, the beautiful brownstone undergoes a supernatural makeover when the sun goes down. That’s when the chandeliers start to swing and the specters come out.

The characters (and actors) are really what give the film its unique bizarreness. Okay, the guy who plays Alison’s boyfriend really, really sucks, but the rest of them do just a stellar job. Christina Raines perfectly captures the peculiar emotions one must have to go through in a situation like this.

Speaking of actors, near the end of the film a whole new cast of characters is introduced—a pack of demons—which happened to be portrayed by actual deformed people. Michael Winner caught some heat once this was discovered, but if you get over that little fact I think it definitely adds a quirk to this already weird film. You can’t deny that the scene when all the “demons” appear is terrifying, and is certainly something you will remember about the movie, especially after knowing the disturbing truth behind it.

The film surely has its moments, the climax being one of them, but the whole reason I first came to know of this film was because it was featured on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments (it was ranked at #46). The scene they featured was horrifying on its own, and I knew just from seeing the clip that I had to see the whole thing, and even though I’ve seen the film several times, that particular scene still gives me gooseflesh!


jmcozzoli said...

You have excellent taste. This movie's depiction of Hell's denizens by using people with real and nasty deformities still creeps me out.

You're right about the 1970s, there was a sense of discovery in horror's boundaries then. Today, meh, it's more a discovery of how many remakes and reimaginings they can dump on the audience.

Marie said...

I'm glad we agree, and thanks for reading!!

The Film Connoisseur said...

This was one of Chris Sarandon's first roles, also Christopher Walken does one of his first performances.

That scene with the ghost is pretty spooky, I liked how dark and scary that sequence is when she's all alone in the apartment and things start moving about.

Agree with you, the weird characters are what make give this one that weird vibe, like an unsettling feeling that something is just not quite right. A classic, I love how it relies on genuine scares done practically and not on special effects.

Marie said...

Exactly! Oh, yes, I meant to mention that about Christopher Walken! He looks so much the same and only has about two lines, but it made me laugh to see him. Also, Jeff Goldblum has a small speaking role as Alison's photographer!!

Al Bruno III said...

Great article.

I am quite fond of this movie myself.

Burgess Merideth does a great job in his role. One of my favorite takes on the part.

M Morgan said...

Good review. I love this movie.