October Nightmares #16: The Sentinel (1977)


To the general British public, the name Michael Winner likely conjures all sorts of negative imagery worthy of a horror movie itself. From his condescending "calm down, dear! It's only a commercial!" adverts for Esure, to his repugnant attitude to OBEs and toilet cleaners, there was something inherently dislikeable about the director. There is no denying, however, that the man could pull off an uncompromising thriller. With films like The Mechanic (1972) and Scorpio (1973), Winner established himself as master of smartly plotted physical spectacle. Like a contortionist playing hide and seek in a box factory. Death Wish (1974) was something of a departure for Winner with its graphic violence and misanthropy. Due to the film's success Winner became known as an action director, and his attempts to break into other genres routinely failed. One of his better attempts, however, was 1977's The Sentinel - a film about, as you can see, a model beating off naked old undead men. Or something like that.

Over the years, cinema has gotten a lot of mileage out of whole 'dream home turns out to be haunted or possessed' shtick. For many the most famous example is, of course, the purportedly real Amityvile Horror (1979) - which featured a colonial-style house about as welcoming as an inner city working man's pub. It's easy to see why this story template is so popular with filmmakers: a corrupted home serves as a deconstruction of our innate hopes and desires for a comfortable existence, and, as a result, the fear becomes just that much more palpable. However, there's a difference between a house that's merely tainted by a miasma of otherworldly evil, and a house that also happens to be the fucking gateway to Hell. The Hell-house plot is typical of Seventies horror  - with films of the era usually marked by exploitative excess, overuse of the occult, and trippy hallucinatory visuals.

The Sentinel is another movie in which the protagonist really should have read the fine print of their tenancy. Model Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) is looking to settle down in New York, but resists the urges of boyfriend Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) to move into an apartment together - instead wanting to find her own place. Ah, I get it. The seventies, feminism, rejection of male dependency; ingenious metaphor Mr Winner, have a gold fucking star. Eventually, she settles on a Gothic apartment building inhabited by a creepy blind priest (John Carradine). Despite lacking visual capabilities, this priest continually stares at Alison from atop the roof as though she's a TV made out of tits. But the rent is reasonable and the apartment is nice, so she doesn't mind too much. Feminism! The Sentinel seeks to emulate Rosemary Baby's (1968) style of urban horror, with Alison tormented by the choking claustrophobic confines of the apartment; suffering insomnia and nightmarish flashbacks to her suicide attempts.

And boy, through her flashbacks do we come realise why the woman is so damn neurotic. Imagining walking in on your crusty old father rolling around with a bevy of young prostitutes. You'd probably bust a nut like it's the final round of the school yard conker battling contest. Winner slowly builds the atmosphere, establishing Alison's insecurities and cruelly playing on them as the film progresses, and a host of creepy characters emerge from the woodwork. Initially Alison's neighbours seem, er, quirky, but otherwise amiable. But then things take a turn for the grotesque, and the hidden darkness of the apartment building comes to the forefront. Her leotard wearing lesbian neighbours (Beverly D'Angelo and Sylvia Miles) start off nice enough, only to try and coax her into a ménage á trois by masturbating in front of her with the ferocity of a plumber unblocking the toilet of the Bran Cereal Lovers' Institute.

Despite often being considered as something of a hack director, Winner does an admirable job of effectively building tension through scenery. The opening contrasts the spirituality and opulence of an Italian monastery with the majestic beauty of sweeping urban landscapes. In doing so, Winner allows the viewer to join Alison in the feeling of being overwhelmed by this bustling hub filled with opportunity while also hinting at something more beneath the surface. As the story progresses, and the focus changes to the apartment building, Winner makes good use of ornate Gothic ornamentation and shadowy corridors to create dread. The penultimate scene with the escaped hellions closing in on Alison is wonderfully done; with the camera centred and focused on the horde in order to heighten the feeling of being swarmed. For a man who couldn't be arsed to get engaged to Geraldine Lynton-Edwards until giving in sixty years later, Winner was capable of structuring a scene efficiently.
It's also surprising how many decent actors Winner roped into the film: Jeff Goldblum, Ava Gardner and Christopher Walken, to name just a few. Rocky Balboa's trainer (Burgess Meredith) even shows up as a proxy for Satan, trying to force Alison to kill herself. He plays the devil as though he were a slightly touchy-feely teacher straight out of a Goosebumps book.

I enjoyed The Sentinel for its blend gaudy Seventies occult horror verging on the exploitative, and tried and tested creaky haunted house tropes. The gratuitous sex and nudity scenes add to the surreal, Freudian atmosphere. And the use of actors with actual deformities to play the hideous demons furthers the sense of exploitation. There is even an unneeded depiction of an eye being sliced open. The Sentinel is by no means a great film - if it were a human, it'd be the smelly kid the cool kids refuse to play with. Plot threads are established and suddenly dropped like the hottest rap album of the year; for example, Eli Wallach's role as Detective Gatz, where he briefly investigates the mysterious death of Michael's wife before giving up. It's cheap, shoddily put together and acted, and ultimately disposable. But I appreciated the whole bureaucratic approach the church takes to appointing a new sentinel to guard the gate of hell. Instead of the usual bumblefuck of the day randomly stumbling into a dangerous situation, The Sentinel feels like mysterious forces are at work to bring Alison through the necessary steps so she can take the mantle in the film's climax. Sort of the twelve steps program for stopping the demonic domination of Earth.