'The Sentinel': Of Pre-Internet Feline Birthday Parties and Masturbating Specters

In 1977 film critics couldn't write, "LOL, wut?" and pass it off as a legitimate review. (Because no Internet!) And we can't, either -- but that doesn't mean we won't try.

The Sentinel

Director: Michael Winner
Cast: Christopher Walken, Chris Sarandon, Jerry Orbach, Ava Gardner, Cristina Raines
Distributor: Scream Factory
Rated: R
US Release date: 2015-09-22

So, if you just read about this 1977 horror flick, The Sentinel (not to be confused with the Michael Douglas film of the same name that came out about a decade back, or your dad’s favorite newspaper), the one where a young model/actress moves into a spooky building in New York only to discover that said building is, quite naturally, a gateway to Hell (Well, OK! That’s not disclosed in the lease; it takes her a minute to figure that out!) you might think, “Hey, that sounds like Rosemary’s Baby!” and you might not be entirely wrong. Of course being derivative isn’t all that big a deal in the horror genre—heck, this is an industry built upon being derivative, although at rare times, originality is sometimes prized.

The '70s had its share of good horror flicks, including Amityville Horror, The Omen, Carrie and the like. In some ways this flick has elements of all the things that were supposed to make flicks from that era scary: Wafts of Satanism, hints of lapsed Catholicism, a dash of gosh-it-could-be-true, and a dose of glamor (make the main character important —like an actress or model/actress or politician or politician/lawyer). The Sentinel has all that, although it lacks the presence of an eerie child, substituting that instead for an apparently malevolent cat. (Hey! It was pre-Internet!)

The cast here is first-rate (although maybe no one realized how first-rate at the time): John Carradine, Jeff Goldblum, Ava Gardner, Beverly D’Angelo, Burgess Meredith, Christopher Walken, Jerry Orbach, and, yes, Tom Berenger. But not even actors this accomplished could save something so deranged from flying off the ever-loving rails in what amounts to a film that seems to have been pre-edited for television and maybe pre-edited for maximum stupidity.

Our model/actress, Alison Parker (the now-retired Cristina Raines) moves into the aforementioned apartment building and before long weird stuff starts happening. Alison’s a little off balance (she takes “little white pills”) to help keep her calm and so we have to wonder if she’s really seeing the stuff that’s going down or losing her mind. Problem is, she’s living in a mostly empty building but claims that she’s been invited to parties (The aforementioned cat’s birthday party in fact! Pre-Internet!), had to fend off unwanted attention from a creepy neighbor, and all that jazz.

Alison’s boyfriend, Michael (Chris Sarandon), is about as un-squeaky clean as you imagine him to be from the first scene, though it’s hard to get a fix on him or really much of anything here (except that Alison is awfully comfortable wandering, half-dressed, through a creepy building in the middle of the night; so comfortable that she can’t be bothered to fix the strap on her slip!) and that the film doesn’t make much sense. We’re not talking that there are holes in the plot (though, one supposes that there are), or that there are questions of believability (though one guesses that there are—even with belief suspended like the Golden Gate Bridge). Scenes come and go without any real regard to a coherent plot and you begin to wonder if you aren’t watching the edited for TV version or perhaps one edited by a group of primary school students let loose on the reels. It’s so clumsy and haphazard at times that it borders on being avant garde!

Characters act—or react—without rhyme or reason and we jump from scene to scene with the kind of freeform association unique to an acid trip. It would be mildly entertaining if you saw this on late night TV but to have to dedicate time to sit and watch the thing as though it were created as a real cinematic venture? Forgetaboutit.

Sure, the acting’s good in places. No one is as creepy as Sarandon when he’s on and Walken is always money and always Walken. No one can pull off a masturbation sequence quite like Beverly D’Angelo! (Pre-internet!) But, really, the longer this things rolls on the more that Roger Corman films—and we’re talking the worst of those, here—begin to seem like high art.

The best horror films should raise questions about morality, about ethics, about the culture. They’re about the intrusion of the past upon the present, about bad deeds gone unpunished, about karma, about revenge, about family, about the world and whatever level of hell it’s currently in; the best horror films raise as many questions as they provide screams; the best horror movies have plots that slice like a chef’s well-sharpened knife.

But not this one. Oh, no. It’s just bad. And dumb.

This current edition comes with audio commentary with writer/producer Jeffrey Konvitz, audio commentary with Raines, with writer/producer/director Michael Winner and an interview with assistant director Ralph S. Singleton. Naturally, we also get the theatrical trailer and still galleries. But the real bonus would be if someone would turn to the camera in the middle of this turkey and say, “J/K! LOL!” (Pre-Internet!)

No such luck.


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