Perhaps the oldest good versus evil story is that of God and Satan, and the struggle between the two powers has made for some memorable cinema. The seventies alone saw the making of two classics of the horror genre, The Exorcist and The Omen, both of which deal with the fight between the Church and the Devil. In 1977, the year after the release of The Omen, action film director Michael Winner (Death Wish, The Mechanic) tried his hand at the age-old tale when he made The Sentinel.
The Sentinel stars Cristina Raines (“Flamingo Road”) as Alison Parker, a fashion model who, after surviving a suicide attempt, decides to move into an old apartment building on her own instead of marrying her lawyer boyfriend, Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandan from Fright Night and Child’s Play). Upon moving in, Alison meets her neighbor, the affable Charles Chazen (Rocky’s Burgess Meredith), who invites her to a birthday party for his cat, Jezebel. At the party, Alison meets the rest of her neighbors, a strange but friendly enough group who welcome her to the building. After hearing loud noises in the apartment directly upstairs from hers, Alison complains to the rental agent, Miss Logan (Ava Gardner from Earthquake). Miss Logan promptly tells her that the only residents of the building are Alison and an old priest who lives on the top floor, meaning that Chazen and the rest of her neighbors do not exist. As if this news wasn’t enough to get Alison to question her already shaky sanity, she begins to have visions of her dead father wandering through the hallways of the building. Through a little investigating, Michael discovers that the building is no normal apartment complex; it houses the gateway to Hell, and Alison has been chosen as its next guardian.
While it masks itself as a haunted house movie, The Sentinel quickly embraces the demonic doorway angle. Based on the novel by Jeffrey Konvitz (Silent Night, Bloody Night), the screenplay was written by Konvitz and Michael Winner. Winner knows a thing or two about suspense and mystery, and the narrative is a tense, inventive take on both ghost stories and satanic horror tales. Coming hot on the heels of The Omen, The Sentinel can be seen as the missing link between The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror; just religious enough for the audience to realize that the characters are dealing with more than mere spirits, but secular enough to not have the religious aspect crammed down the viewer’s throat. With its apartment building setting and cult of neighbors, The Sentinel also owes a clear debt of influence to Rosemary’s Baby as well. With a moral ambiguity that keeps the audience guessing, The Sentinel does a good job walking the line between good and evil.
For being made by an experienced director such as Michael Winner, The Sentinel is a technically flawed film. Winner and cinematographer Richard C. Kratina (Hair, The Great Santini) try to do too much with the camera work, using overactive zooms and unnecessary motion that distracts more than it adds. The photography is not done many favors by the editing of Bernard Gribble (Motel Hell) and Terry Rawlings (Blade Runner, Alien), either; the cuts are often jumpy and without rhythm, giving the film no sense of pacing or direction. The combination of overreaching camera work and whimsical editing give The Sentinel a cartoony feel which is unfortunate because, despite these shortcomings, the film is still very scary. With a little more care given to the technical aspects of the film, it could have been a potential pants-wetter.
The big reason for the effectiveness of The Sentinel is the casting. While Cristina Raines and Chris Sarandon are obviously the leads, there are tons of supporting roles that are expertly played. Of course, Burgess Meredith steals the picture, but character actors Martin Balsam (Psycho) and Eli Wallach (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) are both great as well. There are seemingly dozens of familiar faces in bit parts, too. John Carradine (House of Dracula) shows up as the blind priest on the top floor. A young Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter) plays a detective who seems to just follow Wallach’s character around for the whole film. Beverly D’Angelo (Vacation) has her first feature role as one of the ghostly neighbors, and is featured in what is probably the most anti-erotic masturbation scene ever shot. Attentive viewers will even recognize Jeff Goldblum (The Fly), Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws), and Tom Berenger (Platoon), among many others, in minor roles. For such an underrated film, The Sentinel is loaded with stars, both famous and just starting out.
Another interesting note about The Sentinel is Michael Winner’s inclusion of real deformed actors for the climax. Winner opted to not use prosthetic makeup to create his demons for the film, choosing to use circus performers instead. The effect is startlingly realistic, drawing obvious comparisons to Tod Browning’s controversial 1932 classic Freaks. Winner’s decision would also prove to be controversial, and the director took a lot of heat for what many saw as his exploitation of and insensitivity towards his actors. Nevertheless, the resulting scene is burned into the memory of anyone who has seen it, and remains one of the most unsettling segments of film in horror history.
Although often overlooked when viewed in the same light as The Exorcist, The Omen, and Rosemary’s Baby, The Sentinel is still a benchmark film in the canon of God versus Devil films. For those who are looking for something along the lines of those better-known films, The Sentinel is well worth the time and effort.