The Sentinel

Dir: Michael Winner, 1977. Starring: C. Raines, C. Sarandon, A. Gardner, J. Carradine, B. Meredith, S. Miles, B. D'Angelo. Horror.
The Sentinel

Philosophy, justice, and Catholic theology are blended to a pulp in this breathtaking example of 1970s horror. By the time the '80s rolled around, cinematic exploration with special effects was at its peak in terms of prosthetics and make-up. Several masters - mainly in Italy, America, and Japan - had reached new heights and dug up several techniques from the past that were introduced as early as the silent era. The Sentinel impressed me with both its story and its remarkable efforts to pull off a complicated film. It is an adaptation of Jeffrey Konvitz's novel, and during a Q&A he expressed some issues with it, as I'm sure is natural for a writer in his position. He did have a lot to do with the production and even co-wrote the script. Aside from certain things being changed for the film, it's safe to say that the other large issue he had was with the film's production, claiming that he would have wanted a different director and a slightly different cast. I'll get to why I disagree shortly.

I'm going to attempt to play down all the action in the plot because there is so much of it and to explain it all would be to give away the best parts. In the film we find Alison (Cristina Raines), a model who wants some space from her boyfriend Michael (Chris Sarandon) and seeks an apartment of her own. She finds a number of places and eventually settles on a well-furnished and roomy place in an old building. The landlady (Ava Gardner) seems more than eager to get her to move in, dropping the price from $600 to $400 in order to seal the deal. On top of the fact that she is not willing to settle, she has other troubles on her mind when she hears the news of her father's death. Her feelings for him are cold due to a shocking revelation about his character that caused her to practically denounce her Catholic faith as a teenager and led to her first attempt to commit suicide. In her building she finds two people who sort of symbolize other father figures. Seen facing from the highest window of the complex is Father Halliran (John Carradine), a blind, reclusive priest. The other is Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith), an overbearing old man who invites himself in on occasion and talks to his animals as if they were people.

Other tenants are not as harmless. There is a lesbian couple (Sylvia Miles, Beverly D'Angelo) who make her uncomfortable, along with several senile old folks who've lost the ability to make any sense. Nonetheless, she humors them and goes about her daily routines. Shortly after moving into her complex she starts having spells of dizziness, followed by nightmares and sleepless nights where she is woken up by loud noises coming from the unit above her. When she expresses her concerns to her landlady, about the noise and the tenants, she is informed that no one except her and the priest has lived in the building for years. Those around her become convinced that she's going crazy, and police are harassing her boyfriend because it isn’t the first time that one of his spouses has been driven to insanity and killed themselves. All of these events lead Alison back to the church. Michael begins to see some truth to what she is saying and tries to get to the bottom of it, using his shady lawyer tactics. What they discover is that both the church and the powers of hell are fighting to consume Alison for a horrific cause.

The most intriguing aspect of the film is how it makes lawyers and priests appear to be one in the same. While each are fighting for justice in terms of the ones they serve, they also carry a large burden. When a lawyer is defending a criminal, even if they are guilty, they must do so to the best of their ability. Likewise, no matter how horrible a confession, a priest must hold that secret and fight for that person's soul.

As I mentioned before, the writer had some issues with the cast, the first being the role of Michael. He wanted Martin Sheen to play the lead, but was denied the request because Sheen was said to not have any promise as a movie actor. Of course, his role in Apocalypse Now proved otherwise the following year. Knovitz also claimed that Sarandon was too "well-dressed" and that the man in the book was not someone you equate with being suave and having a "John Waters" stache. And yet there is a slimy characteristic to Michael that the actor pulled off quite well. He is a man with a dark past and plenty of corrupt clients, and therefore a smooth-talking fellow seems perfect to me.

The other fascinating thing about the movie was the use of make-up and special effects. Controversy was sparked when the director cast real carnival freaks to portray the dead who come up from hell. The violence is very realistic, and the sickly look of Alison throughout the film is superb. All of the techniques used here are ones which might seem outdated now, but must have been mind-blowing in '77. Konvitz also stated that he wanted a different director besides Winner, claiming that based off Deathwish and other films, he couldn’t direct actors. I disagree. The cast went above and beyond with these roles, especially Alison, and therefore I assume they were directed well. There are also a lot of cameos and brief appearances from actors who had not yet reached stardom, including Jeff Goldblum and Christopher Walken. I wish I could deeply explain all the awesome parts of this movie, but I just can't bring myself to spoil it. Based on concept and effort alone, it is now one of my top five horror films, and a very well-executed movie. I should also add that I am hardly ever scared by a film, but this one had me in a corner on occasion. Highly Recommended.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Oct 26, 2010 4:09pm
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