In regards to his filmic output, director Michael Winner was wildly inconsistent at his worst and wholly divisive at his best (and vice versa). The remarkable thing is that those two extreme opinions can be about the same film; some find the kinetic sleaze of Death Wish (1974) powerful and disturbing, others find its ham-fisted social grazing problematic and off-putting. But it was a big hit, so naturally Universal let him ride the satanic tide with The Sentinel (1977), a Good vs. Evil, Portal to Hell potboiler that warms this Fulci-loving heart three years before Lucio even set foot in New Orleans.
Given a limited release in January stateside, The Sentinel barely broke even on its $4 million budget, and the critics hated it, deeming it lurid, reprehensible trash. Which it is; but it’s also ridiculously entertaining and has a few truly haunting moments. Turns out Winner could do horror—and yet would never return to it (besides ’84's Scream for Help), riding out his film career with a series of Death Wish sequels (I love 3, don’t @ me) before becoming a food critic for the remainder of his days. He was an unusual man, a peculiar talent, and for a brief moment, a fine purveyor of perverse horror.
Meet Alison (Cristina Raines – Nightmares), an in-demand model in New York with a clingy lawyer boyfriend, Michael (Chris Sarandon – Fright Night) who’s itching for them to move in together. Alison has commitment issues, however; as a girl she witnessed her father cavorting with two women, and overwhelmed with grief, tried to take her own life. So she rents an apartment in a not-creepy-at-all brownstone from Ava Gardner (Earthquake), and in short order meets some of the residents: there’s kindly old Charles (Burgess Meredith – Burnt Offerings) and his cat Jezebel, who welcomes Alison with open arms and a crooked smile; Gerda (Sylvia Miles – The Funhouse) and her girlfriend Sandra (Beverly D’Angelo – Vacation), who enjoy Alison’s company because apparently masturbation needs an audience; and Father Halliran (John Carradine – every movie made from 1930 to 1988), who watches out the top floor window with milk-toned eyes while clutching a crucifix. He doesn’t get out much.
Anyway, as much as Alison adores her new pad, things take several downturns in her life; blackouts, visits from her dead father, a secret Catholic sect who is very interested in her, and suspicions that point to her boyfriend as a murderer. Oh, and the brownstone happens to sit above a gateway to Hell. (I’m not sure if that’s covered in renters' insurance.) What does the Catholic Church want with Alison? Are the other tenants as friendly as they appear? If you die there, do you get your damage deposit back?
Make no mistake; The Sentinel is sleazy, demented, and crosses a line or two on the road to entertainment. However, it completely earns every frazzled frame of degradation because it commits to the material laid forth by Winner and co-screenwriter Jeffrey Konvitz (who wrote the novel upon which the film is based); Winner never shied away from the confrontational, and while he was not the most refined director, he always attacked a scene with tons of energy. And that’s why the horror genre works for him; vulgarity is not only welcomed, it’s embraced, and there’s a real sense of palpable danger in the more horrific moments. Alison’s late-night rendezvous with her father is terrifying, and the scenes with the tenants have a discombobulated feel, just left enough of normal to put the viewer at unease.
Of course, you’ll probably solve the puzzle long before Alison does, but you’ll receive no prize from me; The Sentinel is built to shock, not confound—the title alone holds most of the answers. The only element that bogs it down is the tired police procedural, but you have Eli Wallach (The Deep) and Christopher Walken (The Dead Zone) investigating, so it’s less painful than it has any right to be. Okay, maybe the fashion shoots are oh so Maybelline, but again, you have Jeff Goldblum (The Fly) and Jerry Orbach (Universal Soldier) to pull you through.
What is up with this cast anyway? I haven’t even mentioned Jose Ferrer, Martin Balsam, or Arthur Kennedy, and along with everyone else, The Sentinel looks like a landlocked Love Boat. But this was still the heyday of Hollywood looking for the next Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen; chasing that devil coin in the hopes of finding another phenomenon—of course every actor working wanted to ride that train. But as hard as they try (there are several fun performances here, and a few duff ones as well), it never left the station.
Why is that? I think it was just too weird and lurid for mainstream audiences at the time. The Exorcist championed the Church as saviors, and The Omen is pure, ghoulish popcorn fun made for the masses. Here, Winner simply doesn’t flinch; if you’re at all squeamish or uncomfortable, you will turn away before he cuts to the next scene. Having Dick Smith (The Exorcist) handling the effects only ups the eeriness, most effectively when paired with Albert Whitlock's (1982's The Thing) visual touch. Winner’s idea of mainstream is a birthday party for a kitty (“black and white cat, black and white cake!”) and D’Angelo pleasuring herself while Miles fondles her breast. I’m not saying I don’t appreciate his tact here, but Universal execs must have seen their bonus checks flying out the window at the time.
As for the elephant in the room: Winner hired several people with real deformities for the gripping finale as denizens of the underworld, and it is a blight on the movie; equating malformation with evil (whether that was the intention or not) is very sad and infuriating, and it’s the only misstep from Winner here—he was so close to making a perfectly tasteless film.
Pushing that aside (if you can), The Sentinel deserves a place on any horror lover’s shelf (make sure you file it in the "Satanic" section) as a primo ’70s oddity. As the saying goes: “May you get to Heaven a half hour before the Devil knows you’re dead, or at least before he finds out you put nails in the apartment walls without asking.” I think that’s how it goes. I’m not really good with sayings.
The Sentinel is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: BODY DOUBLE (1984)