“Spook Show 2019 – 06: The Sentinel (1977)” by Richard F. Yates

in reviews •  last month  (edited)

For today’s Spook Show review, I thought I’d look at a somewhat less-well-known film, which I think deserves a bit more attention. I purchased the movie as part of a three pack of films, along with the ALMOST so-bad-it’s-good, Sssssss (1973), starring Dirk Benedict (who many folks will remember from his roles in The A-Team and the original TV version of Battlestar Galactica); and the actually quite good and beautifully filmed The Legacy (1978), starring Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott---which I’m not going to say much about because I want to cover it in a future Spook Show review! Instead, today’s film is a depraved, star-studded little ditty called The Sentinel!

the sentinel (1977) - (peg).jpg
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual DVD that I watched. The image is included for review purposes only!]

Rosemary’s Baby, about a woman who is impregnated by the Devil, was released in 1968. The Exorcist, about a little girl who is possessed by a demon and can only be saved by an aging Catholic priest, came out in 1973. And The Omen, about a little boy who is actually the Anti-Christ, was released in 1976. All of these movies did very well at the box office, and they all focus, in one way or another, on the continuing battle between the forces of Heaven and the creatures of Hell---often with unwitting and/or unwilling humans becoming the BATTLEGROUNDS where this war plays out.

Into this fertile field comes The Sentinel, directed by Michael Winner and based on a novel by Jeffrey Konvitz (which I’ve never read.) The movie stars Christina Raines (she’s listed as “Cristina” Raines on IMDB, but my DVD says she’s “Christina”) as a fairly successful model in New York, named Alison, who is dating an ambitious lawyer, Michael, played by Chris Sarandon, who wants to marry her…although she’s not in a hurry to get hitched. Shortly after the movie begins, Alison’s father dies, and we learn, in a flashback, that he was not a very nice person---as Alison remembers catching her father in a Caligula-esque scene of decadence, lust, and debauchery. (Themes that are frequently revisited in this movie.) When he is caught, Alison’s father beats her, and she runs off to the bathroom and tries to do herself in with a razor…

Back in the present, Alison decides that she wants to try living on her own for a while before committing to Michael, and she eventually finds a reasonably priced apartment---that just happens to have a creepy, blind priest living on the top floor who stares, unseeing, out the window, night and day. The priest is played by John Carradine---who horror enthusiasts will know from about a hundred low budget classics. Carradine is a legend, who even played the titular vampire in the schlock masterpiece Dracula vs. Billy the Kid!!! He’s a bit more subdued in this role, though.

Speaking of guest stars---although most of them weren’t exactly STARS at the time (either being over or UNDER the hill)---this movie is jam packed with Hollywood luminaries: Burgess Meredith, Jeff Goldblum, Beverly D’Angelo, Christopher Walken, Ava Gardner, Sylvia Miles, Eli Wallach, Jose Ferrer, as well as the aforementioned Sarandon and Carradine, although to be fair, most of these characters have cameo appearances, at best. (Though not Burgess Meredith---but we’ll get to his character in a few moments.)

Having moved into this new apartment, Alison settles in, but starts having headaches and nightmares, and even has an attack that is so bad she collapses during a photo shoot. She goes to the doctor, but they can’t find anything wrong and prescribe some pills for her to take to help calm her nerves. Meanwhile, she begins meeting some of the neighbors in her building, including two women on the first floor who are a bit overly comfortable with public displays of affection, and a talkative and very funny older gentleman, played by Burgess Meredith, who lives on the floor above hers. Meredith’s character is reminiscent of the fantastically entertaining “neighbor” (played by Ruth Gordon) to Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. Alison even attends a birthday party for Meredith’s cat, Jezebel, at one point, where she meets a very strange cast of characters, all of whom claim to either live in the building or say they used to live there…

Unfortunately, Alison’s nightmares persist, and she eventually wakes up in the middle of the night to her chandelier shaking and loud sounds, stomping and clanking, coming from the apartment directly above hers. She goes to the agent who showed her the apartment to see what can be done about the noise, so she can get some much needed sleep. When she meets the agent to express her troubles, and explains that she’s met most of her neighbors but wants to know why the tenants of the apartment above hers are making so much noise at night, the agent says that, besides Alison and the blind priest, the rest of the building is vacant. NO OTHER TENANTS LIVE THERE…

The movie incorporates mystery and cop-drama elements, ghost story elements, some perverse humor, stark Catholic morality, and a handful of priests (which is keeping with the feel of movies, like The Exorcist and The Omen.) There is explicit nudity and decadent orgy scenes, blood and gore (some rather gruesome effects---well done, if you’re into that kind of thing), as well as some rather nasty exploitation leanings (in particular, using people with various medical conditions that distort their features for horrific effect.) There are also some religious elements of the film that some folks will certainly find at least disrespectful, if not downright offensive. It’s a dark, nasty, creepy, uncomfortable horror movie, which still has some teeth to it, even four decades after its release.

Another element that some folks might be turned off by is the pacing. While shifting between the photo shoots and party life of a NY model and the cop-drama, who-done-it, material, the film doesn’t really zip along. It’s a bit slow. So there you go… The movie is slow, disgusting, uncomfortable, and offensive! (Have I sold you on why you should watch it, yet???)

If it’s that bad, why do I still like it? There are a couple of reasons. One is the creepy, ghostly, horror elements of the film, which are GENUINELY unsettling---and I appreciate that. It’s a SCARY movie, and it takes a certain amount of DOING to creep me out, so well done there, Mr. Winner. (He’s the director, remember?) The second thing that I like about this film is Burgess Meredith, who plays a FANTASTICALLY kooky, creepy, funny weirdo. Any scene with him in it is strangely compelling, even while his character is both funny and unsettling... You can pretty much tell, right away, that he’s evil---but he’s a LIKABLE EVIL, which is the most interesting, most dangerous type of evil, in my opinion. A humorous, charming, or seductive villain is far more difficult to resist, both for a viewer AND for the characters in the film, than a loathsome, slobbering, monstrous beast of a threat. If you have no sympathy for the bad guy, if you can’t relate in ANY WAY to what they are doing---that makes the “hero’s” job somewhat flat and predictable. But a likeable villain, or at least a compelling villain whose motivations we understand, that’s a far more interesting threat. (Look at Rob Zombie’s film, The Devil’s Rejects. He takes a family of killers, who are gross, inhuman, murderers, and by the end of the movie we’ve come to understand them so well, and to HATE their pursuer so much, that we---as an audience---are actually ROOTING for these monsters to get away! It’s a monumental feat of filmmaking---and I might, someday, review THAT movie for the Spook Show reviews…although I don’t think I have the strength to tackle it, right now…)

So The Sentinel… It’s an interesting horror film, definitely a product of its time, but it holds up, in my opinion, as both a SPOOKY movie, and as an exploration of the more decadent and depraved lifestyle that New York was famous for at the time---and which would give way to the coke-fueled excesses of the 1980s, just a few years later! This is an exploitation film, for sure, and it’s probably going to offend any decent people, and especially any religious folks, who watch it---DESPITE being firmly grounded in Catholic morality play tropes. It’s also fun playing “Spot-the-Celebrity” in this film, as so many well-known Hollywood stars participated in the movie. It’s not as clever as the big three (Rosemary, Exorcist, Omen) or, ultimately, as scary---but if you’ve already SEEN those movies a hundred times, this is a fun, creepy, sometimes funny movie in the same vein as the biggies. Just don’t let the kids watch---or you’ll have a LOT of uncomfortable things to explain…

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)

P.S. – I said I was going to include my complete Spook Show recommendations list with each Spooky review, just in case this is some reader’s first encounter with this series---even though I've already forgotten to include the list in one review! My memory is garbage!!! Anyway, here are the films I’ve already looked at:

SPOOK SHOW 2019 Reviews!!!

“Spook Show 2019 – 01: The Shining (1980)”
“Spook Show 2019 - 02: Salem's Lot (1979)”
“Spook Show 2019 – 03: The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror (2003)”
“Spook Show 2019 – 04: House by the Cemetery (1981)”
“Spook Show 2019 – 05: Beetlejuice (1988)”

SPOOK SHOW 2018 Reviews!!!

“Spook Show 2018 – 01: The Exorcist (1973)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 02: Curse of the Demon (1957)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 03: Frogs (1972)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 04: Child’s Play (1988)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 05: The Haunting (1963)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 06: Shaun of the Dead (2004)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 07: Fright Night (1985)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 08: Mr. Vampire (1985)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 09: The Devil Rides Out (1968)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 10: Ghoulies (1985)”

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I'll have to check this one out over a few beers - given all the future stars in it, it must of had some interest in the film's content being made. Sounds like a fun one to get on my watch list -

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Yeah, if you can handle the yucky parts, it's a fun film!

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