Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Sentinel (1977) Apartment For Rent, Cheap, Creepy Priest Included

Apartment hunting is never easy. You want just the right amenities, the right utility plans, perfect space, tolerable gets complicated, to say the least. If the apartment you choose just happens to sit over the mouth of Hell, then you might a few more problems than just a few cockroaches or neighbors who loudly air out their problems at four in the morning. That sulfur smell is only the beginning of your grievances.

1977's The Sentinel is a film about New York apartment living, gates of Hell, oddball neighbors, pencil-thin mustaches, and unwavering fate. Directed by Michael Winner (Death Wish), The Sentinel sports an all-star cast featuring Chris Sarandon, Burgess Meredith, Martin Balsam, John Carradine, Ava Gardner, Jose Ferrer, Sylvia Miles, and Eli Wallach. There are even small (some non-speaking) parts for future stars such as Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, Jerry Orbach, Beverly D'Angelo, and Tom Berenger. Quite the cast, really.

Alison (Christina Raines) is a very successful model with more than a few problems on the emotional spectrum. As a flashback tells us, as a teenager, she once barged in on her depraved father having a cake-filled tryst with two women of ill repute. She had tried to commit suicide then, and had more problems later in life. She wants a place of her own so she can have her own down time, even away from loyal lawyer boyfriend, Michael (Sarandon). A meeting with a realtor (Gardner) uncovers a nice old apartment in Brooklyn with an insanely cheap rent, fully furnished rooms, and a creepy old priest, Father Halloran (Carradine), who spends his days staring out of the window.

Father Halloran's simple hobby notwithstanding, Alison simply can't pass up the opportunity, especially when the realtor lowers the rent even more. It's like Alison was meant to rent the apartment. She moves in and before long, starts to feel at home in the huge apartment. I mean, this thing is cavernous.

While her boyfriend uses his less-than-reputable resources to find out more about the place she's rented, and about this mysterious Father Halloran, Alison begins to meet her new neighbors. Charming old codger Charles Chazen (Meredith) introduces himself and his pet kitty and birdy, even bringing her a picture of himself to spruce up the apartment. He seems like a decent guy, maybe a little on the goofy side, and Alison enjoys his visit.

Michael finds out more about the place, and about Father Halloran, and it doesn't bode well for Alison. It's no spoiler to say that Father Halloran isn't the first person a mysterious church brotherhood has tapped to be a "sentinel," and he won't be the last. Alison's suicide attempts have pushed her to the top of the candidate list. We also find out that Michael's a bit of a slippery character himself, but he denies any wrongdoing. Admittedly, he does seem to want the best for Alison, so maybe he's a victim of finger-pointing for an accident that happened years before (as constantly brought up by Wallach and Walken's police characters).

Things get weirder for Alison. One visit to loopy couple Gerde (Miles) and Sandra (D'Angelo) makes Alison a little...shall we say, uncomfortable. Gerde is the very definition of an aged "cougar" and Sandra enjoys...I'll just mention that she's a big fan of her own body and leave it at that. Alison slips away from that scene, but gets to meet more of the tenants at a birthday party for Charles' cat. Alison ends up having a wonderful time (who wouldn't? - there's cake and a cat with a party hat) before being spooked by noises in the apartment above her, where no one should be. She tells Miss Logan, the realtor, about it and Miss Logan drops a bomb about the population of said apartment building. Now Alison, and those around her, start to doubt the brightness of her porch lights, if you catch my drift.

At one point, Alison sees an apparition of her dead, freaky father and attacks it for probably the goriest part of the movie. With unexplained pains in her head, a strange connection to a dead private eye (a friend of Michael's in a subplot I won't spoil), and an increasingly weird home life (seeing all of a book's English text in Latin), things aren't going well for the model. Michael takes it upon himself to investigate the building and get to the bottom of this Father Halloran/crazy neighbor/church conspiracy thingy.

Finding a blocked-off area on the wall in the lobby, Michael breaks it apart to reveal a warning that ends with the ominous, "Abandon hope, ye who enter here." Right about this time, Father Halloran makes an appearance, and tells Michael that the building sits on a portal to Hell. Michael still demands answers and follows Father Halloran back to his apartment, where he attacks the old man out of frustration before being bludgeoned by an unseen assailant.

The great John Carradine.

Alison arrives at the building just in time for Hell's welcoming party to arrive. Charles leads them all into enticing Alison to kill herself so that she doesn't become the next Sentinel. Hordes of demons appear - controversially played by extras with real-life disfigurements and amputations - and corner Alison in Halloran's room. Just as she is about to go through with it, Father Halloran and Monsignor Franchino (Arthur Kennedy), an "advance scout" of sorts sent to aid Alison's "transformation," arrive to rescue Alison. For me, the creepiest part of the entire movie was watching the hordes of Hell retreat slowly and vanish into the shadows. Really great editing here.

Alison then takes Halloran's place in the chair at the window and later, while Miss Logan presents a refurbished apartment to a new couple (one of which was played by Tom Berenger), we see that Alison has fully accepted the position of Sentinel, nun's outfit and milky eyes included.

The Sentinel is a great piece of 70's atmospheric spookiness. Not only is it a horror film, but it doubles as a mystery as the pieces are put together to form the hows and the whys. There is more to each character than you think, and by the end, you discover more about them. It was also quite fun to play "Which Star With A Bit Part Will Be An Even Bigger Star?" with all the appearances by those I mentioned earlier. The movie builds with an even tension, so audiences with short attention spans (the kind Hollywood loves now) might get bored after a while, but it's worth the wait. The climactic sequence is one of the most visually striking and disturbing scenes you may see, and not for gore or anything spectacular. The use of shadow and the lack of special effects is combined for a jarring effect. Burgess Meredith is as charming as ever - even when he's pure evil - but the one problem I had with the movie was Christina Raines as Alison. Her acting came off as wooden and forced in many scenes, although she looked the part of a successful 70's model.

Love this old VHS cover - reminds me of working in a video store during the 80's.

You can do a lot worse than watching The Sentinel on a dark, preferably stormy, night. It's good, old-school spooky with touches of drive-in depravity that are doled out in just the right doses to make you squirm.

Plus you get to see a cat in a birthday hat.


  1. Nice post! I keep meaning to see this, and it's been on "the list" for so long.

    I might have to stop watching movies I've already seen dozens of times and catch up.

    John Carradine looks scary as hell in that screen grab.

  2. It's definitely fun to watch - and Carradine definitely looks scary in this, despite being one of the good guys.

  3. What a horrible story and it's definitely great fun to watch.