Have you heard of this movie? The answer to that’s probably ‘no’, since I’ve never heard anyone in my entire life so much as mention it. It was a modestly budgeted supernatural horror from ’77 that carried a mind-boggling amount of star power, but not a lot of word-of-mouth here in the States. Directed by Michael Winner of Death Wish fame, The Sentinel has a pretty scary concept, an abrupt style that is just as jump-inducing as any loud music sting you could throw at an audience, and a claustrophobic soundtrack that feels like a spider building its web in your innards. If the cast were just a little more worthwhile, I would be calling this an undiscovered classic.
In a tiny posh neighborhood of Brooklyn, a young girl named Allison has just closed a deal on a super-cool rental house divided into apartments. She’s a famous fashion model with a few too many neuroses, and needs to be by herself for a while. She’s had a rough time with life, and has attempted suicide twice in her life already, and now, leaving her friends, her family, and her Roman Catholic faith behind her, she’s trying to get on with herself and start healing. But what her real estate agent doesn’t tell her about the apartment is that there are some odd neighbors in the apartments around her that aren’t all they seem. At the top floor lives a mysterious blind priest named Father Halloran, an old man with a shady past who just sits in his room all day looking out t the window. Another neighbor, a mysterious old man named Charles Chazen, comes to Allison one night and invites her to his cat’s birthday party (???) where she can meet all her other neighbors. Needless to say, he’s kind of bizarre, and Allison is unnerved by him. The longer she stays in the apartment, the more her mental and physical health deteriorates, and the more she is haunted by the painful memories of her past. And of the present, when she begins to see visions of mysterious, disfigured people mindlessly roaming the halls and corridors of her building. All this is compounded by the fact that when she asks her real estate agent about her other neighbors, she shocks Allison by telling her that the only other neighbor she has is the blind priest (!!!). So who is Charles Chazen? Who are the strange people who inhabit the building at night? Can she find out before it’s too late?
Good movie, although somewhat of a diatribe for the reawakening of the Catholic faith. Is it just me, or has anyone ever noticed that most horror movies with a religious message always tend to terrify people into piety? As if to say, “You better come back to the Catholic Church, or the Devil is going to rip your face off and use it as a decorative napkin!” Anyway, The Sentinel is a film that tends to think that less is more, and I agree. We really don’t see all that much of the horror and terror in Allison’s apartment, unless you count Burgess Meredith’s intense graying countenance as Charles Chazen. There’s a lot of that. But all the oddities and apparitions in the apartment are mostly left to the imagination as to what they could be. But when they show you the horror, get ready for some intensity. The one scene that everyone mentions online about this movie is really in-your-face, and just shock-and-awes my nerves. Allison’s investigating a dark room, and before she can actually walk into a room, some scary guy just walks with intention in front of her and crosses the room. Not that kind of thriller walk, where the film speed downplays the quickness of the character; this guy power-walks in front of her, and if you’ve ever had someone walk right up to you that fast, but it’s a little jarring. Here, it’s fucking heart-pounding, because you don’t even know who or what it is.
It’s kind of hard to comment about the special effects and make-up. Considering I don’t know exactly what the things in the apartment are, I don’t really know how good they look comparatively. But they do look scary, that’s for sure. They’re very pale, their skin is textured and disfigured, and they each have some unique characteristic to them that makes them individually eerie. This film has come under fire in their past for a particular scene in which some of the “neighbors” are played by circus “freaks” and side-show carnival folk. And while I don’t think that part was in particularly good taste, it’s a lot less demeaning than their day-jobs (“Come one, come all, to take a look at the FREAKS!”) and it does add something to the scene’s climax. They’re not being beaten to death by Burgess Meredith with a rusty steel pipe or anything, so I don’t think it was the worst call in the world to make on Michael Winner’s part.
Speaking of Burgess Meredith, he’s the gleaming ball of sunshine in this otherwise lackluster cast. He plays Charles Chazen, the shady guy who might just be a bit more than your friendly neighborhood cat person. He’s creepy, freaky, and all-together perfect with his low, growling voice and his bulldog face. Everyone else, though, suffers from deer-in-headlights syndrome. Allison is played by Christina Raines, and she looks rather confused as to how she’s supposed to act. Her role, such as it is, is interesting, but she has all the subtlety of a grilled cheese sandwich to the face. But she’s just the tip of the iceberg. Would you believe Christopher Walken is in this movie? That’s right; Christopher “I Have A Chicken” Walken is Detective Rizzo, a guy who’s investigating the odd occurrences as a favor. He’s still in Young Walken mode, before he went full-on applesauce insane, so he’s pretty tame here. He’s actually kind of boring, really, so he gets no thumbs-up from me. John Carradine makes a brief cameo as the blind priest Father Halloran, but he’s in it for only a few seconds, so he’s more of a set piece than an actual character. Martin Balsam is here too! And Ava Gardner! And Jeff Goldblum! But nobody is really that great! It’s really all about the Meredith here, a testament to his career that he could still act circles around people in his old age.
So a bland cast mars an otherwise great feature. The Sentinel is good supernatural haunted-house story that anyone can just sit back and watch without a care in the world. It’s spooky, it’s thrilling, and if you can get past the glaring religious message, it’s quite entertaining. There aren’t a lot of movies like this, so if you don’t try it once, you might really be missing out. It will make the perfect accessory for a dark October night snuggled up on the couch as the night moves slowly upon the world like waves on the sands. I give The Sentinel 7 1/2 power-walking demons out of 10. Check it out!
Whew! Almost caught up! Keep checking back with me for my review of Cirque du Freak: The Vampires Assistant! Until then!!!