Alison Parker is a beautiful but troubled New York model who is determined to strike out on her own and get her own apartment, despite her boyfriend's, lawyer Michael Lerman, wish that she would continue living with him and eventually marry him. After her father, who drove her to attempt suicide after she caught him in the middle of an orgy when she was a teenager, dies of cancer in Boston, Alison finds an apartment in an old, Brooklyn brownstone that is also occupied by an old, blind priest who does nothing but sit at an open window in his fifth floor apartment. Upon moving in, Alison meets some other apparent tenants, including Charles Chazen, an eccentric old man who owns a bird and a cat, and a lesbian couple downstairs who aren't at all shy of flaunting their lifestyle. As time goes on, the other tenants continue to disturb her and Alison also begins suffering from severe headaches, fainting spells, and begins hearing noises in the supposed empty apartment above hers. When she talks with Miss Logan, who sold her the apartment, she's told that she and the priest are the only tenants and when she investigates the other rooms with Miss Logan, she finds that they are indeed vacant and have been for some time. After a frightening encounter with the apparition of her deceased father, whom she stabs repeatedly, Alison is put into the hospital and her and Michael's checkered past, which involves him having an affair with her before his wife supposedly killed herself, an act that drove Alison to attempt suicide a second time, is brought back up when the detective who accused Michael of murder begins snooping around. Things become even stranger when it's learned that the people whom Alison claims to have met are not only all dead but were also murderers, and when Michael investigates the order of Catholic priests who own the building and care for the Father there, he learns that he priest is the latest in a long line of people who had normal lives before disappearing and re-emerging with different names and as priests and nuns. They also all attempted suicide at one point and Alison is intended to replace the current "sentinel" in the building, which is actually a gateway to hell.
This is an example of something I said earlier: it feels like Winner tried to make this movie as shocking or surreal as possible with no other purpose than to bring attention to it. He's certainly not the first or last person to do that and there are other movies that have done that which I do like but here, it didn't impress me. There's all the graphic sexual content that also just happens to be some of the most unappealing examples imaginable, with that old man who's basically a skeleton having an orgy with two hookers who are very unattractive in and of themselves (they're also eating cake with a lot of frosting on it, which only adds to the "ick" factor) and appear in spectral form throughout the film; those two lesbians, Gerde Engstrom (Sylvia Miles) and Sandra (Beverly D'Angelo), who are not at all shy about their relationship (you can tell what their relationship is from the very minute you see them), with Gerde telling Alison that they fondle each other for a living and Sandra masturbating right in front of Alison when they're left alone in the living room; the dream that Alison has of the birthday party for Chazen's cat being more sexual in nature, with more naked people; and the plethora of nude people you see during the climax, including the lesbians who are also seen eating from the wound on Lerman's head. There's no reason for any of that other than to make you cringe as much as possible. Speaking of the party for the cat (whose name I can't remember, although I do know it was a female), that's one of those scenes where you go, "What?!", when you see the shots of that cat with a party hat on her head, looking as confused as the viewer, and the games Alison gets roped into with the attendees, including singing Happy Birthday to her. And later on, you see that cat eating Chazen's bird, which I'm really hoping wasn't real, for no other reason other than to disgust you. Finally, while I hate to use John Stanley's description of the climax being a "freakshow" given the use of real deformed people, I do agree with his sentiment that it degenerates into absolute chaos and is throwing a bunch of weird and nasty stuff at you for no other reason than because it can (which makes the use of real human oddities all the more distasteful).
Another observation of Stanley's that I agree with is that there are too many parts of the screenplay that are left unexplained, parts that were no doubt expanded upon in the original novel. I don't consider this an instance of things simply being left up to your imagination, either, but rather that there are plot-points and events that are never explained. The biggest one for me is why this particular apartment building is a gateway to hell. I don't like the idea of the entrance to hell being confined to one place anyway, unless it's done really well, because I feel it demeans it and makes it feel less frightening, but regardless, why this building? How did it come to be a place where demons are held prisoner and unable to escape into the real world? Was it originally constructed to be so or did it just happen? Could Satan not find anywhere else to allow his followers to escape? And what was the point of replacing it with a more modern building once Alison took over as the sentinel? Does that just happen every time a new one steps in? Speaking of the sentinels, if they're meant to be keep the demons from escaping, why do they always become blind when they take up the position? And why does their sitting in the top room, at the window, make such a difference? Is it their mere presence that keeps the demons at bay? If so, then why not keep the next intended one away from the building until it's time for them to take the position so they can't possibly be corrupted and doom all humanity, as almost happens with Alison? Other things that are never explained include the headaches and fainting spells that Alison begins to have. Is that part of the process? Is it her starting to go blind? And there's also the fact that the shady detective whose services Michael Lerman tried to enlist is inexplicably found dead in a gutted car, mutilated in the same manner that Alison claims she did to the apparition of her father, and it's never explained who killed him. Given that he wasn't exactly a good man, you could conclude that somebody simply wanted him dead, but it adds yet another unresolved complication to the plot, which is to say nothing of Getz's investigation, whose only significant revelation is the affair between Alison and Lerman when he was married and that he may have killed his wife; otherwise, it has no baring on the main plot before Getz and Rizzo vanish before the third act.
The studio had a tough time securing a composer for the film. Their first choice was John Williams, who ultimately bowed out to do Star Wars instead, prompting them to next go for Michael Small, who at that time had done the music for The Stepford Wives and Marathon Man and would go on to score The Postman Always Rings Twice, Jaws: The Revenge, and Wagons East. He then dropped out, which ultimately led to them going with Gil Melle, who had scored The Andromeda Strain as well as episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery, Columbo, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. (This kind of mirrors how they originally wanted Don Siegel to direct the film but he turned it down since he didn't feel comfortable doing this type of movie... and then he went and did Damien: Omen II the following year!) In any case, a piece of the film's score that I find to be truly frightening is what you hear in the scene where Alison runs into that apparition of her father. There's a low, rumbling sound when the door slowly opens to reveal him standing there, which already makes the scene unnerving (that becomes something of a theme for this character because you hear it again when he reappears during the climax), and when her flashlight illuminates him, you're hit with this high-pitched screaming sound that has stuck with me ever since I first heard it on that Bravo special. There is no denying how freaky that is. Unfortunately, the rest of the score is nowhere near as memorable to me. There is some distant vocalizing here and there that's a bit reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith's score for The Omen but overall, the music is pretty forgettable and is also much too big and overdone for a fairly low-key movie that's mostly set in an apartment building. Like everything else this movie tries to do, I've seen, or rather heard, it done better elsewhere.
|I think those points on the 'S' are meant to be demonic horns|
but it makes it look more like a dollar sign to me.