Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Sentinel (1977)

Horror films about hell and the devil became ridiculously popular in the 1970's, with the fuse first being lit by Rosemary's Baby in 1968 and reached its zenith with the enormous successes of The Exorcist and The Omen. There are many other minor films made throughout the decade that tend to get overshadowed and forgotten amongst these legendary films, either unfairly or because they're so derivative of them that they don't leave much of an impression. That's where we have this little item, which I think I first became aware of when I read about it in an old book on horror films at my high school's library. I don't remember the author's opinion being that enthusiastic and the same certainly goes for John Stanley in his Creature Features book, where he gives it a mere 2 1/2 stars and calls it an, "Attempt at a classy demonic film [that] falls short in the hands of director Michael Winner." Yet, despite those less than stellar feelings on the film (which include many critical notices when the film was originally released), a scene from it was featured on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments in 2004, which was the first time I saw anything of it. And I must say, the scene in question, when the lead girl runs into the ghoulish spectre of her dead father in a dark room in the apartment building, did freak me out when I saw it on that special and I did jump a bit when her flashlight comes back on and illuminates her father's face. That was enough to where I decided I would see this one day, however it wouldn't be until 2013, when I bought the old, bare-bones DVD of it at a convention in Nashville. It was pretty cheap, so I figured, "Why not?" Well, I quickly got my answer to that question when I watched the movie the following week. Needless to say, it did not impress or stick with me at all. I wouldn't call it an out-and-out horrible movie and it certainly didn't anger me, which is why this isn't an entry of Movies That Suck; it's just a very forgettable, unoriginal, and dull one, which also commits the crime of wasting a remarkable cast. Make no mistake, what you've probably heard is true: The Exorcist, which I'm not even that big a fan of, and The Omen, which I love, are much better movies than this (in case you're wondering, I've never seen Rosemary's Baby, believe it or not).

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.

Michael Winner is a very interesting director in that he had a career that lasted five decades, wherein he directed a number of popular and well-loved films in his career, including a number of British films with Oliver Reed, and went on to have some success in America, but also made his fair share of movies that people dislike (particularly his last films, Parting Shots, which ended up on Empire Magazine's list of the 50 Worst Movies of All Time) and never quite made it big. By the time he made The Sentinel, which he also co-wrote the screenplay for, working with the author of the novel it's based on, he'd already made his most well-known film, the first Death Wish, and since this film did fairly well at the box-office, he went on to have a couple of other moderate successes with The Big Sleep and Firepower. He worked for Canon Films during the 1980's, during which he made the first two Death Wish sequels, which both did well, along with some not so successful movies, which drug his reputation only further down. When Canon went bankrupt, Winner went back to England and only made three more films, after he which he pretty much retired from filmmaking and became known for other things, including his outspoken political views and, of all things, a critic of restaurants! I don't have much of a personal opinion on Winner since the only other film of his I've ever seen is his 1993 film Dirty Weekend but, judging from that and everything else I know he did, it seems like he was one of those filmmakers who really pushed the envelope in terms of violence and graphic sexual content, for which he received a lot of flack. That, however, isn't enough for me to want to seek out his films and, judging from what I have seen, it seems like he did it simply for pretty mean-spirited shock value, which can be effective but sometimes comes across like you're just trying to rile people up to bring attention to yourself, which is what it feels like with him.

A major problem with the film is that I didn't care one way or the other about the main character, Alison. Cristina Raines' performance isn't terrible but it's not exactly what you would call endearing, either. Her character comes with a lot of baggage in that she had an abusive, disgusting old skeleton for a father whom she caught in the midst of an orgy and beat her up for punishment, she attempted suicide as a result, had an affair with Michael Lerman when his ex-wife suddenly died, which caused her to attempt suicide again, has been living with Lerman ever since she got out of the hospital, and is now trying to strike out on her own to prove that she's capable of taking care of herself. Things start literally going to hell for her after her father dies and she moves into the apartment building, as she has to deal with the bizzare other "tenants" and begins to suffer from bad headaches and fainting spells as well as fear for her soul due to the horrible things that she's done in the past, culminating in the full disclosure of what's going on and what she's fated to become. That's a lot for an actor to play around with but, while Raines does manage to come across as convincing in the scenes where she's frightened, distressed, or in pain, there are other instances where her acting feels rather flat and, overall, there was nothing about her that made me truly care about her. Her performance is never absolutely horrible, just kind of... bland, despite all the meat to her character and what she's facing. As you can see, she ultimately does replace the old priest as the new sentinel who keeps the evil contained within the building from escaping, which is something that she must do in order to atone for her past sins, but again, I really didn't care when it happened; in fact, I was just glad that the movie was over.

Chris Sarandon, on the other hand, manages to give a performance of more substance as Alison's boyfriend, lawyer Michael Lerman. Like Alison, he's hardly as pure a character as he might initially seem when you first meet him but you only gradually learn about his skeletons in the closet as the film goes on. You find out that he was previously married and that he had an affair with Alison when his wife, who wouldn't divorce him, mysteriously died. He begins acting a little bit sinister when the detective who originally attempted to charge him with murder, and who he humiliated in court, starts snooping around after Alison is hospitalized, climbing that she knifed someone to death in her apartment building, using his influence to raise complaints against the departments as well as making calls to the office someone who's revealed to be a shady detective he knew in the past. It's also revealed that his late wife sometimes let it slip in her drunkeness that he accepted bribes and is suggested that said detective may have been hired by Lerman to kill her. Lerman, of course, denies having known the man when his mutilated body is found by the police but by this point, his initial friendly, charismatic exterior at the beginning of the film has begun to crack. At the end of the film, you learn that Lerman did, indeed, have his wife killed because, when he himself is killed while attacking the old priest, his soul is damned for it. And yet, despite the horrible things he's done, he's not an out-and-out evil person in that he does seem to genuinely care about Alison and is trying to figure out what's going on in her apartment and what's happening to her. Granted, he often leaves her by herself when she doesn't need to be alone but, that said, when he learns what her fate is destined to be, he tries everything he can to stop it. Of course, little does he understand that stopping it will not only doom her soul but all of humanity as well, although I'm not sure if he would have cared even if he did know beforehand, given what you learn about him. All in all, Sarandon gives a pretty good performance and is especially memorable near the end when he's been doomed to eternal damnation and is acting all smily and chipper as he tells Alison of it.

The supporting cast of this film is made up of a veritable who's who of great character actors, both old pros and up-and-coming at the time, who are mostly wasted in the parts they're given. The one who comes out the best is Burgess Meredith as Charles Chazen, an initially harmless-seeming, if eccentric, tenant who, at the end of the film, is revealed to be something of the head of the denizens of hell in the building. Meredith was an awesome actor and you can tell that he's making the most of what he's given here, playing Chazen as an energetic, somewhat effeminate, elderly gentleman who's never far from his bird and cat, the latter of whom he gives a birthday party for. He's pretty fun to watch as he comments on the decor of Alison's apartment, telling her that her taste is impeccable, and when he excitedly drags her to the aforementioned party, and while he's never scary during the climax, he does manage to exude some menace, trying to make Alison kill herself so he and the other demons can escape the building. I'm not sure if you could say that he's the devil himself (although his name never comes up in the list of deceased killers Alison claims she met) but, again, he's clearly the man in charge here, ordering the other demons to resist when the priests show up with a cross to try to save Alison and he is ultimately banished by their power. It's just a shame that Meredith didn't bring this kind of performance to a better movie (like he did in Burnt Offerings the previous year; too bad he's only in that movie at the very beginning).

Another guy who comes out of this looking good is the always awesome Eli Wallach as Gatz, the detective who originally tried to charge Michael Lerman with murder and is once again snooping around, trying to find any shred of evidence to prove that he's a killer. This is the type of character who, if it were played by anyone else, you would find obnoxious and annoying but Wallach has such an infectious energy and charisma that it's impossible not to hate him, even when he's deliberately poking Lerman and trying to dig up dirt on him (plus, as Lerman starts to look more and more shady, it's easier to root for Gatz). Just look at that expression on his face in that image. That comes when Lerman is visiting Alison in the hospital and asks for a bit of privacy. Needless to say, he doesn't get it. Gatz also gets a lot of good lines, like when his partner mentions how Alison claims to have had a dinner party with eight dead murderers and he says, "Doesn't everybody?", or when the police department gets a complaint from Lerman's lawfirm about a threat Gatz made to him and he says, "Not so much a threat, sir; more an observation." Another good one is when he's reminded of how Lerman made him look like a lawyer in court and he says, "If we didn't exaggerate some of the evidence, every crook in town would go free... instead of only 90% of them." Incidentally, as you can see, his partner, Detective Rizzo, is played by a young Christopher Walken but he, sadly, doesn't get to do much of anything except stand around and smile while Gatz talks (he barely gets to say anything). Even worse, their investigation ultimately has no effect on the movie's actual plot and they disappear before the third act, making their subplot pointless.

Jose Ferrer and Arthur Kennedy have roles as priests in the secret society sworn to continue placing sentinels in the building. While Ferrer's role is virtually nothing (his character is credited merely as "Robed Figure") except perhaps being the leader of the order, Kennedy has a little more to do in the role of Monsignor Franchino, the priest who is sent to New York to ensure that Alison becomes the new sentinel. He comes across as a comforting figure towards Alison when she meets him in the church, trying to atone for her sins, and while he acts suspicious and a bit sinister when he pretends not to know the significance of some Latin that Alison came up with, he ultimately saves her from damnation at the end, telling her not to give up if she wants to save her soul. Okay, so it's not much of a role, but it's much more significant than Ferrer's! You also have Ava Gardner as Miss Logan, the woman who shows Alison the apartment building and is strongly hinted to be in on everything, although you're never told for sure. Like so much of the supporting cast, Gardner's role isn't that big but she does the most that she can with it, coming across as a bit odd and somewhat sinister. A big example of wasted talent comes in the form of Martin Balsam, who, despite being third-billed, only appears in one scene as Prof. Ruzinsky, a senile, scatter-brained old man who can't remember anybody's name, even when they just told him what it is, and doesn't even know on which days he does what. They really should have given him more to do, perhaps make him one of the priests, because this role is a big waste and all he does that's significant is translate the Latin that Alison came up with as a passage from Paradise Lost. Deborah Raffin has an early role as Jennifer, Alison's friend who doesn't seem to have much love for Michael Lerman but is supportive of her friend and is always there for her in any way that she can be. Unfortunately, she is completely absent from the third act as well. But the most baffling part of the movie's cast for me is Jeff Goldblum as Alison's photographer friend, Jack, and it's not because of his presence (which isn't too surprising since he worked with Winner before on Death Wish); it's because he's dubbed. Yeah, for some reason that I have not yet found the answer to, Goldblum's voice is replaced with someone else's. Why?! Nearly all of his few scenes are outside, so the audio probably wasn't great, but was it that difficult to get him in to do some ADR? That really threw me the first time I saw the movie and was also disappointing because I love Goldblum. (I've also learned that Richard Dreyfuss has a walk-on role during the opening credits montage that I didn't catch.)

However, none of these roles compare to what I consider to be the biggest waste in the film, which is John Carradine as the sentinel himself, Father Halliran. You may be thinking, "Well, he's the title character. He's probably in the entire movie." And yes, he is... sitting at a window in his fifth floor apartment for the whole movie until the climax and even then, he doesn't get to do much except walk around like an ancient man and mumble a bunch of prayers, with his only line being, "Portal to hell," or something of the like. He has to be held up and guided by Monsignor Franchino when he wards off the demons and save his successor at the end of the film. This role could have been played by anybody and yet, they decide to put a really good character actor like Carradine and, just to demean him even more, make him wear some makeup that looks like he's got gray chalk on his face and in his hair, as well as some contact lenses to make him seem blind, which don't look comfortable at all. If you want to see Carradine give a much better performance as a man of God, watch the Twilight Zone episode, The Howling Man. By the way, there are a lot of Twilight Zone alumni in this movie, aren't there (Carradine, Burgess Meredith, and Martin Balsam)? Too bad they two of them didn't get very good roles.

Another strike against The Sentinel is that, save for the scene that Bravo featured in their special, the setting is never scary or atmospheric. Both on the outside and the inside, the brownstone looks like just an ordinary, old apartment building, and none of the rooms, even the ones that Alison investigates with Miss Logan and discovers to have long since been abandoned, don't have a creepy vibe to them; rather, they just feel vacant. Those shots of Father Halliran looking out the window could have also been potentially eerie but they're not executed in such a way either, save for a shot or two. The production design is more surreal than unnerving, particularly in the scene in the two lesbians' apartment and in Chazen's apartment where he's having a party for his cat, and the scenes that are supposed to be scary, like when Alison is awakened in the middle of the night by sounds in the room above hers that's supposed to be empty, are so derivative of other horror films that they come across as stale. (Even though I've never seen the movie, I can still see how much Rosemary's Baby was an influence on this film given what I've heard of it.) The only scene that's likely to inspire terror is when Alison, searching for the source of the sounds upstairs, finds herself in a dark room and a shadowy figure appears behind the door and walks past her. That creeped me out when I saw it on that special and I jumped a bit when her flashlight kicks back on and illuminates the ghoul's horrifying face. That scene is still skin-crawlingly disturbing to me even now and the sequence that it leads into, with Alison running for it, while seeing spectres of the women her father had an orgy with and then basically mutilating him when he attacks her is also fairly shocking because of how unexpectedly gruesome the violence is. It's a shame that the entire film isn't as well-constructed as one scene because if it were, might get more positive attention.

Another connection that this film has to The Exorcist is that the legendary Dick Smith, working with Bob Laden, created the makeup effects and, while they're certainly not his greatest work, they're one of the few really memorable parts of it. And what's more, according to IMDB, the makeup for John Carradine, which I don't care for at all, was done by somebody else, which I was happy to learn since I figured that couldn't have been Smith's work. With that, I'm guessing that he did the makeup on Cristina Raines when she becomes the sentinel at the end, which looks a little more effective to me. However, that does not compare with the makeup design of Alison's father (Fred Stuthman) when he as a creepy ghoul in the building. They took somebody who was already disgusting during that flashback of him with those hookers when you saw his gaunt, naked body and made him really scary with that ash-colored skin, those wart-like spots along the side of his face, and those milky-white eyes. The film also has a fair amount of graphic violence and it's executed in a way guaranteed to make you squirm, like when young Alison uses a razor-blade to slit her wrists after finding her father with those hookers (scenes like that always make me cringe), when she comes across the horrific vision of Chazen's cat eating his bird, when she attacks her father's spectre, slicing him across the left eye and cutting his nose completely off, with a fair amount of blood squirting, and when the police find the similarly mutilated corpse of the shady detective Lerman once worked with. Other gore effects that are more over-the-top than truly disgusting come at the end of the movie when Michael Lerman shows up after his death with a big, bloody chunk of the right side of his face missing, along with crack-like cuts on his forehead and left cheek, and when he gets stabbed in the neck later on, as well as when some of the demons begin to bleed when they're vanquished by the two priests. That said, though, the sight of the two naked lesbians eating from Lerman's cracked open head is also likely to make you squirm.

When I rewatched the film for the first time since I bought it in order to form a foundation for this review, I had completely forgotten about the deformed people who appear at the end of the movie and my reaction was, "Good God, those are some disgusting makeups!" Well, as it turns out, those weren't makeups but rather real deformed circus performers who Michael Winner and his crew convinced to be in the film. Not only did I now feel like a complete asshole for thinking what I thought but in addition, I felt, "Wow, way to keep it classy, Winner." I guess I shouldn't be too disturbed by this since they did agree to be in the film but it still doesn't seem right to me. And I know what you're thinking: "Yeah, when Tod Browning did it in Freaks, he made a horror classic, but when Michael Winner did it, it's exploitive and in poor taste." Well, putting aside the sensibilities of the 1930's in comparison to those of the 70's, Freaks made the sideshow performers sympathetic characters, whereas these people are portraying evil demons from hell who are trying to make Alison commit suicide so they can escape the building they're trapped in. Kind of a big difference, don't you think? Also, my skin can't help but crawl when I see stuff like this in a movie, which is why, while I respect it, I don't watch Freaks that often. I mean no offense to anybody who is deformed but, unless it's handled very well, I don't feel it belongs in something that's meant to be a piece of entertainment. It's another instance where it's like, "We watch movies to kind of get away from things like that." (I was originally going to compare it to the genuine animal killings in Cannibal Holocaust and other movies of that sort but then I figured I'd better not because that comparison made me feel really dickish.) Again, no disrespect intended, but I can't help but feel that way.

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.
After everything I've said, I figure there are a lot of people who are like, "Are you sure this isn't an entry in Movies That Suck?" Like I said, The Sentinel never becomes so horrible that it pissed me off; it's just a very forgettable film whose subject matter has been done better in other movies. The two leads are okay but never become really great, the supporting cast includes a number of really good character actors who are mostly given nothing to do, there isn't much atmosphere or genuine tension to 99% of the movie, it feels like Michael Winner put in a bunch of disgusting sexual content, nasty violence, and downright bizarre scenes for no other than to shock the viewer, of which the climax is an extension, especially given the ill-advised use of real deformed people to play the demons, and the music score is mostly pretty lame. There are definitely good notes to it, like the performances some of the supporting actors manage to bring out of their roles, no matter how limited they may be, some good makeup and gore effects by the legendary Dick Smith, and a genuinely creepy moment around the half-way point that's accompanied by some very unnerving music, but as a whole, the film is nothing remarkable and is kind of dull more often than not. If you like it, power to you (some must like it, given the Blu-Ray edition with plenty of extras that was released in 2015), but if you haven't, my advice is to just stick with The Exorcist and The Omen (and possibly even Rosemary's Baby).

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