A look at Michael Winner’s leering 1977 theological horror film
What are horror films but morality tales whose serpentine roots lie deeply grounded in campfire ghost stories, myth, folklore, fairy tales and of course, in theology. Organized religion has almost universally employed narratives of fear and terror as warning signs to obey the rules and exist divinely, to avoid the pitfalls of base temptation and vice lest ye be tossed into the bubbling cauldrons of Hell itself. And Since Edison first ran his one reel Frankenstein through a Kinetiscope, this pious, raw, stripping-down of elements both spiritual and corporeal have exemplified the best efforts our beloved genre has to offer.
Now, as any good student of history should know, the 1960’s were a time of change in America and abroad; of social and political upheaval. With JFK getting his noggin shattered on live television and the bloody shadow of the Vietnam conflict looming large, the people – fresh out of the pastel perfect 1950’s-were no longer blindly trusting of their flag, of themselves…or of their God.
Right and wrong became blurry. Black and white dissolved into various shades of grey. Good didn’t always conquer evil and sometimes The Devil would win and there was nothing your endless bible-to-bosom clutching could do about it. As the 60’s oozed into the 1970’s, Americans were shell shocked and, much like the angry youth coming out of post-war Germany, Italy and France, they began to seriously question their previously unchallenged beliefs. And, as mainstream pop culture began to reflect this disenfranchisement, so then did horror movies become more morally checkered, delivering the bleakest, most nihilistic answers imaginable.
So too then were the streams of guarded religious idealism attacked with profitable and controversial relish. This cycle of irreverent, theology-based pop-terror started in 1968 with Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s bestseller ROSEMARY’S BABY; it went sexually rabid with Ken Russell’s depraved 1971 melodrama THE DEVILS; it perfected itself with William Friedkin’s 1973 classic THE EXORCIST and it climaxed with the operatic pulp of Richard Donner’s 1976 shocker THE OMEN. But one picture that sought to ride this potentially blasphemous wave got lost in the shuffle, coming out after films about the persuasive power of The Devil were popular, receiving its cinematic communion perhaps a wee bit too late. Though many people that saw it theatrically back in 1977 still cite it as one of the scariest movies ever made, for whatever reason THE SENTINEL has kind of, sort of just disappeared from those omnipresent “best horror movies” discussions. It still exists primarily on the fringe.
Pity poor Alison Parker (Christina Raines, NIGHTMARES), beautiful model and actress by day and nail biting nervous wreck by night. As a teenager she accidentally stumbled upon her father engaging in a tawdry threesome with two rather rotund whores and, after being beaten by her old man for the intrusion, promptly dragged a razor blade across her own wrist. Though she survived the bungled suicide, years later she tries again after her lover’s wife, who, upon discovering her hubby’s infidelity, jumps from a bridge to her own emotionally devastated demise. Again, Alison lives through it. Now shacked up with said lover, a slightly sinister high priced lawyer named Michael (FRIGHT NIGHT’s Chris Sarandon), the terminally tortured starlet, feeling she needs some much needed independence and space to figure out who she is, rents an apartment in a looming NYC brownstone.
Things get weird from the get go. First off, the far-too-friendly real estate agent (a grinning Ava Gardner) quotes the pad at an already low $500 per month and casually lowers it another hundred after the none-too-wealthy Alison turns it down. Unfazed by the agent’s inexplicably desperate attempts to fill the gorgeous flat, she moves in and is almost immediately visited by a slew of eccentric neighbors. There’s the doddering old Mr. Chazen (the great Burgess Meredith), a charming oddball who throws birthday parties for his pets; the stuttering old lady who keeps muttering “black and white cat, black and white cake”; the leering, kinky lesbian dancers (a still sultry Sylvia Miles and a young and yummy Beverly D’Angelo) who are prone to impromptu tea time masturbation sessions; and then there’s the blind, mute and seemingly senile Father Halloran (genre icon John Carradine), who does nothing more than sit in the top window and stare through sightless eyes at the world below.
Alison, already teetering on a breakdown, takes the antics of this array of oddballs with a grain of salt….until of course she learns that none of them – save the old Priest- actually exist in the natural world. As it turns out, this is no ordinary Brooklyn Heights low rise, but rather it’s a portal to Hell, a gateway guarded by Halloran and monitored by the Church and the quirky neighbors’ are in fact evil ghosts, demons, whose morbid task lies in encouraging Alison to kiss that blade to her vein once again…this time for keeps.
Why? Let’s just say, that the eternally put upon lass learns that she is in fact stuck squarely in a high stakes tug of war between Heaven and Hell and her very soul hangs in the balance.
THE SENTINEL is one of the strangest horror films of the 1970’s. First of all it was indeed directed by the late, rough and tumble ex-pat British action filmmaker Michael Winner (he of, among other things, the Chuck Bronson vigilante classic DEATH WISH and its first two sequels) and Winner’s more exploitative, direct, unaffected approach to the material is jarring, at odds with the baroque locations and subject matter. And his casting of high class Hollywood veterans, second only to THE LOVE BOAT, is absolutely, gleefully loopy. I mean, where else can you see future NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION mama D’Angelo sharing space with old pros like Meredith, Gardner, Miles and even Eli Wallach (whose work here as a jaded, relentless detective is superb) while furiously rubbing her leotard sheathed clitoris to orgasm?
The ultimate aim of Winner’s approach is to create a glossy world of high fashion, contemporary urban lifestyle, seemingly benign, overly cheery characters and stuffy clergymen and then take a big old ladle of wet, bloody, grimy sleaze and just smother the whole picture with it like a kind of vulgar gravy. Contrary to how that reads, this is NOT a bad thing. Quite the opposite. It’s this very tonal dichotomy that gives the film much of its fingerprint.
Upon its release in 1977, THE SENTINEL was not only a tad too late out of the God-fearing gate, it did something that similarly spelled the career death of filmmaker Tod Browning 35 years earlier. In the movie’s nightmarish climax, when the demons reveal their true natures and creep out from underneath the stairs, pushing our heroine past the edge of sanity, the already introduced heavies are joined by a cavalcade of real deal disfigured people. We see men with facial tumors so extreme and hideous they make John Merrick look like Brad Pitt by comparison. We see thalidomide damaged women, dwarves, cleft-paletted children and at least one poor soul whose lips are so heavy with cysts that they hang like mud flaps from his drooping mug.
When the audience is treated to this parade of damaged people, THE SENTINEL, which until this point is still anchored firmly in fantasy, is dragged into the realms of exploitative reality. Aforementioned director Browning’s 1932 classic FREAKS was a film that similarly sported a cast of disabled and distorted men and women, a move that repelled audiences and almost single-handedly demolished a once promising career. FREAKS’ notorious reputation has long since been exonerated due to the fact that the various deformed men and women are sympathetic characters, heroes in fact. In THE SENTINEL however, Winner is callously throwing them on screen in their natural state, without a shred of makeup, and positioning them as agents of Satan, as monsters, as evil, bloodthirsty ghouls.
Was it a sensitive move? Probably not, and Winner’s credibility was called into question by audiences and critics alike. But whatever your thoughts on this crass casting decision…it works. It really works and the picture is that much more unsettling for it.
There is also some debate as to the shadowy morality of the film (and the book from which it was culled) in that The Catholic Church seems almost as sinister and manipulative as the duel faced devils themselves. The fact that an obviously deeply disturbed young woman like Alison has but one choice to save her soul (remember, Catholics believe suicide to be one of the ultimate spits in the face of God) and that is to essentially give up her identity, is upsetting and depressing. She’s basically fucked no matter which deity she chooses to succumb too. This is far more manipulative a picture than The EXORCIST or even THE OMEN, but it’s without question the angriest and cruelest and goriest of the bunch.
Those who have not seen THE SENTINEL will be pleasantly shocked by the unflinching level of gruesome action on display, much of it courtesy of THE EXORCIST’s Dick Smith. From splitting, blood spurting heads and cannibalism to the show-stopping scene where Alison bisects an eyeball and hacks off the nose from the reanimated corpse of her abusive father, this pic pushes its ‘R’ rating around like a schoolyard bully, cramming in as much wince inducing nastiness (not to mention skeezy sexuality) as a 95 minute mainstream 70’s Hollywood horror flick can contain.
If you’re a fan of Italian horror, try to see the countless ways in which the great Lucio Fulci quotes this film in his 1981 masterwork THE BEYOND. And if you are indeed familiar with that magnum opus, note the last shot of THE SENTINEL and tell me old man Lucio didn’t prick up his ears and scribble some notes…
When THE SENTINEL was released, the Vietnam war was long over, disco was still king, Americans had recovered from, and come to terms with, their collective spiritual abyss and, the empty, coke-fueled, morally bankrupt, superficial 1980’s were just a heartbeat away. This, coupled with the general lack of audience interest in THE SENTINEL, not to mention the mini-controversy surrounding its sideshow climax, started Michael Winner on an unfortunate creative down-spiral that he never really recovered from. By the time Bronson wooed the director back for the successful yet ugly, cheap, mean and critically maligned Cannon Pictures produced sequel DEATH WISH 2 in 1982, the aging filmmaker’s reputation as B-level hack had been secured. Shame that. Because THE SENTINEL is probably the best film of Winner’s expansive career: a solid, disturbing, sick, often campy and occasionally unspeakably horrifying theological mystery ripe with cheap, visceral thrills.
With its mismatched, once in a lifetime cast (the likes of which also include the late Jerry Orbach and brief turns by the impossibly young Jeff Goldblum and Christopher Walken) and its cynical, jaundice eyed view of both Catholicism and society at large it is perhaps the last great intelligent theological horror film of the 1970’s.