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.Continue reading “On THE SENTINEL”