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John’s Horror Corner: The Sentinel (1977)

June 30, 2012

Duuuude!  The guy in the background reminds me of the Tall Man from the Phantasm movies.

MY CALL:  Discovering a sick piece of cinema previously foreign provokes excitement, doesn’t it?  This 70s Hell-flick attempts, and fails, to ride the coattails of The Exorcist.  But fret not.  The lead actress is nice to watch, a few scenes are quite memorable (though, perhaps, wasted on this movie), and you’ll get more than a few eye-rolling laughs out of, what I hope will become, a newfound classic in your eyes.  IF YOU LIKE THIS WATCH:  Somehow I haven’t reviewed my share of 70s and 80s Satanic/possession movies.  So I have no good suggestions for you yet.  Future reviews of such nature, however, will likely point to this flawed, ill-colored diamond.  DISCLAIMER:  This is one of those reviews that was too fun to write.  As such, I gave away a lot of the plot, twists (if any) and ending.

The opening scene of this Exorcist-rip is in Italy.  This created a great deal of concern in me.  I mean, a lot of great material hails from Italy…it’s just that they’re all Lucio Fulci movies.  You see, both The Rite (2011) and The Devil Inside (2012) take place in Italy and they were both atrocities.  Thankfully we swiftly cut to New York City—away from CrappyPossessionMovieVille, Italy—and never look back.

Cristina Raines stars as a successful model, Allison Parker, and she is lovely.  [I mean, like, how geeks think Olivia Munn is the work of God lovely.]

We learn that Allison has a troubled past.  (Cue the flashback)  After a traumatic experience involving her father and some overweight hookers she had attempted to kill herself. Back to the present—er, “1977 present”—she really wants to get her own apartment even though things seem fine with her boyfriend (Michael; Chris Sarandon of Fright Night old and new), a lawyer who wants to marry her.

They seem quite happy and he is rather untroubled considering this decision.  I suppose her father’s frightful infidelity has left her a bit damaged.  Thanks, Mr. Director, for that subtle cue.  Much to her boyfriend’s displeasure, she looks into a cheap, furnished, luxurious apartment.  The selling agent suspiciously lures her into signing the lease by lowering the price (from $600 to $400/month) and pretending she never said $400 from the start.  I delighted in the mere idea that a furnished Brooklyn apartment with a view—even in 1977—could be considered expensive at $600 a month, and that one built on the Gateway to Hell is a steal at $400. In this hostile market, one would pay extra for such a feature.  This is one of those moments that makes you go Hmmm.  There will be a lot of those moments where you ask yourself how does she not see that this is strange?  or how does this fit into everything? The building also is home to a way-creepy blind priest (John Carradine of Buried Alive, The Nesting, The Howling) who stares out the window all the time.  Hmmm.  We later discover that the Diocese of NY owns the building.  Hmmm.  And for whatever reason she cannot get phone service in her apartment or even find a phone in her building—you know, to f*cking call help when necessary.  Hmmm…totally normal.

Once she moves in, of course, weird things start happening.  First, she starts having feinting spells.  Now I know what you’re thinking…this MUST be important, right?  Nah.  But you really put on your sleuthing cap when she starts meeting her neighbors, though.  They’re all conspicuously strange.  Burgess Meredith (Rocky) plays her very wacky male-cat-lady equivalent neighbor.

Then there are her leotarded lesbian neighbors, one being the semi-mute, over-sexualized Sandra (Beverly D’Angelo of HBO’s Entourage), who awkwardly masturbates in front of her for minutes—MINUTES!!!

Allison gets invited to a cat’s birthday party and meets yet more weird people, but the cat’s the real star here.

Allison starts having trouble sleeping.  She starts hearing things from the empty apartment above her at the witching hour (3:30am).  She encounters something truly horrifying while investigating these sounds: a cat eating a dead bird!  I don’t know if you’ve ever owned a cat.  But they eat dead birds from time to time.  No biggie.  A total failure to be scary on the part of the director; but unintentionally successful at making me laugh!

Anyway, as this manner of feral barbarism is clearly unacceptable, she meets with the selling agent to complain.  Here Allison learns that she and the blind priest are the only occupants of the building.  Hmmm…WEAK!  So far the backstory has been thorough, somewhat interesting, but business is getting done slower than a constipated sloth with a limp.  Here is where I began to worry about the rest of this movie.  The two of them check the apartments where the cat’s little suaree and the scissor sisters were and they’re just dusty tombs.

Allison starts seeing more things.  Her visions correspond to a long dead murderess’ actions and the phantom tenants of her hallucinations are long dead murderers, too.  Who does Allison see in her next visions but her dead dad and now-zombified whores.  She cuts off his nose and pops his eyeball like a giant zit.  Finally, some entertaining culty gore!

Then she starts “seeing Latin” instead of the words in the pages of a book.  The Latin she scribes troubles a suspicious priest, who we later find out doesn’t even f*cking exist.  Her sleuthing fiancée investigates the blind priest, who retired after a church congregation disbanded and the church was torn down.  The priest he questioned seemed quite secretive and worried about it all.  Not sure where this is all leading?  Well, this won’t help!  Then, the cops (Eli Wallach and Christopher Walken) think Michael is involved in some old murder cases loosely linked to Allison’s visions.  Huh?  Michael keeps investigating and learns that there has been a long series of people attempting suicide, disappearing, and then re-emerging as priests and nuns with all-new aliases, living in that apartment building!!!!

Now, at this point, we have had so many clues, leads and red herrings thrown in our face that this feels no more organized than a monkey shit-fight at the zoo.  I’d like to tell you not to worry; that there will be some form of synthesis…but I can’t.  Instead I would like to refer you to the three other movie posters for The Sentinel that I chose not to show you at the beginning of the review.

Note the three sentences on the left…

And again…

There, have you read it?  You get it?  Good.  Now you not only know what the plot of the movie is, what the director and writer failed to illustrate through story and character development, and what’s going to happen next.  Shall we continue?

[I wonder where the gate is?  I wonder, if she is next, who is the sentinel now?]

So now we see that the plot development is somehow both obvious and disjointed.  It has all been building up to the campy but massively awesome “opening of the Hellgate” ending, wherein the director hired actual carnival freaks to portray the demons of Hell—which was so f*cking sick and scary when I saw this as an impressionable early-90s-era preteen, and so absolutely not scary here and now in 2012. I mean, they’re all just sort of standing there and not posing any real menace.

In today’s cinema, they’d be ripping Cristina Raines’ skin off.  Anyway, this was the only thing the director did right (i.e., hiring them, not architecting the scene) and it made for a kind homage to the classic chiller Freaks (1932).  However, instead of an uber-creepy mantra from the demons of Hell like One of us, one of us… we get Michael stupidly declaring “I am one of the them!” as he reveals a massive headwound with all the cadence of a teenager telling a ghost story with a flashlight in their face.

The ending is not entirely lost, though.  The final shot of Alison—decrepit, blind, and entombed in a nun’s habit—retains some impact.

SIDERBAR:  Some interesting before-they-were-stars casting include Jeff Goldblum (Morning Glory, The Switch) as her photographer, Christopher Walken and Eli Wallach as policemen, Tom Berenger as the next guy to move into the ill-fated Hell’s Gate apartment, and an uncredited Richard Dreyfuss (Piranha 3D).

27 Comments leave one →
  1. June 30, 2012 9:38 am

    A constipated sloth with a limp? I love it.

    • johnleavengood permalink
      June 30, 2012 9:46 am

      Much obliged, my good sir.

  2. clpants permalink
    January 22, 2013 11:13 pm

    I loved the movie, personally. Wonderfully campy and incredibly creepy. Thought the circus freaks were just as scary now as they’ve always been. See also: weird, overweight hookers were also kind of creepy. Sick movie all around.
    Followed the plot along perfectly, although yes, it was a bit uneven. But I don’t really look for plot in movies such as these. I look for a good time, and it definitely brought me a good time.
    If you want a really uneven plot that makes little to no sense, check out John Carpenter’s “Prince of Darkness.” Fun, but not nearly as fun as “The Sentinel.”

    • johnleavengood permalink
      January 23, 2013 7:24 am

      Wow. I love (to laugh at) Prince of Darkness. Demon-possessed zombies which spew water fountain streams of evil from their mouths (and into your mouth!) in order to “turn” you to the dark side? Yes, please. The crazy guy from Big Trouble in Little China trying to out-science the Devil with physics? Yes again! A bunch of grad students in an abandoned whatever researching the paranormal? Any day of the week!!!

      Good call, CLPants!

  3. July 7, 2013 6:13 pm

    Despite the silliness of the film, Jeffrey Konvitz’ 1974 novel is fantastic, as is it’s seldom-read sequel, 1979’s THE GUARDIAN, which features one of the darkest endings of all time.

    • johnleavengood permalink
      August 25, 2013 9:32 am

      Did they make a movie about that?

      • August 25, 2013 6:30 pm

        Nope. But the novel is a quick, satisfying read.


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