The Sentinel (1977)

Sentinal PosterChris Sarandon in a wimpy little silent movie star mustache, a woman playing with herself as she’s meeting her new neighbor, and a cat in a birthday party hat. Yes, this is clearly a laundry list of absurd randomness, the stuff nightmares are made of, but if you would have spent more time in church on Sunday rather than tailgating, you’d also instantly recognize this as the foul doings of Old Scratch, Satan himself!

That The Sentinel fails on so many levels is never in question. The characters are either preternaturally stupid (the model who moves into her own place for no reason) or off-puttingly stereotypical (the slimy lawyer, the slimy private eye, the duplicitous church official, the pissed off cop) while the story is a limp haunted house movie with a 1970s Exorcist/Rosemary’s Baby paint job that can’t disguise how little sense any of it makes.

For instance, am I really supposed to believe that the gateway to hell is located in a fashionable brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, NY and that the only thing keeping the devil and his minions from pouring into this world and somehow making the world worse than it already is, is an old blind priest who sits in a chair on the top floor staring creepily out the window 24/7?

Even more ludicrous is the scene of the model sitting clear across her living room from her 12 inch TV to watch her own commercial about shampoo. The attendant eyestrain alone would be enough to cause even the hardiest fashion models to start seeing visions of demons!

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But Allison Parker is no ordinary scaredy-cat fashion model! She has a history of emotional problems and thankfully The Sentinel is the sort of tacky film that masquerades as a thriller and therefore feels obligated to showcase these moments. Thus we are treated to a flashback to when Allison was a teenager and walked in on her very naked elderly dad going at it with two fat chicks. Her dad isn’t some kind of pervert who gets off on his nosy daughter peeping him and he not surprisingly slaps her around. Allison overreacts, runs to the bathroom and slits her wrists in a suicide attempt! Maybe next time she’ll knock!

That backstory along with her mother’s subsequent refusal to leave her husband is partly used to clumsily set up why a successful fashion model living with her high powered attorney boyfriend suddenly wants to live on her own, despite continuing the relationship with the attorney and despite there not being any problems while the two are living together.

This rickety contrivance is necessary because it’s the lawyer who does all the snooping around, unravelling what is happening in the apartment building while Allison spends her days fainting and having visions of lesbians, getting attacked by a zombie version of her dad, and attending Burgess Merediths’s cat’s birthday party. If she broke up with the lawyer to move out, the plot wouldn’t have had anyone to investigate for the audience and if she never moved out of her love nest in the first place, there’s no movie at all.

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The clues to what is happening present themselves as they usually do in these half-baked occult dramas. Coincidence (a character half remembers a name from somewhere else and looks it up) and the omnipresent filing cabinet with the secret files that cause the lawyer to instantly jump to the right conclusion (Allison’s going to die tonight! I better get to the haunted house right now to do…something!) are the order of the day.

The ill-thought out climax presents the audience with the problem of not caring too much about what happens to the attorney (the revelations about his sordid past precludes anyone from rooting for him) while Allison’s only choice is to either be driven insane by the devil and his cronies (many are played by real-life disabled people in a tasteless salute to Tod Browning’s Freaks) and kill herself where she’ll spend an eternity in hell or to take the place of the blind priest as the titular Sentinel for the rest of her days on Earth.

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That the priests show up to drive away the demons from Allison at the last minute is the film’s final cheat as you wonder where the hell they’ve been since they knew all along this was happening that night.

Nothing was satisfactorily explained about why such an important religious mission was handled in such a half-assed and convoluted way. Why did the church have to get the Sentinels the way they did? Weren’t there any volunteers for the job? Was there something about needing people who had attempted suicide? Was Satan trying to corrupt my soul by making me laugh whenever something supposedly spooky happened like when Allison starts seeing Latin in books even though they are really – gasp – written in English? And why is there a gateway to hell in Brooklyn and not the Bronx?

And in a movie featuring the likes of Ava Gardner, Eli Wallach, Burgess Meredith, Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, Chris Sarandon, John Carradine, Martin Balsam, Arthur Kennedy, José Ferrer, and even a young Tom Berenger, how was the vacuous and wooden Cristina Raines cast as Allison? Now, that surely was the work of the devil!

© 2013 MonsterHunter

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