A Movie A Day: Quint is THE SENTINEL (1977) She went to a party with eight dead murderers!
Published at: Dec. 9, 2008, 8:45 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection or from my DVR and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Let me run over this cast… John Carradine, Martin Balsam, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, Burgess Meredith, Jerry Orbach, Beverly D’Angelo, Arthur Kennedy, Eli Wallach and Ava Gardener. Amazing, right? Now imagine them in a sloppy, poorly filmed, but adequately disturbing horror film and you get an idea of what THE SENTINEL is like.
I can only imagine the reason for this film was pitched and pushed as a way to take advantage of THE EXORCIST’s success. There’s a heavy religious, specifically Catholic, thread in this film.
The film is the story of a model with a very troubled past. She attempted suicide as a young girl, but has finally settled down with a lawyer (Chris Sarandon). He himself isn’t an angel, but he seems to care for this girl.
There’s something wrong between them, a shadow that hangs over their relationship. We uncover pieces as the movie goes on, but the main gist is that she was having an affair with him when he was still married. His then wife died under mysterious circumstances, leaving him free, but that hangs over the relationship.
The model, Alison (played by Cristina Raines), is apartment hunting, ignoring Sarandon’s pleas to get a place for the two of them. She wants the freedom and that takes her to a little place in Manhattan where the story takes roots.
I’m going to go into some spoilers with the rest of the piece because the finale is part of what makes the movie work… in fact, it’s the whole reason why I would even recommend this movie. I usually avoid super spoilers in these reviews in case there are readers who want to discover these films themselves, so forgive the diversion with this installment.
Basically, Alison runs into other residents of this apartment building throughout the film. There’s her nutty, but seemingly harmless next door neighbor Charles Chazon, played with great kook by Burgess Meredith, who walks into her apartment holding his cat in one arm and talking to a canary on his left shoulder. Besides treating these animals like they were people (he even throws a birthday party for his cat later on) he seems to be sane enough. You can excuse a lot of his eccentricity as a result of his age.
Then there are the lesbians who live on the ground floor. They’re not only extremely… public… with their lust, they also are just creepy. One’s older (Sylvia Miles) and one’s young (Beverly D’Angelo) and D’Angelo doesn’t speak… just looks longingly at Raines while rubbing her crotch. I’m not kidding. There’s an incredibly uncomfortable scene where they’re left alone together and D’Angelo double-clicks her mouse until orgasm, causing Raines to initially laugh, then look away, then run out of the room.
Watching over everything is a locked room on the top floor containing what we’re told is an old, blind priest. He’s a shut-in and his silhouette can always be seen in the window. He just sits and looks out.
The filmmaking is fucking awful. Sorry, Michael Winner. I don’t know what the hell troubled this production, but they looped most of the dialogue and the canned acting really drags this movie down. That’s not the fault of most of the actors (Jeff Goldblum gets the worse treatment, playing a photographer). I can’t imagine how difficult it is to try to match what’s on the screen with the same emotion from before, especially when it seems they’re tasked not to only loop small portions, but damn near their entire performances.
Add on to that a horrible lead performance from Cristina Raines and you’d think this was an unsavable mess, but that’s where the rub is. It’s a movie I would recommend and I think enough works to redeem some of the worse aspects.
The story itself is the main redeemer. This apartment building is the gateway to hell. The church owns the building and the priest in the attic is The Sentinel, chosen (I guess) by God to stand guard over the gateway.
The position is very specific and we come to find out that Raines is chosen to take over for the ailing old man. In order to be a Sentinel you must have attempted suicide. Taking the position insures forgiveness for the otherwise unforgivable sin of suicide.
When we find this out, we also find out that all the residents of the apartment complex weren’t actually there. The only (living) people in the building were Raines and the priest. Meredith, the lesbos and a handful of other people we meet aren’t ghosts, but demons, residents of hell trying to drive Raines crazy.
You see, the transition between one Sentinel to another is the one chance for the residents of hell to take influence things enough to permanently open the doorway between hell and earth. If they can either convince the new Sentinel to go through with a successful suicide or drive them insane enough to take their own life then the gate will be unguarded and they can come into the living world.
I love that concept, I love the moral choice it forces the very conflicted lead to make. Do you live in-between hell and earth for the rest of your natural life for your redemption or do you reign in hell, joining family and loved ones (in this case, Sarandon, who we find out did murder his wife, so is damned to hell upon his death).
And I just like the idea of demons trying to make you commit suicide, giving you horrible nightmares of your dead father, making you think you’re going mad.
The premise is pretty awesome and the finale is great. Michael Winner actually hires real people from freakshows for the ending as the citizens of hell start flooding the apartment. There are little people, disfigured people, face-cancer people that would give Clive Barker a tingly warm feeling in the pit of his stomach, elephant man type people, lizard women, etc. I felt bad for it, but they really did add to the disturbing atmosphere of the finale.
All the acting outside of Cristina Raines and her friend, Jennifer (Deborah Raffin), is fine and some of it is outstanding. Meredith can do no wrong in my book and Sarandon only sucks on some of his looping delivery. Mid-‘70s naked Beverly D’Angelo is enjoyable. Eli Wallach as a cop with Christopher Walken as his partner? I want a movie of just those two… actually, I want a series of movies… fire up the flux capacitor, Doc, and let’s get them going in the ‘70s and have it be a series that is still running.
I know I’ve invoked the dreaded “R” word in this column before, but of almost everything I’ve seen during my AMAD journey so far this one cries out to be remade the most. The lead’s acting is horrible, which hurts the movie greatly since she’s the one we’re supposed to be fearing for… she’s our connection into this story and it makes it hard to be invested in someone so half-assed. And they waste so many great actors. Ava Gardner is great as the real estate lady who knows a little more than she lets on, but like most of the other known names she doesn’t get a moment to call her own. But the story is there. The concept is there.
With a better filmmaker, a better script and a competent lead, this story could make a great film. Maybe we’ll see that happen some day. If Hollywood insists on churning out horror remake after horror remake, they might as well be remaking the flawed entries into the genre.
Final Thoughts: As I mentioned above, the story is there. It’s very interesting and you get some great turns by awesome character actors and some undeniably great horror imagery, but a horrible lead and crappy filmmaking keep this one from being as great as it should be.
Here’s what we have lined up for the next week:
Tuesday, December 9th: HOW TO STEAL A MILLION (1966)
Wednesday, December 10th: WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT? (1965)
Thursday, December 11th: BEING THERE (1979)
Friday, December 12th: THE PARTY (1968)
Saturday, December 13th: CASINO ROYALE (1967)
Sunday, December 14th: THE STRANGER (1946)
Monday, December 15th: BROTHER ORCHID (1940)
Tomorrow we follow Tuco himself over to the ‘70s comedy HOW TO STEAL A MILLION co-starring Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn and directed by William Wyler. See you folks for that one!