Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter

Sometime in 1976, I heard that a movie called The Sentinel was being made, and it was reputed to be a scary one. Well, yay — one of my favorite things! Shortly thereafter, I came upon Jeffrey Konvitz's 1974 novel in the local bookstore. Since I'd heard of the movie — and the book's cover intrigued me — I picked it up and immediately commenced to reading. Yeah; in short order, I came down with a case of the nightly creeps. So, when the movie was released, I rushed right out to see it. It didn't really disappoint me, but it didn't stand up to the book, and, afterward, the movie didn't linger much in my memory.

Or so I thought. In reality, my brain had packed away much of the film's imagery, and while I might not have been keenly aware of it, I'm pretty sure bits and pieces of it have stolen into some of my own fiction over the years. Since it's been at least 15 or 20 years since I last saw it, The Sentinel struck me as just the movie to watch on Halloween Eve.

I've been a sucker for Christian-based horror since I was a youngster, largely because I was brought up Methodist, and our old church in Martinsville had lots of dark, ominous corridors; a pipe organ that boomed out music fit to wake the damned; and an old parsonage where we had our youth group meetings that could have stood in for any Hollywood haunted house. The Sentinel may not be the cinematic masterpiece The Exorcist was, or offer the visceral jabs of The Omen, but it is one of those sincere 1970s horror movies that both entertains and has the potential to be a little unsettling.

Until tonight, I had no recollection of what a star-studded cast this movie features. Though female lead Cristina Rains, who plays model Alison Parker, never became quite a household name, we do get a very young Chris Sarandon as a sympathetic yet oddly sinister lawyer (maybe because Chris Sarandon is always a bit oddly sinister); Jerry Orbach as director of a commercial in which Alison stars; Eli Wallach (one of my all-time favorite actors) as a quirky police detective; Christopher Walken as Wallach's mostly silent partner; Martin Balsam as a quirky college professor; John Carradine as the blind Father Hallorin; Arthur Kennedy as enigmatic Monsignor Franchino; Jose Ferrer as a seldom-seen secretive priest; William Hickey as a safe-cracker; Jeff Goldblum as a photographer (and whose voice is dubbed, of all things); Robert Gerringer (Dr. Woodard from Dark Shadows) as a police captain; Ava Gardner as a real estate agent; Beverly D'Angelo as a voiceless lesbian who enjoys stimulating herself — quite graphically; Burgess Meredith as Alison's quirkiest, most eccentric neighbor; Deborah Raffin as Alison's best friend, Jennifer; and even Tom Berenger and Richard Dreyfus in teeny, tiny, barely noticeable parts.
Deborah Raffin as Jennifer and Cristina Rains as model Alison Parker
Very young Chris Sarandon as Alison's lawyer-boyfriend Michael Lerman
New York model Alison Parker (Rains) and boyfriend Michael Lerman (Sarandon) are in love but need some space from each other, so Alison rents an apartment in an old five-story brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. She is immediately struck by the fact that a reputedly blind priest inhabits the uppermost floor and spends virtually every hour of every day staring sightlessly from his apartment window. She soon meets her other neighbors, none of whom are even slightly "normal" — including the bumbling, lovable Mr. Charles Chazen (Meredith), who keeps a rather vicious cat named Jezebel and a parakeet named Mortimer; a pair of bizarre lesbians, Gerde (Sylvia Miles) and Sandra (D'Angelo), the latter of whom gives Alison quite a provocative show; and several others whose disconcerting mannerisms cause Alison no little anxiety. Much to her shock, however, Alison's real estate agent informs her that, apart from the blind priest and herself, the building is uninhabited. Indeed, upon investigation, all of the apartments in which she met these strange denizens are now empty and clearly unused.

Soon, Alison sees her father (Fred Stuthman) — a vile lecher who recently died — wandering the apartment, and he viciously attacks her. She fends him off with a butcher knife from her kitchen, and he appears to be dead... again. However, the police find no trace of his body. Alison's mental state quickly deteriorates, forcing her to undergo psychiatric treatment; she is considered high-risk because, after learning of her father's depraved behavior, she attempted to commit suicide. Meanwhile, Michael takes the initiative to investigate matters on his own. He discovers that the people she claims to have seen in the apartment are all convicted murderers — and all dead. He also learns that the blind priest once had another name and had attempted suicide before becoming a priest. Not only that, but a host of priests and nuns from his particular church — going back over a hundred years — had attempted suicide before changing their names and assuming their roles in the church. Knowing Alison's background, he believes she is somehow being groomed to follow in their footsteps.

However, Michael's most shocking revelation comes when he learns the apartment in which Alison resides is nothing less than a gateway to hell itself, and the blind priest — and his predecessors, whose identities Michael had discovered — is a "sentinel," whose role is to prevent the damned from entering this world.
Burgess Meredith as the eccentric, all-too-friendly Mr. Charles Chazen
Be sure and stay sharp in case your lecherous dad decides to return from the dead.
Characteristic of movies from its era, The Sentinel takes its time unfolding, allowing the air of mystery and outright eeriness to gradually creep to the forefront. From the beginning, the sense of wrongness about the apartment and its inhabitants is evident but relatively subtle, until — during a birthday party for Charles Chazen's cat — we see that every soul in the place is just a looney mess. Even the more benign characters have their amusing idiosyncrasies — such as Eli Wallach's police detective, who sounds like a cynical, wise-cracking Columbo, and Martin Balsam's absent-minded professor, who delivers a few smile-worthy lines.

As events take us down an increasingly trauma-ridden road, we get a wee smidgen of gore, which isn't all that convincing, though it ups the pace of the film just a bit. Among the most disturbing images are some of the escapees from hell toward the end of the picture, many of whom are actual disfigured and malformed extras. The finale goes a bit over the top, but not to the point of silliness, which has been the curse of so many supernatural-based horror movies otherwise played straight. Novel author Jeffrey Konvitz is the film's writer and producer, and keeps the screenplay reasonably true to the source material. I quite appreciate the nods to the poet John Milton, such as some relevant lines from Paradise Lost and the fact the priest is blind. Composer Gil Melle, of Night Stalker fame, provides a score with lots of familiar motifs that are uniquely and agreeably 1970s, and at times in this film, it would have been damn near fitting for Carl Kolchak himself to break into the scene.

The Sentinel offers some pretty decent Halloween shudders, some memorable scenes (Beverly D'Angelo in red leotard and tights showing herself how to have fun is just one of many), and a fair number of 1970s stars for the money. I give this movie three and a half out of five Damned Rodan's Dirty Firetinis.
Why yes, that is Sylvia Miles and Beverly D'Angelo feasting on a down-and-out fellow.

1 comment:

Greg Hill said...

Just finished watching it...pretty good flick! :)