“Friendships can blossom into bliss - let the knife lead you to us, and make you well again.”
The Devil enjoyed an enviable big-screen run between the late 1960s and mid-1970s: Roman Polanski’s shocker Rosemary’s Baby (1968) had convinced us that the red guy with horns could be living with the goofy couple next door whereas Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) had shown us the dark lord was actually a choir boy compared to the perverse machinations of the Catholic Church and Vanessa Redgrave’s horny-in-other-ways Mother Superior. And then, of course, there was William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976), which proved that true satanic evil knows no bounds when it is packaged up inside the body of a child.
Along the way there were some less respectable, but still highly entertaining offerings: 1971’s The Mephisto Waltz, in which Alan Alda’s failed concert musician was forced to swap bodies with devil worshipping Curt Jürgens (although the most unbelievable part of that film were the scenes in which Alda mimed playing the piano), 1975’s Race with the Devil, when Peter Fonda discovered that cross-country vacations and redneck devil worshippers do not mix, and - probably the best of the bunch - the Robert Fuest-directed The Devil’s Rain (also 1975), in which Captain Kirk found yet another excuse to lose his shirt, this time while doing battle with a goat-headed Ernest Borgnine.
But all good things must come to an end, and it was Michael Winner’s The Sentinel (1977) that finally brought the curtain down on the devil’s fun.
Don’t get us wrong, The Sentinel isn’t a disastrous film (in fact, it’s arguably Michael Winner’s most enjoyable movie) but it isn’t exactly a success either. It is lightweight, exploitative, badly written (by Winner himself, although Jeffrey Konvitz’s shonky source novel didn’t give him a lot of room to manoeuvre) and flounders around a tepid lead performance from Cristina Raines, who looks gorgeous but was obviously saving her best work for Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, which was released later the same year. Still, she’s miles more watchable than her on-screen love interest Chris Sarandon, who is so nondescript and pimp-suited that when Universal executives saw the first rushes of the film they asked Michael Winner who the Greek waiter was. Winner had to remind them that Sarandon’s casting had been their decision, on the back of his Academy Award nomination for Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Still, we can’t be too hard on Sarandon. Eight years later, he would give a charmingly evil performance as the king vampire in Fright Night and, even better than that, his weaselly turn as Prince Humperdinck in 1987’s luminous The Princess Bride would have us all throwing popcorn at him from the back row. What better legacy is that?
So, enough chatter - what’s The Sentinel all about?
Alison Parker (Raines) is a successful model whose sanity has been teetering on the edge ever since she blundered into a bedroom where her naked emaciated father was having a cake orgy with two naked and distinctly un-emaciated hags. After her icing-flecked poppa angrily rips the crucifix off young Alison’s neck, she runs into the nearest bathroom and slashes her wrists, but it’s all okay because this is a flashback and now Alison is swishing her hair around Central Park while Jeff Goldblum snaps her photograph and boyfriend Sarandon takes her on romantic carriage rides.
But all is not well in Alison’s relationship with Michael (Sarandon), a dodgy high-flying lawyer who may or may not have something to do with his late wife’s death. Michael wants them to live together but Alison wants to find a place of her own “to prove I can take care of me”, which leads her to an ivy-clad New York brownstone and an austere wood-panelled apartment she can’t afford because it’s five hundred dollars a month - until realtor Miss Logan (Ava Gardner) automatically drops the price and pretends she actually said four hundred dollars and that Alison must have a hearing problem.
What a bargain, huh? With a deal like that, what could possibly go wrong? Surely it can’t have anything to do with the creepy Priest who is staring at Alison from the fifth-floor window because, as Miss Logan explains, “Father Halliran is blind… and kind of senile”.
“Blind? But then what does he look at?” Alison wonders, and you’ve got to give credit to composer Gil Mellé (whose score is one of the best parts of the movie) because he resists the urge to add a portentous ‘dum-dum-dum’ after she asks that question.
The next part of the story is largely uneventful, if you don’t count Alison inexplicably collapsing during a photo shoot and meeting her new neighbours - a puckish elderly gent called Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith), who shows up with a parakeet and a black and white cat and leaves her a photograph of himself as a house warming present (unhelpfully forgetting to sign it ‘From your new pal, the Lord of Flies’ although it’s pretty obvious that’s who he is) and a lesbian couple (Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo), who take public displays of affection and self-pleasuring to the next level, especially when D’Angelo decides to spread her legs in front of Alison and intently rub something off the crotch of her ballet tights. At least, we think that’s what she was doing.
Amusingly, when D’Angelo, who had just played Ophelia in the Broadway musical Rockabye Hamlet, wanted Winner’s assurance that the masturbation scene would be done with good taste, Winner apparently replied, “I won’t be doing it, darling. You will”.
But things really go awry when Chazen invites Alison to his cat’s birthday party and she meets the other people who live in her building, a motley crew who obviously failed the audition to play Mia Farrow’s neighbours in Rosemary’s Baby, but who couldn’t resist Winner’s offer to wear a party hat and play kookily sinister for all its worth. There’s obviously something deeply wrong about this crowd, which is underlined later that night when Alison dreams about being naked in front of them while a similarly naked D’Angelo crashes cymbals together (one slip and that could have been painful) and Michael watches impassively from a wicker chair. What is Alison’s subconscious trying to tell her? We’ll never know because some scarily heavy footsteps from the apartment upstairs wake her up and send her light fitting rocking (no, that’s not a euphemism).
When Alison returns to the realtor’s office to complain about her inconsiderate neighbour, she is told that, apart from the Priest, “No-one has lived in that building for three years”, which is the moment when anyone with half a survival instinct would have said “Don’t get me wrong, Ava. I loved you in Mogambo and that Tam Lin movie you made with Roddy McDowall but I don’t think this arrangement is going to work”, but where would be the fun in that? As Winner himself famously said: “If anyone in a horror movie behaved with any brain at all, the film would already be over”. Instead, the next time she hears the footsteps, our plucky heroine decides to check it out for herself, only to discover the ghoul of her dead father loping towards her from out of the shadows. Luckily, there’s a very sharp knife lying inexplicably close by and Dick Smith, the make-up genius from The Exorcist, is on hand with some squeamish eye-and-nose slashing prosthetic effects that still make us feel queasy more than forty years later. And Alison collapses again.
We won’t go into the rest of the story, except to say that police detectives Eli Wallach and Christopher Walken arrive on the scene and discover that all the neighbours Alison met at the cat’s birthday party are long-dead psycho killers, Arthur Kennedy (best known to genre fans from The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue) shows up as a dour-faced Monsignor to tell the now-suicidal Alison that Christ has a purpose for her (could it have anything to do with taking the creepy blind Priest’s place in the room upstairs?) and Michael discovers that his girlfriend is being lined up by the local diocese to - yes, you guessed it, take the creepy blind Priest’s place in the room upstairs. Because the Priest is the sentinel who’s guarding the gateway to Hell, but if Charles Chazen and his cohorts can convince Alison to kill herself before she accepts the job then Hell will be victorious and its denizens will be free to roam roughshod over New York City. Presumably. Or maybe they’d just prefer to stay indoors and throw more animal birthday parties. It’s never incredibly clear what their agenda is.
As most horror fans will already know, it is the climactic scene in the film -– when the Hellspawn arise and stagger zombie-like around the brownstone while Burgess Meredith climbs on a chair and, in a fun callback to his days as TV’s Penguin, ineffectually growls “Attack! Attack!” - for which The Sentinel is most notorious, mainly because Winner hired actors with actual physical deformities to play the demons. It was a choice that many viewers still consider a step too far, but Winner always defended his decision. “We needed a lot of denizens from Hell,” the director remembered in an interview several years later, “but we had a measly budget and we couldn’t have afforded to have all them in make-up for seven hours before they were due on set, so I chose genuinely deformed people to play those roles. They loved it. When the film opened in their hometowns they sent me press cuttings”. On one hand, we’ve got to admire Winner’s balls (presumably not the two that are seemingly hanging off one of the Hellspawn’s chins) while rolling our eyes at his crassness, but not even Tod Browning could recover his career after he ‘exploited for commercial reasons the deformed people’ in his 1932 film Freaks (that’s what the BBFC said, anyway) so how Winner thought he could get away with it unscathed is anyone’s guess.
Still, despite a lukewarm box office and a critical mauling, The Sentinel has developed a cult following over the intervening years and it’s easy to see why. As a slow-burn horror film (Winner, in his usual (im)modest way, considered it ‘glamorous’, ‘elegant’, and ‘Hitchcockian’), it does exactly what it says on the tin. It holds our interest for most of its running time, is occasionally disconcerting and fleetingly nasty, and the central conceit of a gateway to Hell - although very hackneyed now - was quite a novel idea at the time. In fact, without The Sentinel, we might not have Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (1981) or Tibor Takács’ ‘so bad it’s good’ The Gate (1987). And, if you really squint hard through your rose-coloured glasses, you could almost convince yourself that The Sentinel is the schlocky ginger stepchild of Rosemary’s Baby - it’s obvious that Burgess Meredith is attempting to channel Rosemary’s wonderful Ruth Gordon during his initial scenes with Alison, not least in the moment when his character invites himself into Alison’s apartment and starts nosing around her belongings, which is a dead steal from Polanski’s film (and, before that, Ira Levin’s novel).
Before Winner came onboard, several screenwriters had attempted to adapt The Sentinel (including the book’s author), but with no success. Sales of the hardback had been paltry so Universal put the project into turnaround until the paperback was released and suddenly hit the bestseller lists, presumably capitalising on the phenomena that was William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. When Universal’s President Ned Tanen approached Winner at a party and contracted him to write a new version of the screenplay, he had no idea if Winner was even capable of the assignment. Winner ended up writing the screenplay in two weeks, but held off submitting it for another fortnight in case the execs thought it had been a rush job. He shouldn’t have worried. Tanen was so pleased with the result that he didn’t hesitate giving the project the greenlight and assigning Winner as director, but when Winner said he wanted Martin Sheen for the role of Alison’s boyfriend, Tanen refused because he considered Sheen to be a television actor. However, the director got his way with most of the other casting and the film is loaded with cameos from Hollywood’s greats, which is part of its charm. It is also notable for early big screen appearances from Goldblum, Walken, D’Angelo and a pre-Platoon Tom Berenger, who is shown around the newly rebuilt apartment by Ava Gardner at the end of the film (courtesy of a lovely exterior matte painting by master illusionist Albert Whitlock). There are no prizes for guessing what Berenger and his girlfriend are being lined up for. Only Alison, who is now a desiccated Nun staring blindly out of the top floor window, knows the truth.
Although Winner publicly said Cristina Raines did a decent job in the leading role, he was upset at her refusal to appear nude on camera (her disrobing during the birthday party nightmare is the result of some tricky editing) and thought that D’Angelo would have made a better Alison if the studio had had the nerve to back her. As for Raines, her memories of making The Sentinel were mostly good although a lot of strange things purportedly happened while they were shooting at the Brooklyn Heights brownstone, when she found out that the apartment she was using as her dressing room had been rented by a Priest, it felt as if fact was swerving uncomfortably close to fiction.
So, is The Sentinel worth our time? As a Horror Obscura curiosity, absolutely. As a genuinely devilish horror, not so much. But one thing’s for sure - if you switch off your inner critic and take it for what it is, The Sentinel is still a hell of a lot of fun.
Prepare to enter the gates of Hell as THE SENTINEL screens on Horror Channel on March 9th. Sky 319, Virgin 149, Freeview 149, Freesat 138.