Saturday, May 29, 2021

Movie Reviews: The Sentinel (1977)

The Sentinel (1977)
directed by Michael Winner
There was a brief time in the late sixties thru the early eighties when horror movies, despite always being considered cinema's ugly stepchild, were able to attract top of the line actors and writers. 
And even though some horror films always tended toward Grand Guignol, there were quite a few others that relied more on atmosphere and implications of things unseen than on nudity and bloodshed. The Sentinel is somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. Some of the nudity is more disturbing than erotic. 
The Sentinel was not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination. The lead actress' performance is not that compelling, probably because she is more the object of the story than subject. If a studio ever remade this movie I am sure that the female lead would have much more to do besides a lot of screaming, whining, and fainting.
Still The Sentinel does manage to give the viewer a sufficient sense of unease, fright and occasional disgust while initially avoiding the buckets of blood approach that today too often defines the genre. 
Make no mistake though, some of the film's special effects were considered excessive and exploitive even for the time. The ending sees the director put his foot on the gas pedal in that regard. Your mileage may vary with that. 
Like Kubrick's The ShiningThe Sentinel often shows you something that your brain will register as disturbing but doesn't always linger on it long enough to let you see what it is. Some of The Sentinel's themes and inferences would be unacceptable in today's modern post-feminist climate. Much of this movie might be best understood through a Freudian lens. 
The Sentinel is definitely one of those movies that my brother now says my parents wouldn't have let me view if they had known about it. I say that might be true but no one likes a snitch. My brother knew to keep his mouth shut. Watching this movie as a kid I thought it was pretty scary. Watching it now, all these years later, I am still impressed by how much the simple mechanisms of noises in dark and empty rooms, people engaging in gaslighting, and being alone are the building blocks of horror/thriller movies.
The Sentinel appeared on the heels of such films as Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), and The Omen (1976). It doesn't quite measure up to those three films but they are all in the same universe. All of the movies are spooky dark films that reference deep conspiracies and/or slowly build dread. Not everything is explained. 

Allison Parker (Cristina Raines) is a fashion model who works out of New York City. She has a troubled family history, specifically with her late father. The film doesn't spell out exactly what the issues were but if you know your Freud then I don't think the film needs to do that. Allison has a track record of attempting suicide. 
Allison is now in a relationship with an attorney Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon), who is simultaneously concerned, protective, sleazy, and disingenuous in his dealings with his fiancee. Michael is also a recent widower. His wife died under some suspicious circumstances. So that leaves Michael free to propose marriage to his former sidepiece, now official girlfriend, Allison.
But Allison's not so sure she wants to be Mrs. Lerman just yet. Allison wants time to think about it at her own pace and in her own place. To that end Allison contacts a real estate agent Miss Logan (Ava Gardner) and gets her own apartment in a Brooklyn brownstone. Everything is nice and quiet there. It will give Allison space to recover from her busy days and Michael's demanding ways. 

Unfortunately shortly after moving in, Allison's health and state of mind take a turn for the worse. Allison starts having insomnia; she faints on modeling shoots. Allison hears noises and music in the apartment building late at night. She has bad dreams. 
One night Allison meets a friendly tiny older man named Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith) who says he is her neighbor. Charles invites Allison to a birthday party for his cat. 
Charles says this will be a good opportunity for some hospitality and for Allison to meet the other building residents. The party is fun at first but soon turns odd. All of the other people seem rather eccentric (not in a good way) and entirely too interested in Allison, especially the lesbian couple Gerde (Sylvia Miles) and Sandra (Beverly D'Angelo).
When Allison talks to Logan about her strange and noisy neighbors, Logan tells her that Allison and the blind priest Father Halliran (John Carradine) are the building's only tenants. Logan even shows Allison the empty apartments where Allison claimed to have met people. Well that's no good. Allison insists she's not crazy. 

To allay his girlfriend's worries Michael arranges (off the record) for a police buddy to look into things. This goes bad one night when (Freud again) Allison thinks she defends herself with a knife from her naked (deceased) father, killing him in the process. Hysterical and covered in blood, Allison runs into the street. Michael's cop buddy is missing. No one is able to find any corpse in the brownstone. Well an event like that will bring some official police attention.
Other detectives investigate the now hospitalized Allison and Michael. Michael looks more deeply into the identity and strange history of the building's owners and the background of the mysterious Father Halliran. Let's just say no one likes what they find. Other actors of note in this movie include Christopher Walken, Eli Wallach, Jeff Goldblum, Martin Balsam, Jerry Orbach, Tom Berenger, William Hickey, and Jose Ferrer. The music is suitably disturbing and creepy. I loved the interior building shots.

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