31 Days to Scare ~ The Sentinel (1977)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young woman moves to an apartment in a building which houses a sinister evil.

Stars: Cristina Raines, Chris Sarandon, Eli Wallach, Martin Balsam, Jerry Orbach, Christopher Walken, Sylvia Miles, Beverly D’Angelo, John Carradine, Ava Gardner

Director: Michael Winner

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Largely due to the success of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, there was a huge boom in horror films with religious overtones released in the ‘70s.  Seemed like at the heart of every haunted house or strange acting neighbor was a gate to hell or devil possession.  It didn’t just stop on the sliver screen either, television movies got into the game as well with above average entries like Summer of Fear pitting Linda Blair against a devil-ish relative.  By the time The Sentinel was released to theaters in February of 1977 ,there wasn’t a whole lot movie-goers hadn’t already been exposed to.

What elevates The Sentinel a bit higher than its fellow occult brethren is a first-rate cast of big names, sure-handed direction from a director that knew his way around the material, and a script thoughtfully adapted from a best-selling novel.  Maintaining the mood of Jeffrey Konvitz’s popular 1974 tome, Konovitz and director Michael Winner lift the story from the page to the screen with ease, transferring a plot with several different threads into an efficient chiller with plenty of twists, turns, and more than its share of scares.  While it falls into excess at times and may invoke some winces seen through “woke” eyes, it makes it though largely on its high production values and overall sophistication.  Did I mention the cast?  It’s like The Love Boat for the inhabitants of Hell.

In New York City, in-demand model Allison (Cristina Raines) is looking for a place of her own.  Though cohabitating with her long-term boyfriend (Chris Sarandon), she’s never lived by herself and feels like she needs space to be independent.  All the apartments she finds are too expensive (even though an early montage shows Alison on no less than 7 major magazine covers so…how broke is she?) but fate takes her to the offices of Helen Logan (Ava Gardner) who just happens to have the perfect spot for her.  A handsome brownstone with a great view, the furnished apartment is hers for the bargain price of $500, no, make that $400.   It’s a no-brainer.  To the brownstone, Alison will go.

Haunted by a teenage trauma she carries with her even today, living alone doesn’t go so well for Alison.  Though she meets a kindly neighbor (Burgess Meredith) just after moving in, she begins to experience strange occurrences and hears another neighbor loudly clomping around above her bedroom during the night.  She begins to suffer horrible migraines and fainting spells, all unexplained events that coincided with her moving into her new apartment.  When she meets a few more neighbors that aren’t so genial (including a mute Beverly D’Angelo who does something rather explicit in front of Alison) and begins to be curious about the blind priest that lives on the top floor, she starts to investigate with the help of her boyfriend.  The more she learns about the history of the building, the deeper into darkness she’ll plunge because it’s not just the neighbors she has to be afraid of.

Director Winner had already made numerous films that had received acclaim before he took on The Sentinel so it’s easy to see why he didn’t have any trouble securing his roster of stars.  Rains makes for a lovely lead, even when she devolves into a sweaty screaming mess she has an air of dignity about her that makes us care for the character.  In smaller roles that may require them to exhibit perverse behavior (or simply act out a perversion), the veteran stars shine in their brief bits of screen time.  Gardner, in particular, seems to be taking glorious delight playing a glam grand dame of NY real estate.  Check out Christopher Walken (The Dead Zone) as a cop with no lines who is partnered with Eli Wallach called in to investigate when Rains goes off the deep end.   The bit parts could also double as a Before They Were Stars clip — so many people show up here that went on to have long careers.

The movie is problematic to be sure, with some attitudes toward different sexual orientations a bit passé and a finale that’s downright offensive…but it’s all a time capsule of the temperature of the time the movie was made and released.  Winner isn’t shy about showing a bundle of extremes be it gore or nudity so audiences are warned to gird their loins and steel themselves when the film goes barreling toward its abrupt but appropriate conclusion.  There’s quite a lot of good stuff going on here and it’s spooky enough to warrant a recommendation if you’re so inclined.