All good things must come to an end and, in the Devil’s case, it was summer 1977 when Universal Pictures released ‘The Sentinel’.

I wouldn’t feel too bad for him though. He’d had a pretty good run. He’d knocked up Mia Farrow in 1968’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, he’d played Captain Howdy with 13 year old Linda Blair in 1973’s ‘The Exorcist’ and in 1976 he was back again with ‘The Omen’, the film that (according to the documentary ‘The Curse of The Omen’) “Satan didn’t want to be made” which might explain why, while The Horned One’s disapproval was firmly fixed on Richard Donner and crew, Michael Winner got to make ‘The Sentinel’ and ended up creating a movie that could only have been born in Hell.

You’ve got to give Winner some respect. As hack film directors go, he’s not a bad restaurant critic and he’s made a pretty good career out of making movies nobody goes to see. True, there was ‘Hannibal Brooks’ (1969) which stars a terrific Oliver Reed and was the best elephant-in-a-warzone movie ever made until Disney’s ‘Operation Dumbo Drop’ in 1995. And then there was 1974’s ‘Death Wish’ which used to be a violently misogynistic and mean-spirited vigilante thriller, but now – thanks to age and some really bad 1970s disco fashion – is just misogynistic and mean-spirited and Neil Jordan’s ‘The Brave One’ (2007) did it all so much better without the misogyny and with Jodie Foster in the Charles Bronson part.

But ‘Death Wish’ was a success, and Michael Winner’s career was definitely in the ascendant when he followed it up a year later with ‘Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood’… yep, moving on… and then, in 1977 – ‘The Sentinel’.

Winner wasn’t Universal’s first choice. They originally wanted Don Siegel to direct, and it’s fascinating to wonder what the man who helmed ‘Invasion of The Body Snatchers’ and ‘Dirty Harry’ would have done with this material, but Siegel turned them down because horror movies were outside his comfort zone. Which is probably why the next director they contacted was Michael Winner, who had proved with 1971’s deeply silly ‘The Nightcomers’ that horror movies weren’t inside his comfort zone either. But Michael Winner’s a hack with the unaccountable ability to coerce very good actors into making very bad films, so of course he said yes. And everyone was happy.

Except, quite possibly, the Devil. When he saw the finished product.

‘The Sentinel’ is based on a novel by Jeffrey Konvitz, who had previously written and produced ‘Silent Night, Bloody Night’ and suddenly found himself sharing screenplay credit with Winner even though Winner’s catchphrase “Calm down, dear” doesn’t appear anywhere in the script so I’m assuming Winner’s changes would have been entirely cosmetic.

It opens inNorthern Italy, in a place that (quite unintentionally) reminds us of the monastery Gregory Peck visited during ‘The Omen’. Here, Jose Ferrer (credited as ‘Robed Figure’) blesses a meeting of his brother Cardinals and intones “Let no evil thing approach us or enter in” which is kind of ironic, considering Winner was already behind the camera.

Then we have an aerial shot of Central Park which quite unintentionally reminds us of the aerial shot opening ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, and suddenly we’re watching Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) as she models for gawky fashion photographer Jeff Goldblum followed by a montage of more modelling, a carriage ride with her shifty lawyer boyfriend (played by a badly moustached Chris Sarandon)… more modelling… a moment when the too obvious jazz theme hits a cliched deep note and the title appears in that kind of heavy font they always used when spelling out the names of horror movies…  more modelling… and then Alison and boyfriend are riding their bicycles through the park, looking carefree and happy in the way that people look carefree and happy in hairspray commercials but this isn’t a commercial it’s a movie, although – in Winner’s hands – it already looks like something that’s been made for TV.

Incidentally, John Williams was originally going to write the music for ‘The Sentinel’ but he turned it down so he could devote his time to a lesser project called ‘Star Wars’. This teaches us that John Williams can dodge bullets. As can Martin Sheen, who was originally slated to play the Chris Sarandon part.

It’s quickly established that Alison’s looking for a new apartment and so, it turns out, is her shifty lawyer boyfriend. Between the boyfriend’s chat with a sweaty estate agent and Alison’s chat with her best friend, likeably played by Deborah Raffin, there’s a lot of pesky exposition. We find out that Alison and Michael (the Chris Sarandon role) aren’t married yet although she’s going to marry him one day but she’s been with him for two years ever since she got out of the hospital and she just needs some space (pause) “I just need some space now”…

That isn’t a mistake. She says it twice, in case we didn’t understand it the first time. This chick has issues.

And all this while Monsignor Franchino (Arthur Kennedy) – who we might recognise from the opening in Northern Italy – stands watching them with that concentrated look on his face which tells us he’s got his own plans for Alison’s future. And obviously really good hearing because he’s standing quite a distance away.

In pretty short order, Alison’s elderly father dies in a cheap looking hospital set and Alison wanders forlornly around the palatial family home and has a memory of herself as a schoolgirl, walking in on her father during an orgy that seems to involve his being fed cream cakes by really ugly naked women. Her father goes nuts (while he’s still got his mouth full) and tells her to get out of here while symbolically ripping the crucifix off her neck and traumatising young Alison to the point that she runs into the bathroom and slashes her wrist.

I’m going to avoid any further mention of attempted suicide during this review, except to say “foreshadowing”.

And back to the Now, where the most stylish estate agent in the world (Ava Gardner) is showing Alison around an apartment which is quite unintentionally reminiscent of the creepy apartment Mia Farrow moved into in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. It’s old and musty and completely not the place where you’d find a beautiful supermodel but Alison inexplicably loves it but when she asks Ava how much the rent is and Ava says “five hundred a month” and Alison says that’s a bit too much and Ava responds “four hundred dollars a month isn’t excessive” – as if Alison misheard her the first time round, but we know she didn’t – well, the trap has closed.

But it’s not until they’re back out on the street that Alison notices someone staring at her from the fifth floor window. Ava says that’s Father Halliran (John Carradine, in really painful looking contact lenses), the blind priest who lives upstairs. “But if he’s blind what is he looking at?” wonders Alison, who is obviously trained to notice priests watching her from fifth floor windows while remaining oblivious to priests who listen into her conversations from across the street.

Cut to not-very-portentous music and things are already going wrong when Alison does her next modelling shoot and a horse throws its rider and the Afghan hounds run away and a peacock falls in the swimming pool and Jeff Goldblum complains they’re losing light and Alison faints.

But five minutes later she’s moved into her spooky new apartment where neighbour Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith) introduces her to his black and white cat Jezebel, his parakeet Mortimer, and proceeds to do an impersonation of The Penguin doing the Ruth Gordon part from ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, right down to nosing around Alison’s apartment and inquiring “Haven’t I seen you on television?” which is exactly the approach Ms. Gordon used when she met Rosemary’s husband Guy for the first time. But that’s completely unintentional.

And as a parting gift he leaves her a framed photograph of himself clutching a bouquet of red roses almost as tall as he is. Personally, I’d rather have a signed still of him playing the trainer in ‘Rocky’ (he made ‘Rocky’ the year before he made this) but you can’t have everything.

Later, Alison is hanging out with her shifty lawyer boyfriend when he notices the photograph and comments that Burgess looks like a prune.  Again, given what we’ll discover about Burgess a little bit later in the story, the Devil wouldn’t be happy about that. And then he sees the crucifix hanging around Alison’s neck. “I didn’t know you were Catholic” he says, proving that you can spend two years in a relationship with someone and still be constantly surprised by what you discover. “Does it matter?” she asks, but we’ve probably already guessed the answer for ourselves.

Later, Alison returns with groceries and decides to introduce herself to the neighbours Gerda and Sandra (Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo) who are both wearing gym slips (in Miles’ case, this is one of the most frightening parts of the movie). While Sylvia makes tea, Sandra stares mutely at Alison and masturbates herself through her gym tights. Still, Alison’s a polite girl and waits for Gerda to return before asking “What do you do for a living?” “We fondle each other,” replies Sylvia. Which is when Alison decides it’s time to leave.

And then, during another photo shoot, Alison faints again.

That night, Burgess arrives and leads her blindfolded to his apartment where he’s holding a surprise party and all the neighbours are waiting to meet Alison. They all resemble rejects from Ruth Gordon’s coven in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, but that’s unintentional.  Among them are crotchety Mrs. Clark from 4a, the inbred-looking Plotkin twins from 3b, and Gerda and Sandra again. Burgess makes Alison dance the polka with him and then announces it’s time to cut the cake. “A black and white cake for a black and white cat,” growls Mrs. Clark and she’s absolutely right, because this party isn’t for Alison… it’s for Burgess’s pet, Jezebel. But Jezebel looks like she’d rather chow down the parakeet.

Alison has a restless night dreaming in black and white. She’s cowering naked in front of the party guests while D’Angelo bangs a very big pair of cymbals together which – considering  D’Angelo is naked as well – is the most dangerous stunt in the whole film. And then she wakes up and hears footsteps in the supposedly empty apartment upstairs.

The next day, stylish estate agent Ava Gardner assures her that no-one else lives in the building except for Alison and the Priest and she must have imagined everything, including the other residents and the birthday party, so when Alison hears the footsteps again she decides to check it out and discovers her ghoulish-looking dead father wandering around in the darkness. It’s a jump shot that almost works but Winner even manages to overcook this moment when he makes Alison grab a knife and the whole thing briefly goes a bit Lucio Fulci. But in a way that makes me really grateful Michael Winner didn’t get his paws on ‘The Beyond’.

And so the plot thickens, and Eli Wallach shows up as a Detective who reveals that Chris Sarandon’s late wife committed a very suspicious suicide from the 59th Street Bridge (odd Simon & Garfunkel didn’t mention that in their song) while Wallach’s sidekick Christopher Walken smirks and chews gum and has barely nothing to say for the entire movie except for declaring, later in the story, that Alison “went to a (birthday) party with eight dead murderers!”

And as Alison’s doom approaches, and Chris Sarandon enlists badly-toupeed safecracker William Hickey to break into an office where he discovers the truth about the blind priest and the plans in store for Alison, leading to a finale where Burgess Meredith finally welcomes Alison home while the legions of Hell appear zombie-like over his shoulder…  well, no-one can deny Winner’s attempt to throw every dodgy horror movie moment up against the wall hoping that something sticks. And although nothing does, it’s in the appearance of the legion of Hell that Winner famously plays his masterstroke:

In an entirely unintentional nod towards Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’, and completely forgetting that Tod Browning was a hugely talented director with an ability to tell a story and an obvious empathy for the disfigured and disabled members of his cast, Winner goes completely sensationalist and morally repugnant by employing genuine ‘human attractions’ to portray Hell’s legions. It makes for an unsettling and difficult-to-watch climax, but not for the right reasons, and it underlines how crass and ugly and exploitative this entire film is. Worse than that, it’s also derivative and badly constructed, packed with characters we really don’t care about, and Winner obviously equates being shocking with being scary. We’ll never know, but I doubt Don Siegel would have made that mistake.

Still, at least the reptile lady and the guy with testicles on his chin got a paycheck and a SAG card, so maybe Winner’s heart was in the right place. Right next to his wallet and as far away as possible from anything that resembles genuine creative ability.

So why have I spent all this time railing about a movie I obviously don’t like very much? Well, because ‘The Sentinel’ is a film you should see if only to marvel at the number of decent actors (Chris Sarandon was fresh from an Academy Award nomination for ‘Dog Day Afternoon’, and Martin Balsam’s in here as well) that Winner managed to strong-arm in front of his camera… for how many completely unintentional references ‘The Sentinel’ makes to a lot of far better films… I mean come on, they must be unintentional right?… for the sense there was a halfway decent idea in there someplace, but Konvitz and Winner couldn’t find it even if they’d dug up Shakespeare and attached him to a GPS… and because, as a screenwriter myself, it’s one of those movies that I occasionally enjoy watching just to remind myself that “man, if they can make that (expletive here) then we’ve all got a chance…”

In short, it’s a treasure trove of uninspired choices, bad ideas and missed opportunities. And it makes me wonder if the Devil was oblivious after all, or maybe Michael Winner was in league with him. It’s the only way I can explain Winner’s career.

And it could be worse. Kate Jackson, from ‘Charlie’s Angels’, was originally offered the Cristina Raines part. And look out for Tom Berenger, who obviously dodged his own bullet when the studio didn’t make ‘The Sentinel 2’…

About The Author

Ian White is an author, screenwriter and journalist. His book ‘Witchcraft and Black Magic in British Cult Cinema’ was recently published by Hemlock and he is a regular contributor to ‘Paranormal Underground’ and ‘Starburst’ magazines. He’s currently writing a new book and screenplay and his embarrassingly out-of-date website can be found at http://ianwhitelondon.wix.com/ian-white

  • Anonymous

    In addition to movies and tv roles, Chris Sarandon is a talented and
    prolific stage actor, and, according to his first wife, Susan, a very
    kind and patient man. He had this to say about his career and Winner’s
    impact on it: *You have to survive. . . . There were times I did things I

    might not have done if I didn’t have a mortgage and three kids to put
    through college. But there was only one picture I regretted and that was
    *The Sentinel,* and that’s because the director was a terrible human
    being. He made life miserable—making fun of the little people he had
    hired.* Sarandon subsequently quit acting for six months, not sure if
    he would return. Luckily for the rest of us, he did.