From The Vault: The Sentinel (1977) Ian White August 7, 2020 Editor's Choice, From The Vault 1 Comment 8728 All good things must come to an end and, in the Devilâ€™s case, it was summer 1977 when Universal Pictures released â€˜The Sentinelâ€™. I wouldnâ€™t feel too bad for him though. Heâ€™d had a pretty good run. Heâ€™d knocked up Mia Farrow in 1968â€™s â€˜Rosemaryâ€™s Babyâ€™, heâ€™d played Captain Howdy with 13 year old Linda Blair in 1973â€™s â€˜The Exorcistâ€™ and in 1976 he was back again with â€˜The Omenâ€™, the film that (according to the documentary â€˜The Curse of The Omenâ€™) â€œSatan didnâ€™t want to be madeâ€ which might explain why, while The Horned Oneâ€™s disapproval was firmly fixed on Richard Donner and crew, Michael Winner got to make â€˜The Sentinelâ€™ and ended up creating a movie that could only have been born in Hell. Youâ€™ve got to give Winner some respect. As hack film directors go, heâ€™s not a bad restaurant critic and heâ€™s made a pretty good career out of making movies nobody goes to see. True, there was â€˜Hannibal Brooksâ€™ (1969) which stars a terrific Oliver Reed and was the best elephant-in-a-warzone movie ever made until Disneyâ€™s â€˜Operation Dumbo Dropâ€™ in 1995. And then there was 1974â€™s â€˜Death Wishâ€™ which used to be a violently misogynistic and mean-spirited vigilante thriller, but now â€“ thanks to age and some really bad 1970s disco fashion â€“ is just misogynistic and mean-spirited and Neil Jordanâ€™s â€˜The Brave Oneâ€™ (2007) did it all so much better without the misogyny and with Jodie Foster in the Charles Bronson part. But â€˜Death Wishâ€™ was a success, and Michael Winnerâ€™s career was definitely in the ascendant when he followed it up a year later with â€˜Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywoodâ€™â€¦ yep, moving onâ€¦ and then, in 1977 â€“ â€˜The Sentinelâ€™. Winner wasnâ€™t Universalâ€™s first choice. They originally wanted Don Siegel to direct, and itâ€™s fascinating to wonder what the man who helmed â€˜Invasion of The Body Snatchersâ€™ and â€˜Dirty Harryâ€™ 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 1971â€™s deeply silly â€˜The Nightcomersâ€™ that horror movies werenâ€™t inside his comfort zone either. But Michael Winnerâ€™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. â€˜The Sentinelâ€™ is based on a novel by Jeffrey Konvitz, who had previously written and produced â€˜Silent Night, Bloody Nightâ€™ and suddenly found himself sharing screenplay credit with Winner even though Winnerâ€™s catchphrase â€œCalm down, dearâ€ doesnâ€™t appear anywhere in the script so Iâ€™m assuming Winnerâ€™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 â€˜The Omenâ€™. Here, Jose Ferrer (credited as â€˜Robed Figureâ€™) blesses a meeting of his brother Cardinals and intones â€œLet no evil thing approach us or enter inâ€ 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 â€˜Rosemaryâ€™s Babyâ€™, and suddenly weâ€™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)â€¦ more modellingâ€¦ 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 moviesâ€¦ more modellingâ€¦ 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 isnâ€™t a commercial itâ€™s a movie, although â€“ in Winnerâ€™s hands â€“ it already looks like something thatâ€™s been made for TV. Incidentally, John Williams was originally going to write the music for â€˜The Sentinelâ€™ but he turned it down so he could devote his time to a lesser project called â€˜Star Warsâ€™. This teaches us that John Williams can dodge bullets. As can Martin Sheen, who was originally slated to play the Chris Sarandon part. Itâ€™s quickly established that Alisonâ€™s looking for a new apartment and so, it turns out, is her shifty lawyer boyfriend. Between the boyfriendâ€™s chat with a sweaty estate agent and Alisonâ€™s chat with her best friend, likeably played by Deborah Raffin, thereâ€™s a lot of pesky exposition. We find out that Alison and Michael (the Chris Sarandon role) arenâ€™t married yet although sheâ€™s going to marry him one day but sheâ€™s been with him for two years ever since she got out of the hospital and she just needs some space (pause) â€œI just need some space nowâ€… That isnâ€™t a mistake. She says it twice, in case we didnâ€™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 heâ€™s got his own plans for Alisonâ€™s future. And obviously really good hearing because heâ€™s standing quite a distance away. In pretty short order, Alisonâ€™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 heâ€™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. Iâ€™m going to avoid any further mention of attempted suicide during this review, except to say â€œforeshadowingâ€. 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 â€˜Rosemaryâ€™s Babyâ€™. Itâ€™s old and musty and completely not the place where youâ€™d find a beautiful supermodel but Alison inexplicably loves it but when she asks Ava how much the rent is and Ava says â€œfive hundred a monthâ€ and Alison says thatâ€™s a bit too much and Ava responds â€œfour hundred dollars a month isnâ€™t excessiveâ€ – as if Alison misheard her the first time round, but we know she didnâ€™t – well, the trap has closed. But itâ€™s not until theyâ€™re back out on the street that Alison notices someone staring at her from the fifth floor window. Ava says thatâ€™s Father Halliran (John Carradine, in really painful looking contact lenses), the blind priest who lives upstairs. â€œBut if heâ€™s blind what is he looking at?â€ 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 theyâ€™re losing light and Alison faints. But five minutes later sheâ€™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 â€˜Rosemaryâ€™s Babyâ€™, right down to nosing around Alisonâ€™s apartment and inquiring â€œHavenâ€™t I seen you on television?â€ which is exactly the approach Ms. Gordon used when she met Rosemaryâ€™s husband Guy for the first time. But thatâ€™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, Iâ€™d rather have a signed still of him playing the trainer in â€˜Rockyâ€™ (he made â€˜Rockyâ€™ the year before he made this) but you canâ€™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 weâ€™ll discover about Burgess a little bit later in the story, the Devil wouldnâ€™t be happy about that. And then he sees the crucifix hanging around Alisonâ€™s neck. â€œI didnâ€™t know you were Catholicâ€ he says, proving that you can spend two years in a relationship with someone and still be constantly surprised by what you discover. â€œDoes it matter?â€ she asks, but weâ€™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 Dâ€™Angelo) who are both wearing gym slips (in Milesâ€™ 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, Alisonâ€™s a polite girl and waits for Gerda to return before asking â€œWhat do you do for a living?â€ â€œWe fondle each other,â€ replies Sylvia. Which is when Alison decides itâ€™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 heâ€™s holding a surprise party and all the neighbours are waiting to meet Alison. They all resemble rejects from Ruth Gordonâ€™s coven in â€˜Rosemaryâ€™s Babyâ€™, but thatâ€™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 itâ€™s time to cut the cake. â€œA black and white cake for a black and white cat,â€ growls Mrs. Clark and sheâ€™s absolutely right, because this party isnâ€™t for Alisonâ€¦ itâ€™s for Burgessâ€™s pet, Jezebel. But Jezebel looks like sheâ€™d rather chow down the parakeet. Alison has a restless night dreaming in black and white. Sheâ€™s cowering naked in front of the party guests while Dâ€™Angelo bangs a very big pair of cymbals together which â€“ considering Dâ€™Angelo is naked as well â€“ 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. Itâ€™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 didnâ€™t get his paws on â€˜The Beyondâ€™. And so the plot thickens, and Eli Wallach shows up as a Detective who reveals that Chris Sarandonâ€™s late wife committed a very suspicious suicide from the 59th Street Bridge (odd Simon & Garfunkel didnâ€™t mention that in their song) while Wallachâ€™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 â€œwent to a (birthday) party with eight dead murderers!â€ And as Alisonâ€™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 shoulderâ€¦ well, no-one can deny Winnerâ€™s attempt to throw every dodgy horror movie moment up against the wall hoping that something sticks. And although nothing does, itâ€™s in the appearance of the legion of Hell that Winner famously plays his masterstroke: In an entirely unintentional nod towards Tod Browningâ€™s â€˜Freaksâ€™, 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 â€˜human attractionsâ€™ to portray Hellâ€™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, itâ€™s also derivative and badly constructed, packed with characters we really donâ€™t care about, and Winner obviously equates being shocking with being scary. Weâ€™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 Winnerâ€™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 donâ€™t like very much? Well, because â€˜The Sentinelâ€™ 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 â€˜Dog Day Afternoonâ€™, and Martin Balsamâ€™s in here as well) that Winner managed to strong-arm in front of his cameraâ€¦ for how many completely unintentional references â€˜The Sentinelâ€™ makes to a lot of far better filmsâ€¦ 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 couldnâ€™t find it even if theyâ€™d dug up Shakespeare and attached him to a GPSâ€¦ and because, as a screenwriter myself, itâ€™s one of those movies that I occasionally enjoy watching just to remind myself that â€œman, if they can make that (expletive here) then weâ€™ve all got a chanceâ€¦â€ In short, itâ€™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. Itâ€™s the only way I can explain Winnerâ€™s career. And it could be worse. Kate Jackson, from â€˜Charlieâ€™s Angelsâ€™, was originally offered the Cristina Raines part. And look out for Tom Berenger, who obviously dodged his own bullet when the studio didnâ€™t make â€˜The Sentinel 2â€™â€¦ One Response Anonymous February 26, 2013 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 miserableâ€”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.