Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #538
Number of Views: One
Release Date: January 7, 1977
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $4,000,000
Running Time: 92 minutes
Director: Michael Winner
Producer: Jeffrey Konvitz, Michael Winner
Screenplay: Jeffrey Konvitz, Michael Winner
Based on a novel by Jeffrey Konvitz
Special Effects: Tony Parmelee
Cinematography: Richard C. Kratina
Score: Gil Melle
Editing: Bernard Gribble, Terry Rawlings
Studio: Universal Pictures, Jeffrey Konvitz Productions
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Stars: Cristina Raines, Chris Sarandon, Martin Balsam, Burgess Meredith, Ava Gardner, José Ferrer, Eli Wallach, Christopher Walken, Jerry Orbach, Jeff Goldblum, John Carradine, Arthur Kennedy, Sylvia Miles, Beverly D’Angelo, Deborah Raffin, Hank Garrett, Robert Gerringer, William Hickey
Suggested Audio Candy
Danzig “Devil’s Plaything”
Being the gatekeeper for hell is a thankless task. Whilst unquestionably a position of great responsibility and commendable in the extreme, it’s hardly the most riveting of vocations. Basically it involve sitting in one position for the remainder of your lifetime, keeping tabs on the unruly demons looking to break out from the sin bin and wreak havoc in the real world. At first, it may seem like a plum role, and offer the chance to catch up with your Sudoku puzzles without any unnecessary distractions but, alas, permanent blindness is part of the deal and braille can be a bitch to get down to pat. However, I guess it still beats accountancy.
“I don’t want to live in a tolerant society. I want to live in a very intolerant society.”
Michael Winner was something of a natural treasure and a real one-off. The outspoken and eccentric London-born filmmaker had a career spanning five decades, becoming best known for his Death Wish series and for never once mincing his words. His films weren’t particularly well received and, in later years, increasingly criticized for their exploitative nature, but he never much cared for public opinion. Indeed, he wrote a column on restaurants for national rag The Sunday Times that was deemed controversial and earned him the reputation as something of an irritant but never batted an eyelid when put to task about his unfiltered comments. Always happy to send himself up in a heartbeat, Winner was nothing if not brutally honest.
In 1977, he brought us supernatural chiller The Sentinel and, somewhat predictably, fell foul to the critics’ scathing disapproval. Based on Jeffrey Konvitz’s 1974 novel of the same name and boasting a star-studded cast that included the likes of Martin Balsam, Burgess Meredith, Ava Gardner, José Ferrer, Eli Wallach, William Hickey, and John Carradine as well as up-and-coming talents such as Cristina Raines, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Berenger, and Beverly D’Angelo, it struggled to make a theatrical return and disappeared from plain sight soon afterwards.
The Sentinel is a curious little number and bears an uncanny resemblance to Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, albeit a tad lighter on the splatter front. It tells the tale of highly strung fashion model Alison Parker (Raines) who takes up residence in a Brownstone apartment block in Brooklyn Heights much to the bemusement of her dashing fiancé Michael (Sarandon) and soon finds out that all is not quite kosher within its peeling walls. A number of whimsical wackos share occupancy and there’s hardly a secured hinge between them. Moreover, her landlady insists that the only other tenant is reclusive blind Vatican priest Father Halliran (Carradine) making her question whether or not her own screws are unfastening.
Halliran rents the top floor apartment and has a penchant for casting his milky eyes over the city from his window perch, while visitation is strictly prohibited to anyone other than fellow members of the clergy. Sounds like the ideal neighbor for a young woman looking for a little peace and solitude right? Not exactly as strange noises emanate from his chamber come lights out and they coincide with a spate of dizzy spells and violent nausea that has leaves poor Alison exhausted and soundly befuddled. Whilst initially, Michael is dismissive of her condition and puts it down to stress and her excessive workload, it isn’t long before he too fears for her safekeeping and decides to engage in a little detective work of his own. Needless to say, he isn’t best pleased by what he unearths.
At its heart The Sentinel is a classic chiller, the likes of which Hammer would have churned out during their heyday but the director’s eccentricity bleeds through on occasion and, when this happens, it skirts with the downright ridiculous and does so unapologetically. If cannibalistic lesbians in leotards tickles your fickle pickle, then you’re bang in luck here as the apartment block’s walls house all manner of suchlike outlandish undesirables. Meredith is ideally cast as kooky next-door neighbor Charles Chazen and the sight of blank-faced Carradine staring from his nosebleed-inducing perch is more than enough to provoke a sound case of the willies.
However, Winner’s film suffers for being unsure as to whether or not to escalate into outright bedlam or simply play it safe which, in turn, creates an uneven tone. Thankfully, Raines is superb as our dazed damsel while Sarandon offers able support as her similarly addled beau. By the time her planned fate becomes clear, the freaks are let off their leashes in no uncertain terms and suddenly those cannibalistic lesbians become par for the course. If there is blood-curdling fear t be gleaned, then the inevitability of Alison’s plight is chief provider and the director prises a fair deal of tension from her spiraling conundrum.
The Sentinel has the hallmarks of a classic seventies fright fest and is never less than watchable thanks to its glittering array of colorful characters and demonic undertones. At its beating heart is a simple tale of angels and demons, good versus evil, and divine overseers and cantankerous underlings. It is often erratic and heavy-handed but anyone familiar with Winner’s vast body of work will be all too aware that subtlety was never his strongest suit. However, it may just encourage you against renting an apartment and think of the money you’ll save as a result.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Tony Parmelee’s SFX may only be paraded fleetingly but, when called upon, he comes up with the goods and a couple of instances of unexpected grue in particular stand out amidst the obligatory bumps in the night. Meanwhile, Winner has never been one for restraint with regards to supplying a little skin for the fellas and the delectable sight of D’Angelo’s exposed chest trove is one to relish forevermore. She’s not alone either and there are no shortage of frisky Fräulein to ogle over.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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