In the seventies, a slew of occult movies flooded the market, most hatched from novels, those among the books The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and others, but then there’s author Jeffrey Konvitz’s contribution of sinister religious overtones with his 1974 creation of The Sentinel. Three years later director Michael Winner delivered a strange horror film, which resembles more of Italian cinematic production similar to Dario Argento, than American occult flick. Winner, passed on in January 2013, most remembered for his contributions to the first three Death Wish films, and for his abrupt temper both on and off the set. His films contained elements of exploitation, and when criticized he never had a loss of words for anyone, regardless of the viewpoint or intention. In fact, his brutal rebuttals extended far past the cinematic realm and extended to the culinary world, when he reviewed restaurants, nevertheless his career lasted five decades. This movie, which often airs during the month of October adds the lengthy grouping of supernatural chillers, did have one very weird occurrence prior to film, more on that later. Made on a budget of $3.7 million it had a positive return of investment, but nothing lasting, until the film started to appear more in underground nature for fans of religious horror theme flicks. This course comes, the star ridden cast of many who went onto larger roles and scattered with then well-known names. Those among the cast, Eli Wallach, Ava Gardner, John Carradine, Chris Sarandon, Jeff Goldblum, Beverly D’Angelo, and a (young) Christopher Walken, needless it reminds some now years later of Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, and how two actors from it went onto greatness.
The Sentinel had the simple plot of a protector chosen to battle and protect all from the demons of hell, and yet it contained very twisted and sexually charge visual elements, of which then showed some offensive moments, and today’s reflection results in disgust. Therefore, before venturing onward, one needs to understand that the horror genre usually contains cycles; most fans agree the 1980s known for the slasher period, while the 1970s movies focused on afterlife, haunting and possession for the overwhelming entertainment. As mentioned earlier, many of the supernatural or occult films of this era noted strange occurrences, however, author and co-writer of the script, Konvita found himself in a room a knife wielding suicidal Satanist in his office at the Universal Studios. Alison Parker (central character in both the novel and film) arrived at the gate and needed to see the author, the woman very bewildered and believed she was the next Sentinel and prepared to join Satan so threatened to kill herself and so the author talked her out of the attempt.
Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) is a model with a troubled past and haunted by an attempted suicide, which the audience later learns the reasons for the act, resulting from a definitely a bizarre sick moment. Later in life, a star on magazine covers, television campaigns, and product advertisements, she decides she needs time away from boyfriend Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon), a lawyer pressuring for marriage. After searching, she locates a Brooklyn Heights apartment from Ms. Logan (Ava Gardner), a trivial note one may visit the building, be forewarned viewable from outside only. The place strangely cheap, complete with peeling walls, hidden treasures and an abundance of quirky neighbors with varying degrees of deviant and odd behaviors running amok. Soon after moving in Alison meets other tenants which include Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith) and his cat Jezebel, a lesbian couple (Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo), among others including John Carradine as an incredibly old and blind Father Halliran, they all seem unique but share glances with each other letting onto deeper secrets and mysteries. Raines presents the role very well, and Sarandon shows a bit of uncaring and is vague in showing his true intentions, perhaps echoing his defense attorney mannerism, either way they weave an interesting path in this gothic tale. Beverly D’Angelo (most noted for National Lampoon films) stars as a submissive lesbian lover, Sandra, to Gerde (Sylvia Miles) which seems more exploitative than connected to the storyline, and the inclusion link to mortal sins for her lifestyle and that building belongs to Archdiocese of reclusive priests. During an impromptu visit Alison has coffee with the couple, which turns quickly uncomfortable as Sandra engages clothed self-pleasuring moment, a scene disintegrates Alison cringing and escaping the duo. Fret not the bloodshed does flow with some horrors that mirror the dream sequences of Argento and Lucio Fulci including the slashing apart of Alison’s dead father. Needless to say, the film generates a strong response among both the critics and fans, for the ending moments, which receive much controversy then and now have a continue backlash of real individuals with deformities refer to in the movie as freaks from hell, thereby indirectly referencing the movie Freaks (1932).
Winner delivers a movie about the gateway of hell and those that protect it, and later found in comparison with Fulci’s The Beyond (1981), but as for the cinematography and the gothic richness it captures well to the screen. The film hints nicely to John Milton’s legendary story; yet brings factors of weirdness and never deters from the path of depravity such as lesbians turned cannibals and freakish animals. The special effects work fittingly especially when unleashing hellish delights at the final act of film. However one significant downside, actor Jeff Goldblum lines dubbed all but one scene, the reasons for it vary on the position of why it occurred.
While the 40-year film, feels slightly dated, and might seem a slow burn for the modern the lovers of gothic cinema and Hammer Studio productions might enjoy the bliss of the occult tale. The movie feels unsettling at times, with a twisting tale, perhaps not always in the positive, however, the freakish birthday party and Sarandon role uncovers deeper telling into the story. Perhaps next time one is faced with something just too good to be true, and the weirdness starts, a gateway to hell opens will you the conviction to sacrifice for righteous or given into temptation.