The Sentinel (1977)

It’s time we talk about 1977’s THE SENTINEL. Director MICHAEL WINNER (DEATH WISH, the crazy/awesome SCREAM FOR HELP) has an inelegant caveman-crude eye, lead actress CRISTINA RAINES is as animated as a Colorform, and the derivative sanctimonious plot even has the nerve to rudely sink into the police procedural zone for zero effect or reason. So why is the film so darn bizarrely effective? How does it spit in the face of everything one values in a good film and still achieve its primary goal of making me feel like life is a gross, indecipherable nightmare that will never end? I suppose that sometimes something can be inadequately done and yet still be so singularly weird and wildly wrong that it leaves a strong impression regardless. It’s like throwing a dart at a board, missing the board entirely but hitting a fly on the wall instead. I can roll my eyes all I want while watching THE SENTINEL but by the time it ends, I know I’ll be left feeling disturbed.

I guess all the church-y mumbo jumbo is meant to convince us that we’re witnessing an epic battle of good vs. evil but that’s what they all say and I don’t believe it. The only war I see going on here is the clash between superficial beauty (fledging super model RAINES) and the not so appealing (everybody else). I don’t see RAINES’ character Alison in any true danger throughout the course of the film but she sure does experience a lot of anguish and mortification when presented with the ill favored and unattractive. The “demonic” are presented as too emaciated (her dad) too plump (his cake eating lover) too old (BURGESS MEREDITH among others) and too gay (Lesbian neighbors SYLVIA MILES and a she-bopping BEVERLY D’ANGELO). The film’s climax provides a large print version of the subtext with a full on parade of individuals with actual deformities representing the denizens of hell. Due to multiple suicide attempts, Alison is damaged goods too (at least in the eyes of the church) and her punishment (or honor?) is to freeze and crack, lost in a loop forever fighting to keep the “ugliness” at bay. She’s not the first. She won’t be the last.

We’re told that Alice has brought her torturous predicament upon herself by rejecting God and from what we see, God is not a fan of rejection. Yes, her brownstone apartment is the doorway to hell but that’s what she gets for dissing marriage and desiring to live alone. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to bash THE SENTINEL’s archaic view of damnation or maybe I do, but it’s with the knowledge that the film’s shallow piousness is its discomforting strong suit. Still, I can’t help sensing that Alice’s main anxiety is that atheism makes you less attractive. THE SENTINEL is usually accused of being an also ran in the religious horror movie craze of its time. It may look like that duck and quack like that duck, but it’s really just a neurotic swan swimming on lake shame. It doesn’t get close to the artistry of the films it is often compared to but its fervent condemnations and Alison’s relentless self-flagellation are nothing to sneeze at either. Just because an axe isn’t sharp doesn’t mean it can’t do damage.

Somehow even more fascinating than THE SENTINEL’s grotesquely simple view of humanity, hilariously crude post dubbing, cinder block lead actress and squeamish fear of the flesh, is the film’s mind-boggling extensive supporting cast. Nearly every person you have ever heard of makes an appearance and somehow new people seem to show up in it each time you watch it. It’s just ridiculous really and I refuse to list them all. Just when you think you’ve seen everything, TOM BERENGER and NANA VISITOR appear, eager to sign up to be the next victims. The fact that this film acted as such a weirdo magnet confirms my suspicion even further that there is something truly unnatural going on.

The truth is, I could stare at this movie like a zombie forever and I’d still be baffled. How was this movie ever made? How can such nonsense be so creepy? How is this not Italian? Based on a once popular novel by JEFFREY KONVITZ, THE SENTINEL may not hold a candle to THE EXORCIST in exploring good vs. evil but when it comes to exploring the sickness of dividing people into “desirable” and “undesirable,” (intentionally or not) it excels. I guess in the end it really does have something to say about religion…and I guess it ain’t pretty.

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Amanda By Night
Amanda By Night(@amanda-by-night)
10 years ago

Awww, I love Christina Raines. She’s so charming and pretty… And dude, she was on Riptide… Awesome.

I first saw the Sentinel on a local channel when I was growing up. They didn’t bother editing a second of it, and I walked on Christina’s dad doing nasty stuff… Wow. It was burned in my brain for years, although I had no idea what the movie was… This movie just goes there… and god, I love Christina’s apartment.

10 years ago

“but she sure does experience a lot of anguish and mortification when presented with the ill favored and unattractive.”

Unk, you make me laugh in ways I never knew I could laugh before. This review is freaking perfect. And now I want to watch it again immediately, as per usual (after I read one of your reviews). But this time I actually own a copy so it’s doable. Yay!

Lynette Fromme
Lynette Fromme(@lynette-fromme)
10 years ago

“inelegant” – really? I quite like and respect the Sentinel. It’s one of the few movies I’m afraid to show my friends because its sooo creepy. But I never considered the beauty = good, everything else is damned viewpoint.

10 years ago

Two quick things:
I have always been a sucker for this one (so much so that I read the sequel THE GUARDIAN and wished it would never end).
And when is Sylvia Miles going to get her due on this site? She always looks undead and creepy and weirdly grandmother-like. I can’t think of a more deserving honorary member of bygone traumas.

10 years ago

Man, I’m gonna have to go watch this again… right now!
I read the book of when I eleven or twelve… right after I’d read The Exorcist.
All I remember is the depiction of the house having a lot of characterful detail. Other than that I expect it was as silly and sordid as The Exorcist (book) was. Even then the whole demon/devil/Hell motif wasn’t much scary to me… not being catholic or religious (though I found parts of The Devil’s Rain worrying…).
Also, at the time, the story reminded me a bit of Thriller’s ‘Someone At The Top Of The Stairs’ (Judy Carne!).

Still, I’m curious now that I hear there was a sequel…

10 years ago

Unk, the sequel book has a really bizarre and wonderful twist at the end. I read it a few years ago and my tastes have matured, but I’d love to try it again. All I can really remember was liking the twist at the end, and I remember the pages just flying by with ease. Could be a different story now, but hope it holds up.

10 years ago

Ok, now the pressure’s on me for you to enjoy it. I have the same attitude about seventies occult paperbacks so it was alive and kicking in the water from page one. PLEASE report back with a review.

Richard Kastan
Richard Kastan(@fb1124286193)
10 years ago

1) Colorform or not, CRISTINA RAINES is HOT in this movie – just a beautiful woman.

2) I have a semi-traumatic SENTINEL memory from childhood. My brother had a ragged copy of the Ballentine paperback version of Konvitz’s book. It had a priest on the cover and a little window above the priest’s head that contained the head of moaning, white-eyed, bearded hippie-type. When you opened the book you could see that the bearded hippie-type was in hell and surrounded by many, similarly dead-eyed zombies. It was very cool and scary and, while I never read the book itself, I found myself staring at the cover and it’s “hell” insert for unhealthy amounts of time. Thanks for the memories SENTINEL!

Deaf Ears
Deaf Ears(@deaf-ears)
10 years ago

While ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE OMEN are much better movies overall, I’d have to say that for me at least, THE SENTINEL is ahead of them in terms of sheer scares. CR’s night-time “date” with her father is really frightening and disturbing. Still doesn’t touch THE EXORCIST in those departments, though – nothing does.

Ryan Clark
Ryan Clark(@fb1464120013)
10 years ago

That movie scared the C-R-A-P out of me when I first saw it, and believe me, I’m not easily frightened. Two scenes in particular freaked me out, but I wouldn’t dream of spoiling them — they’re not that hard to guess once you’ve seen it. Yikes!

Wednesday's Child
Wednesday's Child(@msinitforthekills)
9 years ago

I’m re-watching this right now because I’m about to write a review, and I made the mistake of reading other people’s reviews even though, while I love this movie, I’m already having a hard time thinking of what to say about it, but, I have to say that “How is this not Italian?” seems to sum it all up!