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.