Arguably, the 1970s was one of the best decades for horror. As censorship and content standards relaxed, the horror genre – and movies in general – experimented with style and subject. It was also a decade where public interest in the occult hit a peak. Following on the heels of 1960s counterculture, new age movements found their way into all corners popular culture. Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath flirted with occult themes while The Exorcist and The Omen chased the same scares as Rosemary’s Baby. Not surprisingly, studios were looking to capture lightning in a bottle with the next devilish horror hit. When Universal Pictures adapted Jeffrey Konvitz’s novel, The Sentinel, they thought they had the next The Exorcist. Critics and audiences disagreed.
As she struggles to recover from past traumas, model Alison Parker finds what she believes is the perfect old brownstone apartment in Brooklyn. However, her initial joy turns to paranoia and dread as increasingly strange events plague Alison. A mute, blind priest lives above her apartment. Her other neighbors include a motley assortment of eccentric characters. Strange noises creaks from the vents at night. And Alison begins to suffer from fainting spells. When she learns that the Catholic Diocese owns the building, Alison believes she may be called to serve as the next ‘Sentinel’.
The Sentinel Ages Poorly With Its Tonally Wild Storytelling
Sometimes the critics get it right. And time can’t heal all wounds. After nearly 45 years since its theatrical release, The Sentinel was, and remains, a bad movie. And there are a lot of things wrong with this botched occult thriller. First and foremost, The Sentinel is a tonally wild effort that strikes more unintentional laughs than scares. Writer and director Michael Winner (Death Wish) struggles to build atmosphere or tension. Though Winner manages a handful of decent jump scares, he fundamentally misunderstands Konitz’s novel and mishandles much of the content. To be fair, what works on the page may not always translate to the screen regardless of who’s behind the camera. As a result, many of Alison Parker’s interactions with her bizarre neighbors come off more as camp than disturbing. It’s a problem that haunts most of the movie.
…The Sentinel is a tonally wild effort that strikes more unintentional laughs than scares.
Pacing problems exacerbate the lack of scares. Too many scenes deviate to subplots that generate little ]suspense. While a story thread involving Alison’s boyfriend and his wife’s death ties into the climax, it’s not particularly interesting. Moreover, it’s a detour that asks the audience to spend less time thinking about the strange blind priest in the apartment above Alison – you know, the whole point of the movie. Winner also tips one twist too early and clunkily handles subsequent reveals. At least The Sentinel’s demonic climax feels somewhat disturbing though it’s too little, too late. An awful music score and general made-for-television production values hang over everything.
The Sentinel Exorcises The Talent From Its Impressive Cast
From top to bottom, The Sentinel’s cast is impressive. There’s veteran actors alongside up-and-coming names in the business. So one has to wonder how it’s possible that all of the performances could be so bad? With so much talent couldn’t just one actor rise above the material? As ‘Alison Parker’, Cristina Raines offers a wooden, emotionally disinterested performance. The result is a protagonist that’s difficult to invest in. Though Chris Sarandon (Fright Night, Child’s Play) has turned in some wonderful performances before and after The Sentinel, he’s equally wooden as Raines’ shady love interest. He looks completely bored here. And Burgess Meredith brings the same over-the-top zeal to his role as he did to the 1960s Batman television show. It doesn’t work.
With so much talent, couldn’t just one actor rise above the material?
But The Sentinel rounds out the supporting cast with even more talent who all likely thought they were signing up for the next The Exorcist. The legendary Ava Gardner escapes The Sentinel relatively unscathed in part because she’s on and off the screen in quick scenes. Neither veteran character actor Eli Wallach or a young Christopher Walken fare as well as homicide detectives. Poor Beverly D’Angelo arguably has the worst role in the movie as a silent and extremely inappropriate neighbor. Along for the ride are John Carradine, Jose Ferrer, Martin Balsam, and a young a Jeff Goldblum.
The Sentinel Possesses More Unintentional Laughs Than Scares
Despite a stacked cast and workmanlike director, The Sentinel stands out amongst 70s occult movies for all the wrong reasons. Yes, there’s a few scares to be found here and there. Occasionally, The Sentinel’s more eccentric bits are also creepy. But more often than not, this occult mishap is an unintentionally funny retread. Nothing about the movie – including its awful score – escapes feeling like a low-budget made-for-television movie. And Winner’s ham-fisted direction ensures no one looks good. Let’s just say the Devil made them do it.