Over the years, cinema has gotten a lot of mileage out of whole ‘dream home turns out to be haunted or possessed’ shtick. It’s easy to see why this story template is so popular with filmmakers. A corrupted home serves as a deconstruction of our innate hopes and desires for a comfortable existence, and the fear becomes just that much more palpable. However, there’s a subset of this subgenre where the house also happens to be the goddamn gateway to Hell.
The Sentinel is one of these Hell House movies in which the protagonist really should have read the fine print of their tenancy. Adapted from Jeffrey Konvitz‘s 1974 novel of the same name, this 1977 film was director Michael Winner‘s attempt to put the action-thriller behind him. To the general British public, Winner will forever be known for those annoying early 2000’s “calm down, dear! It’s only a commercial!” adverts for Esure. However he knew how to direct an uncompromising thriller: with films like The Mechanic (1972) Scorpio (1973), and Death Wish (1974) to name a few.
We follow model Alison (Cristina Raines) who is looking to settle down in New York. Her boyfriend Michael (Chris Sarandon) urges her to move into an apartment together but she’d rather find her own place. Ah, I get it. The seventies, feminism, rejection of male dependency; ingenious metaphor Mr Winner, have a gold star. Eventually, she settles on a Gothic apartment building inhabited by a creepy blind priest (John Carradine). Despite lacking visual capabilities, this priest continually stares at Alison from atop the roof as though she’s a TV made out of tits. But the rent is reasonable and the apartment is nice, so she doesn’t mind too much. Feminism!
Turns out that Alison’s apartment block is owned by the church and it is built over the very gateway of Hell. Because of course it is. Alison finds herself a pawn in a very long running game of chess. But that’s the least of her problems.
The Sentinel seeks to emulate Rosemary Baby‘s (1968) style of urban horror, with Alison tormented by the choking claustrophobic confines of the apartment; suffering insomnia and nightmarish flashbacks to her suicide attempts. And boy, through her flashbacks do we come realise why the woman is so damn neurotic. Imagining walking in on your crusty old father rolling around with a bevy of young prostitutes. You’d probably bust a nut like it’s the final round of the school yard conker battling contest.
Winner slowly builds the atmosphere, establishing Alison’s insecurities and cruelly playing on them as the film progresses, and a host of creepy characters emerge from the woodwork. Initially Alison’s neighbours seem, err, quirky, but otherwise amiable. But then things take a turn for the grotesque, and the hidden darkness of the apartment building comes to the forefront. Her leotard wearing lesbian neighbours (Beverly D’Angelo and Sylvia Miles) start off nice enough, only to try and coax her into a ménage á trois by masturbating in front of her with the ferocity of a plumber unblocking a bran eater’s toilet.
Despite often being considered as something of a hack director, Winner does an admirable job of effectively building tension through scenery. The opening contrasts the spirituality and opulence of an Italian monastery with the majestic beauty of sweeping urban landscapes. In doing so, Winner allows the viewer to join Alison in the feeling of being overwhelmed by this bustling hub filled with opportunity while also hinting at something more beneath the surface. As the story progresses, and the focus changes to the apartment building, Winner makes good use of ornate Gothic ornamentation and shadowy corridors to create dread.
The climax where Alison learns that the apartment is a gateway to Hell and with the escaped hellions begin closing in is one of the best in Seventies cinema. Winner has the camera centred and focused on the horde in order to heighten the feeling of being swarmed and it works damn well.
It’s also surprising how many decent actors Winner roped into the film: Jeff Goldblum, Ava Gardner and Christopher Walken, to name just a few. Rocky Balboa’s trainer (Burgess Meredith) even shows up as a proxy for Satan, trying to force Alison to kill herself. He plays the devil as though he were a slightly touchy-feely teacher straight out of a Goosebumps book.
I enjoyed The Sentinel for its blend gaudy Seventies occult horror verging on the exploitative, and tried and tested creaky haunted house tropes. With Sixties horror films such Psycho having pushed the boundaries of cinema at the time, Seventies horror purposefully made itself this toxic swamp blood, drugs, and T&A. Here, the gratuitous sex and nudity scenes add to the surreal, Freudian atmosphere. And the use of actors with actual deformities to play the hideous demons furthers the sense of exploitation. There is even an unneeded depiction of an eye being sliced open.
The Sentinel is cheap, shoddily put together and acted, and ultimately disposable. But I appreciated the whole bureaucratic approach the church takes to appointing a new sentinel to guard the gate of hell. Instead of the usual bumblefuck of the day randomly stumbling into a dangerous situation, The Sentinel feels like mysterious forces are at work to bring Alison through the necessary steps so she can take the mantle in the film’s climax. Sort of the twelve steps program for stopping the demonic domination of Earth.