I’m not going to lie, there’s something about the big guy downstairs that’s always appealed to me. Growing up I was forced to go to church for years, and there were quite a few youth group sleepovers where I was told that I’d go to hell if I didn’t pray at night and stop listening to whatever metal band I was into as a kid. There were still traces of the whole “satanic panic” in my church and everything from Motley Crue to the effin Smurfs were said to be “of the devil”. Well naturally what’s most dangerous to people is usually what we gravitate to. I grew up and eventually realized that the majority of what I was taught as a kid was just a bunch of horseshit to scare kids into trusting Jesus (no offense to any believers out there) and embraced what is still one of my favorite subgenres of film, the Satanic cult films. So this week, thanks to an Icons reader’s request, I’m returning to the themes of the first EXPLOITATION ALLEY article and tackling the 1977 Michael Winner-directed satanic masterpiece THE SENTINEL!!!
While the first two EXPLOITATION ALLEY entries were movies you could sit down with friends and enjoy over some beers, THE SENTINEL is definitely not one of those. It’s a film that afterwards you want to drink a bottle of Jack Daniels just to wash away the scary as hell ending from your memory so you don’t have nightmares for a week. It’s THAT scary in my opinion. Let’s jump into the movie a little:
THE SENTINEL is about Alison Parker, a young model played by the beautiful Cristina Raines, (Raines was also great in Joseph Sargent’s 1983 horror anthology NIGHTMARES) who in the past attempted to kill herself and is struggling with nightmarish memories of her father having threesomes and being violent towards her. Alison is steadily becoming successful as a model and tries to find a new apartment to be on her own and to get a little space from her boyfriend, Michael Lerman, a lawyer with a sketchy past (played by Jack Skellington himself, Chris Sarandon). She eventually comes upon a realtor played by classic starlet Ava Gardner, who shows Alison an apartment building that Alison likes, even lowering the price by a hundred bucks when Alison says she can’t afford it. Alison eventually moves in, and is immediately greeted by eccentric older neighbor Charles Chazen, played by Burgess Meredith. Chazen is a sweet old man who makes Alison feel welcomed and everything seems well and fine on the surface. Soon, Alison starts having headaches on her photo shoots (look out for Jeff Goldblum in a small role as her photographer), and begins to sense an odd aura to the apartment complex and its residents, especially when Gerde and Sandra, a couple of women who live together invite Alison in for a drink. While Gerde leaves the room, the mute Sandra (Beverly D’Angelo of the National Lampoon’s Vacation series) begins to out of nowhere, masturbate in front of Alison, making her uncomfortable (duh) and when Alison asks Gerde what they do, she replies with “fondle each other”. Alison leaves and begins to get really creeped out, and when she tells the realtor about being bothered by the neighbors, Gardner’s character informs her that nobody has lived there for years, aside from Alison and a blind priest on the top floor.
Not too long after, Alison begins to see things and while inspecting the apartment, she is attacked by what looks like the corpse of her dead father, in which she stabs him repeatedly (the shot of her stabbing his eyeball is AMAZING), and runs into the street screaming hysterically. Without giving too much more away, things get downright scary after that. Visually, thematically, you name it. Through a series of revelations, we find out that one of the reasons Alison tried to kill herself in the past is because of the affair she was having with Sarandon’s character while he was still married, before his wife died very suspiciously. While Alison feels like she’s losing her mind, two detectives played by Christopher Walken (who strangely doesn’t have any lines in the movie…) and the great Martin Balsam are suspicious of Sarandon’s character and thinks that he not only murdered his late wife but is attempting to drive Alison to death as well. Lerman, trying to prove them wrong and also trying to find out what’s really happening to Alison begins to investigate and eventually discovers that not only is Alison NOT going crazy, but that the apartment building is literally, a gateway to hell, occupied by the demons of past criminals and murders who are trying to get out but are stopped by a sentinel (the blind priest), someone who has been chosen to watch over the demons to make sure they don’t escape. The only way for Alison to enter heaven is to become the next sentinel, as a way to make up for her past suicide attempts.
I’m not going to give away anything that happens past that point, but I will say this: it’s pretty intense. This isn’t a happy go lucky movie and doesn’t pull a single punch whatsoever. It’s filled with many creepy, uncomfortable moments, especially towards the end when the apartment is filled with many deformed demons coming after Alison. Not relying on makeup fx for the scene, Michael Winner, the director, decided to use actual disfigured people for it and his choice, though obviously somewhat exploitive to those people, works well for the film. It’s hard to watch, in fact the movie has quite a few sequences that stay with you well after the movie is over.
Another thing that excels greatly is the score by Gil Melle (who also scored another exploitation great, Larry Cohen’s BONE). I’ve always been enthralled by exploitation and horror films of the 70’s, it’s my favorite era of all time film-wise, and like most movies made in that time period, the score for THE SENTINEL is crucial to the film in my opinion. The combination of the score, the film’s slow-burn approach and the performances from seriously a TON of greats make THE SENTINEL a very effective genre film, one that stays with you long afterwards and if you’re like me, scares the SHIT out you while watching it. So, pull out your inverted crosses and black cats and enjoy!