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“She Went To A Party With Eight Dead Murderers!” — The Sentinel

October 30, 2008

THE SENTINEL (1977)
d. Michael Winner 

First of all, this movie is all kinds of awesome, I don’t know where to begin. Mega-spoilers exist within, and at least one screen-cap is so NSFW, so proceed with caution!

There may be those critics who will dismiss this as a poor man’s Rosemary’s Baby due to some similarities of creepy neighbors and religious themes, but that’s where the similarities end. This movie deserves to be judged on its own merits, and it is quite an amazing film that surprised me with its strong cast, its well-crafted mystery, and its absolute bug-nuts ending revelation.

No Wonder The Rent’s So Cheap

No Wonder The Rent’s So Cheap

Basically, this movie tells the story of a young model, Alison Parker (Cristina Raines), who, having recovered from a suicide attempt, moves out of her boyfriend’s (Chris Sarandon) place to a posh apartment in Brooklyn Heights (at the end of Montague Street overlooking the River Walk) for the plum price of $400 a month with a $50 deposit! Dream place, right? That is, until the weird shit starts happening, then you know it was too good to be true.

First of all, the realtor says the Church owns the property, which would explain that blind priest on the fifth floor who just stares out the window. Creepy, you bet! But before moving in, Alison receives word that her father is on his deathbed. She arrives back in Baltimore in time to see him die. Unable to attend his funeral, we enter a flashback that reveals how a young Alison walked in on her dad while he was in the middle of an orgy, thus precipitating her first suicide attempt.

What’s cool about this flashback is that the elder Alison is present as a witness while her younger self experiences this revelation. While it’s a device frequently used today, the editing of this sequence and the signaling of the start of the flashback is seamless; there isn’t any use of an obvious transition other than an audio cue and a point of view shot of Alison seeing a car pull up and letting out her younger self. In fact, just to make a point, the editing of this entire film is extremely tight and moves the story along swiftly and purposefully. Terry Rawlings, who would later edit Alien, does a great job with judicious cuts to control the pace and ebb and flow of tension. 

In any case, once Alison moves into her apartment, and we start to get an inkling of the weird neighbors when Burgess Meredith shows up with his cat and parakeet. He seems to be that eccentric lovable and daffy elderly neighbor in the vein of, oh, Ruth Gordon via Rosemary’s Baby.

It isn’t until Alison meets Gerde (Sylvia Miles) and Sandra (Beverly D’Angelo) — a couple of women who appear harmless at first until Sandra masturbates in front of Alison, and Gerde, answering Alison’s question about what they do for a living, squeezes Sandra’s breast while intoning “we fondle each other” — that you know you’re fully entering bug-nuts crazy country. The fun is the revelation of why we’re entering this country with no boundaries.

Those Kooky Neighbors and Their Kooky Parties

Next, We Will Play Twister!

The mystery deepens when, after a birthday party for Burgess’s cat where Alison meets several other strange characters, strange noises prevent Alison from sleeping and therefore affect her day job. She speaks to the realtor, who reveals that besides the blind priest, she is the only other tenant in the building. Dun dun dun!

After a particularly weird nightmare involving the strange neighbors in the nude, Alison decides to seek out the cause of the noises. To her horror, she confronts her dead father, whom she proceeds to hack with a knife when he attacks her. Of course, police don’t find a body.

Traumatized, she is sent to the hospital, where at this point Chris Sarandon takes up the narrative as protagonist. Concerned, he starts an investigation of his own while fending off the suspicions of two homicide detectives who reveal that his previous wife committed suicide, prompting Alison, his then mistress, to also attempt suicide. For those watching this after Rosemary’s Baby we figure that he might be in on a conspiracy in the same manner as John Cassavettes was, but it’s all a red herring (though he did have his wife murdered, so there is some cause for worry).

In his efforts he discovers a plot by the Church that extends hundreds of years back, involving attempted suicides taking up residence and replacing each successive tenant while devoting their lives to the holy C; when Alison appears to be the latest in line of succession, he becomes ultra-worried.

Meanwhile, the homicide investigators dig up the names of all of Alison’s “neighbors” to discover that they were all murderers, and that they are all also quite dead. Dun dun dun!!

Any case, it’s quite late in the third act when Alison’s purpose in all this mystery is revealed. And it’s a doozy.

“I Am One of the Leeeegion!”

“I Am One of the Leeeegion!”

In a nutshell, this amazingly priced fifth-floor walk-up is the Gate to Hell, and all previous tenants have stood guard over it, thus the Sentinel of the title. And when those gates open up and the “demons” come pouring out, well, much has been made of Michael Winner’s decision to cast people with real deformities and amputees as the “demons”. This lack of taste is probably the film’s major stumbling block and yet in spite of the shock of how un-PC and exploitative this casting is, it is effective.

Ultimately, Alison embraces her role and accepts the charge of becoming the next Sentinel, thus atoning for her sin of attempted suicide(s) and adultery.

Well, you can tell by how much I’ve written about this film how much I love it. Strong from start to finish with an amazing assemblage of name actors, many in small roles, that you would be surprised by who shows up. We have a youngish looking William Hickey, a Jerry Orbach with brown hair (!), Jeff Goldblum, Tom Berenger, Christopher Walken (who has only two lines of dialogue, one of which is the title of this post) and Eli Wallach as the homicide investigators… the list goes on.

The suspense and mystery of this film are excellent and well-maintained throughout, and the revelation is well-earned and rewarding. I highly recommend this film. ***1/2

Well, I originally thought I was going to review Saw IV, but it has been delayed in the mail, so next up will be the cult flick, Street Trash.

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