The Sentinel (1977)




It's no secret that the 1970's are my favorite decade for horror cinema. Horror in the 1980's became more camp, and serious industry folks took it, well, less seriously. Sequels buried once proud franchises under mountains of inane silliness and cheap straight to VHS films lacked the charm of their grind house fore fathers. By the end of the 1990's horror had become a little too full of itself. Always setting out to "out clever" what came before. Films like I Still Know What You Did Last Summer sacrificed anything even resembling intelligence to set up a "twist."  The decade that followed sought to shed that shiny studio fed feel of the previous decade, but often times did so at the expense of story - hence the birth of films where the gross out superseded the story.

What does any of this have to do with the 70s? The 70's really felt like the last time films were allowed to be honest, rather than focus grouped to death and made into a product. It was the last decade where films could be just that - films. Which nicely leads us to The Sentinel.

Alison (Cristina Rains) is a fashion model trying to make it - and succeeding in New York City. But all is not what it seems. She's a model with a past (aren't they all?). An incident where she catches her father with two women drove her to attempt suicide and still haunts her. It doesn't help that her famous lawyer boyfriend, Michael, (Chris Sarandon) may have had a hand in the death of his previous girlfriend.

Seeking solace, she decides against moving in with Michael and gets her own apartment in Brooklyn Heights. Baking at the 500 dollar a month price, the real estate agent, (Ava Gardner) quickly drops the price to 400 and Alison is in. She soon meets all her neighbors in the building, including the affable Burgess Merideth and his cat. Beverly D'Angelo also shows up and sets lesbianism back 50 years in a scene that is just disturbing on so many different levels. Odd neighbors aside, the place is only 400 bucks a month, so Alison learns to deal.

Michael continues to pressure he to move in with him, but is rebuffed. However while he is out of town on business, Alison begins having fainting spells. Michael decides to investigate the building and finds the answers to his questions even more nefarious than he could have possibly imagined.

The Sentinel is the type of film that couldn't be made today. I mean, it could, but certainly not on the scale that it was back in 1977. Today, it would probably be a direct to DVD affair (unless someone like Guillermo Del Toro attached their name to it) starring a couple familiar names with he rest of the cast being filled by unrecognizable talent. But in 1977, not only do you get screen legends like Ava Gardner, John Carradine and Burgess Merideth (fresh off Rocky), but you also get Sarandon, Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, Beverly D'Angelo, Eli Wallach, Jerry Orbach...the list goes on. It goes back to what I led the review off with, in the 70's films were films regardless of genre. It wasn't until a few years later, when sequels and VHS killed the genre that "horror" became a filthy word among Hollywood elite.

With a plot that tries to be too smart for it's own good at times, the film certainly is not perfect. Certain subplots go nowhere. Wallachs' police chief with an axe to grind feels terribly out of place in a contemporary Gothic horror piece (but his ties are AWESOME!). Certain characters intelligence is questionable and the film uses shock for shock at times, which distracts from the overall narrative.

But there is so much The film does right. The direction, by Michael Winner (Death Wish) is wonderful. The performances from it's legendary supporting cast, specifically Merideth and Gardner are tremendous. The special effects are indeed just that - special. Check out the way the blood pulsates out of Alison's wrists in her suicide attempt flashback - tremendous.

The Sentinel sometimes gets lost in a sea of other great 70's horror films. It's certainly not on the level of The Exorcist, and doesn't belong in the same category. But an argument can be made that the film is just as good as other 70's genre faves like The Omen.

If your in the mood for a great little thriller with an awesome cast and some really cool effects, then check out The Sentinel and beware next time you rent your next apartment. If the deal seems to good to be true (400 bucks a month! Brooklyn Heights!) it usually is.

*** and 3/4 stars out of *****

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