Of all the films released in the post-Rosemary’s Baby Modern Gothic vein, the real standouts for me have been: The Mephisto Waltz (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Exorcist (1973), The Stepford Wives (1975), The Omen (1976), Burnt Offerings (1976), and Polanski’s The Tenant (1976). All are films for which I held high hopes before release, all are excellent-to-exceptional movies in their own right; yet none coming close to capturing Rosemary’s Baby’s distinctive way of drawing the viewer into an empathetic identification with its protagonist through the the skilled manipulation of the medium of film and an understanding of the central, elemental vulnerabilities of fear.
When a book critic in 1974 described Jeffrey Konvitz’s new novel The Sentinel as a cross between Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, I was instantly intrigued. When sometime later I read in the movie magazine Rona Barrett’s Hollywood that Universal Studios had acquired the motion picture rights and that Kate Jackson of The Rookies (Charlie’s Angels was just taking off) was being considered for the lead, I was interested. Later still, when I heard that Jackson had passed on the role and Nashville’s relatively unknown Cristina Raines was to head an all-star cast opposite Dog Day Afternoon Oscar/Golden Globes nominee Chris Sarandon (whose rising star was not yet tarnished by the still-to-be-released Lipstick), I was completely sold.
|Cristina Raines as Alison Parker|
|Chris Sarandon as Michael Lerman|
|Deborah Raffin as Jennifer|
|Eli Wallach as Detective Gatz|
|Burgess Meredith as Charles Chazen|
Meanwhile, the Hollywood trade papers ran items on an almost daily basis announcing which new star (Eli Wallach, Ava Gardner, Martin Balsam…) had just been signed to the film. A good book, a good cast, a high-profile director (Michael Winner of Death Wish, who, had I been familiar with his work at the time, would have given me pause)…I had the feeling that The Sentinel could be the post-Rosemary’s Baby Satanic thriller I’d been waiting for.
Contemporary audiences are apt to find The Sentinel’s most startling, gasp-inducing scene to be the one in which real estate agent Ava Garner informs Raines that the outlandishly spacious, fully furnished apartment is available to her for only $400 a month! A detail so outlandish in relation to today's housing crunch that even after the story begins dropping hints that the building is built over the very entrance to Hell itself, I doubt if any modern viewer would find that bit of info to be a deal-breaker for such a bargain. More than likely it would only serve as a reason to take on more renters insurance.
Predictably, it's the renting of the too-good-to-be-true apartment that seems to trigger all manner of maladies and calamities for Alison. The strange neighbors, the noises coming from the empty apartment above, the piercing migraines, the blackouts, the hallucinations. And just what is it with the blind priest on the top floor who sits all day at the window, seemingly watching all the events unfold? What does it all mean?
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
It’s clear from the start that the makers of The Sentinel are shooting for an unholy union of Rosemary’s Baby's brand of sophisticated urban horror crossed with the graphic gross-outs of The Exorcist and The Omen. There’s the emotionally fragile heroine plagued with guilt over abandoning her faith; the ominous-looking apartment-house filled with elderly eccentrics; a disturbing, cryptic nightmare; the suggestion of a plot against our heroine that her shady boyfriend may or may not be involved in; and the heroine’s deteriorating mental and physical health. It’s all there…cloaked in a solemn portentousness worthy of a religious parable on sin and redemption.
|Alison seeks the counsel of Monsignor Franchino (Arthur Kennedy)|
In The Sentinel, the battle between good and evil is metaphorically evoked (and a good many plot points telegraphed) by the colors black and white.
The Sentinel never quite comes together as a great horror film (the script is too weak and performances all over the map), but as your better-than-average, big-budget B-movie, it’s very much like one of those amusement park haunted house rides. You get scared, you jump, sometimes you have to cover your eyes, other times you laugh - but through it all there's a great great time to be had, provided you don't take any of it too seriously.
|Photographer Jeff Goldblum offers assistance to a headache-plagued Cristina Raines while concerned friend and fellow model Deborah Raffin looks on.|
Here's a tip for budding screenwriters: if you really want the audience to like and feel sorry for a character, don't make her a fashion model. We don't take models seriously. For starters, nobody considers what they do to be real work, secondly, deep down we're all slightly envious or resentful of their genetics-based charmed lives and therefore tend to harbor secret hopes that terrible fates befall them. On a side note, scenes of beautiful, heavily made-up women suffering in high-fashion clothing is the stuff of unintentional guffaws and camp, not drama.
|Top Model: looks like the result of not having Tyra Banks yelling at you about your posture in 1977|
In the I Love Lucy episode titled “Ricky’s Screen Test,” it’s learned that the producers of Don Juan plan to cast a newcomer in the lead and build him into a star by surrounding him with big-name performers. Pretty much sounds like what they had in mind with the casting of the lovely but largely unknown Cristina Raines in her first major screen role.
Raines possesses an overall impassive countenance, a somewhat flat speaking voice, and a very un model-like way of walking and standing, yet in spite of all this, I found myself being totally won over by her in this movie. Aside from liking the whole preachy Catholic thing used as a basis for horror, Raines is the main reason I've seen The Sentinel so many times. I know that sounds strange given what I've just said, but in roles that require an actor to be the one upon whom an audience must invest its sympathies and identification, personal appeal and likability can often trump technique. Cristina Raines registers rather stronger in the scenes of her character's decline than she does in the film's earlier scenes, as such, she makes for an appealingly vulnerable protagonist in the war between good and evil.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Even more than I love seeing all those bell-bottomed jeans and '70s fashions; more than I love the New York locations; more than I love Gil Melle's ghoulishly symphonic score—I really get a kick out of the roster of talent assembled for this movie.
|Clockwise from top left: Arthur Kennedy,Ava Gardner,Martin Balsam, Christopher Walken,Jose Ferrer, and John Carradine.|
|That's Richard Dreyfuss in this brief street scene and Tom Berenger makes an appearance in the film's epilogue|
THE STUFF OF
Every horror film worth its salt in the 1970s had a big setpiece moment. The Exorcist had projectile pea soup, and The Omen had that spectacular beheading. The big moment in The Sentinel—not exactly a surprise, as it was prominently featured in the paperback cover art and on the movie poster for the film—is the rising of the demons and denizens of hell. The gates of hell spill open and all of Satan's minions come forth to terrorize and unleash (more) evil into the world. It is a peak horror moment and everyone involved with making The Sentinel knew it was going to have to top The Omen and The Exorcist if it had any hope of doing similar business.
What many people apparently knew but failed to let me in on at the time (there was some pre-release controversy that somehow got by me) was that director Michael Winner had decided to take a disturbing page from the harrowing conclusion of the 1932 cult horror film classic Freaks, and used people with real deformities and disabilities to portray the demons.
To say this sequence is unsettling is a major understatement. It's creepy, it's gory, it's so weirdly grotesque it borders on the distasteful. To this day I still can't bring myself to watch it except through extremely close-knit fingers over my eyes.
In 1979 I had an opportunity to speak briefly to Cristina Raines and asked her about this scene. (I was working at a Honda dealership at the time and she came to pick up her car.) She told me that the entire film was very difficult but this sequence was especially tough because it was Winner's intent to get her genuine reactions and was apt to surprise her to keep her off guard. She told me than many of her screams and reactions are the real thing, and that much of what we are seeing she was seeing for the first time as well. She also said that the people hired for the sequence (I think she said it took a week) were having a ball. They formed a kind of fraternal clique among themselves and seemed to enjoy the attention and special treatment that came with making the film. She recalled how they appeared to enjoy practicing their demon walks and getting into their tattered zombie costumes.
With the horror genre currently in the hands of many filmmakers I consider to be hacks and gorehounds (Rob Zombie, Sam Raimi, Eli Roth...the inauspicious list goes on....all of whom make Michael Winner look like Alfred Hitchcock), and favorites like Roman Polanski, David Cronenberg, and Brian De Palma all in their 70s and beyond; I've more or less put an end to my search to find a horror film as flawless as Rosemary's Baby. And maybe that's how it should be. Perfect is great, and you're lucky when you find it...but The Sentinel is a terrific reminder of how imperfection can sometimes be a lot of scary fun, too.
|"Blind? Well then what does he look at?"|
Copyright © Ken Anderson