Thursday, May 16, 2013

THE SENTINEL 1977

The search to find a horror film as gratifying to me as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby has proved a futile one, but through my efforts I've nevertheless discovered several reasonable and unreasonable contenders for the crown that I've enjoyed a great deal.
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 of which I held high hopes for before release, all marvelous-to-exceptional films 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 film medium and an understanding of the central, elemental vulnerabilities of fear.

In 1974, when a book critic described Jeffrey Konvitz’s new novel, The Sentinel, as a cross between Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, I was instantly intrigued. When I read sometime later in 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 role, I was interested. Later still, when I learned 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
What am I saying? I was stoked! I got the book from the library and positively raced through it, the cliché “on the edge of his seat” a most apt description of how engrossing I found it. A novel so influenced by Rosemary’s Baby that it bordered on plagiarism, yet taking its overlay of then-trendy Catholic-based horror to effectively creepy and unexpected twists.
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.
Like Rosemary’s Baby, The Sentinel is a story of a lapsed-Catholic who comes to pay dearly for her loss of faith. The godless infidel in this case being beautiful New York model Alison Parker, a fragile, two-time suicide attempt with father issues and a sleazy, albeit caring, lawyer boyfriend with a shady past (Sarandon). Afraid of duplicating her mother’s unhappy life of emotional and financial dependence, Alison seeks to live on her own for a time before committing to marriage, her search leading her to a picturesque riverfront Brooklyn Heights brownstone that’s to die for (literally).
Contemporary audiences will 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! Even after the story begins dropping hints that the building is built over the very entrance to Hell itself, few modern viewers would balk- most likely they'd just set their minds to taking on more renters insurance. 
Predictably, it's in renting of the apartment when things start to go horribly wrong for Alison. The strange neighbors. The noises in the empty apartment. The piercing migraines, blackouts, and 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? 
Finding out the answers to these questions makes for devilishly good, often unpleasantly gross-out, entertainment. The Sentinel is nowhere near as accomplished as Rosemary’s Baby (indeed at times it’s downright amateurish) but it’s a nicely constructed, slightly old-fashioned thriller of considerable suspense and scares that veers agreeably back and forth between chilling and campy, depending on which scene and whose performance you’re watching.
Sylvia Miles and Beverly D'Angelo play Gerde and Sandra, a quirky lesbian couple residing in the mysterious brownstone. Thanks to Ms. Miles' questionable Swedish accent and D'Angelo's, shall I say, commitment to her craft, their scene has become something of a cult classic.
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 sophisticated brand of urban horror and 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; the 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 you have a great time so long as you don't take it all 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. Nobody considers what they do to be real work, and deep inside we're all jealous and secretly hoping something terrible will happen to them. Scenes of beautiful, heavily made-up women suffering in high-fashion clothing is the stuff of unintentional guffaws and camp, not drama.
Proof that models didn't have Tyra Banks to yell at them about their posture in 1977 
PERFORMANCES:
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 it’s strange given what I've 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. Christina Raines registers rather stronger in the scenes of her character's decline than she does in the film's earlier scenes, as as such makes for an appealingly vulnerable protagonist in the war between good and evil. 
Top-billed Chris Sarandon followed his attention-getting supporting role in Dog Day Afternoon with two unsympathetic lead roles in two poorly-received motion pictures. He was a sweaty serial rapist in Lipstick, and in The Sentinel he plays a corrupt lawyer with an unflattering 70s porn-stache that makes him look way too much like Paul Snider (of Dorothy Stratten/ Chippendales infamy). Sarandon has proven himself to be a wonderful character actor, but I'm afraid he makes for a stiff, blank, leading man.

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 that was assembled for this movie.
Clockwise from top left: Arthur Kennedy,Ava Gardner,Martin Balsam, Christopher Walken,Jose Ferrer, and John Carradine.
Clockwise from top left: Jeff Goldbum, Jerry Orbach (the original Billy Flynn in Chicago),Charles Kimbrough (Murphy Brown), Reid Shelton (the original Daddy Warbucks in Annie), Hank Garrett (Car 54, Where Are You?), and William Hickey (Prizzi's Honor) .
That's Richard Dreyfuss in this brief street scene and Tom Berenger  makes an appearance in the film's epilogue

THE STUFF OF DREAMS NIGHTMARES:
Every horror film worth its salt in the 70s 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 poster ads for the film - was 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 was 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 their kind of 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 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 I consider to be hacks and gorehounds (Rob Zombie, Sam Raimi, Eli Roth...the inauspicious list goes on....who 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

10 comments:

  1. Yay!! My take on "The Sentinel" is almost identical to your take. I love to watch this movie, but am similarly bothered, frightened and appalled at the climax when all the strange folks start heading Raines' way. I'm happy to know that the participants were enjoying what they were doing rather than feeling glumly exploited. Scenes with Raines' father disturb me, too!

    I am a total sucker for all-star casts and that is what drew me to this film initially. I love Ava Gardner in this period. Those eyes and mouth and that VOICE! How interesting about Kate Jackson being lined up initially. She always comes off to me as strong while Raines comes off to me as vulnerable. That would have been interesting...

    Thanks, as always, for a great look at another fun film.

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    1. Glad to hear you like this movie, too!
      Yeah, I get creeeped out by the scenes with Raines' father too. I really enjoy this film a lot, but I can't think of any other film that I watch regularly that keeps me peeking from behind my fingers so much. I wonder if the gross out factor played a part in how audiences received it? It must have been terrible for concession sales...I remember I couldn't finish my popcorn.
      But yes, the all-star cast is a big attrraction.
      And I agree with you about Ava Gardner. She's terrific in this.
      And although Raines looks a lot like Kate Jackson at times (especially in those very Charlie's Angels high-waisted bell bottoms) I too think that Jackson would have been all wrong in spite of her perhaps being a better actress. She does seem too strong.
      Thanks Poseidon!

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  2. Argyle, here. Probably saw this in '77 but don't remember for sure; I pretty much went to see everything back then. Here's where I confess I have never seen "The Exorcist" or "Rosemary's Baby." I was slightly too young when TE came out, couldn't get into an R(?) rated movie. But had read the book raptly. Good friend was obnoxious about it, saw it, recounted it, etc. to the point where all I could do was be over it. Years later, whenever it's on, the "gross" parts look so badly done I can't watch. But love Ellen Burstyn of that period (and Sydow and the other priest) and love the look and general tone (as far as I have seen) so I want to really see it properly some day. Maybe I can leave when they start going upstairs. Always knew about RB, love Polanski, Farrow, Cassavetes, the Dakota, Ruth Gordon, Ira Levin but just never had the right opportunity. It's become one of those things I'm saving for some unknown future. When I'm a shut-in, I don't know. Anyway, Christina Raines is classy in a way Kate Jackson (hard to even type that name) could never be. Although didn't Brian DePalma do something good with KJ? Raines, especially in your caps, reminds me a little of Jessica Pare on that Sunday night TV show. Raines was so good in "Nashville," very prickly. I always loved Deborah Raffin in anything, kind of intelligently vulnerable, in the same neighborhood as Tuesday Weld and Candice Bergen but slightly more modern, hard to pin down. Love Beverly D'Angelo; I must have really been in a funk not to remember this.

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    1. Hi Argyle
      What a fun, stream-of-consciousness comment! I get such a clear sense of your tastes and attitudes about things. Reading it is like having a casual phone conversation with a friend. I especially like your evaluation of Cristina Raines vis a vis Kate Jackson (and "prickly" is the perfect description of what was so good about her in "Nashville"). I don't know if Kate Jackson ever worked with De Palma...perhaps you're thinking of "Sisters" with that other brunette, Morgot Kidder. Gotta check my IMDB.
      I hope you write to tell me what you think whenever you get around to seeing "The Exorcist" and "Rosemary's Baby". By the way, Ellen Burstyn's look in The Exorcist is just great. Oddly, it's one of the strongest things I come away from the film with. Her look and the way Georgetown is photographed.
      I liked Deborah Raffin too. She had a limited range, but there was something about her.
      Thanks for commenting, Argyle. Love hearing from you!

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  3. Thanks for the great review and pics from "The Sentinel"! I've seen this one! I rarely watch horror films but when I do it's the suspenseful older ones that aren't so gorey.

    This one really scared me. The scene when Cristina meets the ghost of her dead father in the empty apartment is truly terrifying, like the worst sort of nightmare when frightening things follow you. Scenes like that has made this film unforgettable for me, even though it's not become a horror-favourite like "Rosemary's Baby" or "The Birds" (which are very mild compared to the horror films of today). I could hardly watch the ending with the ghosts in the attic!

    I think it's Cristina Raines that stops me from completely engaging in the movie. She's ok but not sympathetic enough for me to care about. (As you say, models are not people to pity!)
    It's amazing that you have met her! What happened to Raines after this film? Did she stop making movies? With some more experience she could have become a better actress.

    I would have preferred Deborah Raffin in the main role all though she is a bit glacial too. I think she might have had a little more acting experience than Raines to make it more believable. Poor Deborah, her time in the limelight quickly faded. She was all ready just a bit player in "The Sentinel", just a few years after "Once is not Enough". She never had a hit movie, did she?

    Thanks for pointng out all the other other good actors in film, aside from the big stars! I can not understand how Beverly D'Angelo could agree to play such a part! Maybe, she would have been better in the lead. Sylvia Miles is always fun to watch. I love her swedish accent!

    I laughed how you described the apartment as "to die for"! It really was!
    -Wille

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    1. Hi Wille
      For all its unevenness, I think that "The Sentinel" does pull off a lot of good, genuinely scary scenes. That encounter with the dead father being one of them. But unlike "rosemary's Baby" or even "Carrie", folks seem to enjoy "The Sentinel" now more as camp and a good spook-house shudder. I'm not sure it's taken all that seriously (but that was true of "The Birds" at one time).
      I like both Cristina Raines and Deborah Raffin a lot,but to me they are both rather stiff actresses that could have done with some voice training. Both actresses did very well in that medium where meager talent actually goes over pretty well: television. (I like your word, glacial in describing their shared quality).

      In a weird wat, what works for me in "The Sentinel" is that the three leads are so bland (Raines, Raffin, and Sarandon) but everyone else is hamming it up full time. It strikes a great level of discord that works wonders for the film seeming so odd and nightmarish.

      Lastly, I'm glad to hear from an actual Swede thatSylvia Miles' accent is good. She is such a character...whenever I see this film in the theaters, she always gets a big laugh just by opening her mouth.
      Checking on Beverly D'Angelo on IMDB, I see that this was her first film. Even with a weird role like this, it must have been tempting for an unknown actress to appear in a high-profile motion picture that had the potential to go huge success. It certainly got her a lot of attention. No doubt the type it took her years to live down.

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  4. I confess when I saw this film that I found Raines rather forgettable as the heroine (and you're right, it's impossible to sympathize w/fashion models). What I really enjoyed was Burgess Meredith's campy performance as the infernal gatekeeper - I loved his lascivious swagger, his ghoulish fussing about decor and cats, his whole scene-stealing aura. He seemed like a guy who could make Hell fun, or at least bearable. And I had the same gasping reaction to the rent for a Brooklyn Heights brownstone - for that price, Hell might be worth it. I also found the scene with Miles and D'Angelo weirdly funny as well as just weird. I think poor Raines had pretty tough going competing with the likes of this over-the-top trio. The whole film had a feeling of being overdone -- too much decor and elaborate sets, too many red herrings and fake shocks, too many priests, and too much plot to absorb at one sitting (I still don't quite get the Sarandon character's connection to it all). Maybe that's why the film isn't as memorable as it could have been.

    Have you written on what's just about my favorite horror film, the 1963 version of The Haunting w/Julie Harris? Would love your reaction to that one!

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    1. "-for that price, Hell might be worth it." I just love that line!
      I think both critics and the viewing public shared your views on Cristina Raines in the lead. As you intimate, all that Grade-A hamminess surrounding her only served to emphasize what many saw as her overriding ordinariness in the role.
      Although I wish Burgess Meredith didn't fill his latter career resume with similar eccentric old coot roles, I too love him in this film. He's so charming and funny.

      And I share your love for the 1963 version of "The Haunting" I wrote about it last June:
      http://lecinemadreams.blogspot.com/2012/06/the-haunting-1963.html

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  5. A total guilty pleasure...watched it again just the other night. I read the book as a kid, but was not old enough to see the movie when it came out. I thought Deborah Raffin, wasted in that tiny supporting role, should have played the lead. I want to shave Chris Sarandon's creepy moustache off; he was so handsome in Lipstick and Fright Night. A blast to see Jeff Goldblum and Christopher Walken at the beginning of their careers. I think I counted a total of two lines for Walken, though he's in every scene with Eli Wallach. Bev D'Angelo and Sylvia Miles are a hoot, as is Burgess Meredith. The movie is unsettling and scary in spite of being so outlandishly ridiculous and over the top.

    This movie reminds me of Sliver in some ways...just substitute Nina Foch for Ava Gardner as the realtor...except I think Sliver is a much better movie. I LOVE Ira Levin...nobody told a chilling story better, and Rosemary's Baby is indeed a modern masterpiece of horror, botht he book and the Polanski film.

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    1. Hi again,66 (I've shortened your name)
      Yep, guilty pleasure is the word. I share many of your stray observations (Sarandon's terrible mustache, Walken being Wallach's semi-mute shadow). And it's true that in spite of it being so over the top, it nevertheless "works" as an effective scary movie. A curiosity, that.
      I like Ira Levin a great deal too. Thanks for taking the time to read so many posts and share your own thoughts on the films. They're fun to read.

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