Thursday, May 16, 2013


The search to find a horror film as gratifying to me as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby has largely proved a futile one, but through my efforts, I've discovered several reasonable and unreasonable contenders for the crown which I've nevertheless 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 are films for which I held high hopes before release, all are excellent-to-exceptional movies in their own right; yet none come close to capturing Rosemary’s Baby’s distinctive way of drawing the viewer into an empathetic identification with its protagonist through 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
What am I saying? I was stoked! I got the book from the library and positively raced through it, the cliché “I couldn't put it down!” 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 to a picturesque riverfront Brooklyn Heights brownstone that is to die for...literally.
Contemporary audiences are apt to find The Sentinel’s most startling, gasp-inducing scene to be the one in which real estate agent Ava Gardner 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? 
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.

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. However, I must add that scenes of beautiful, heavily made-up women suffering in high-fashion attire awfully entertaining, even if the pleasure derived from it leans a bit towards camp and unintentional laughs.
Top Model: Slightly slouching model Cristina Raines (who did indeed model in real-life)
like looks like she could benefit from a Tyra Banks outburst about her posture.  

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. 
Top-billed Chris Sarandon followed his attention-getting supporting role in Dog Day Afternoon with two career-killing 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.

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 scoreI 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.
Clockwise from top left: Jeff Goldblum, 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

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 Sentinelnot exactly a surprise, as it was prominently featured in the paperback cover art and on the movie poster for the filmis 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 genuine physical 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. But one critic at the time made the very good point that audiences are just as likely to view these individuals with empathy instead of fear, undercutting the effectiveness of Winner's questionable creative decision. 
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. My asking about The Sentinel must have struck her as totally random, but how could I let an opportunity like that go?). She relayed to me that the entire film was very difficult to shoot, but this sequence, in particular, was especially tough because Winner, intent on extracting genuine reactions from her, was prone to springing surprises on her. 
It appears that many of Raines' screams and shocked reactions are the real deal, owing to the fact that much of what we're seeing is something she is seeing for the first time, as well. Raines also said that the individuals hired for the finale sequence (I think she said it took a week) appeared to be enjoying their time as movie stars. While not privy to whether or not any of them felt exploited or were disdainful of Winner's desire to present them as fearful grotesques, she did tell me that they all formed a kind of fraternal clique and seemed to enjoy the attention and special treatment that came with making the film.  
With the horror genre currently in the hands of many filmmakers I'm not particularly fond of (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   2009 - 2013


  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.

    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!

  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.

    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!

  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!

    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.

  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!

    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:

  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.

    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.

  6. Jeffrey Konvitz, gay author of the novel, also wrote a sequel called THE GUARDIAN which features a late-innings twist so perverse, it surely would be regarded today as the height (or nadir) of homophobia. But as a kid, this twist gave me goosebumps, and not just the scary kind.

  7. Ha! I was wrong about Jeffrey Konvitz: Wikipedia reports him as married with kids. Guess the aforementioned twist in THE GUARDIAN made me assume he was gay. Maybe that twist is terribly homophobic after all, and I'll be consigned to gay hell for liking it.

    1. Hi Don
      I didn't read the sequel myself, but thinking back to what I remember a friend told me about THE GUARDIAN, if what I recall about the "twist" is correct, you're absolutely right, it would be seen as problematic to homophobic today. Valid in context, I think, but problematic all the same.

      Would it feel the same to you if Konvitz WERE gay? Sometimes when I read or watch the word of a gay artist and homophobia comes through, I'm intrigued by the artist's internalized self-rejection (Tennessee Williams comes to mind). But the very same material created by a straight artist often feels ignorant, ill-informed, or pointedly homophobic. Intriguing response you had, either way.
      It's certainly familiar to me and I can understand it.
      Gay visibility in films/novels was so rare when I was young, their inclusion-whether negative or positive in context - would engender all manner of responses from me. All of them on the goosebump side of thrill.

      Thanks for bringing up the sequel to the novel (part of what was ultimately a trilogy?), based on what you've written, I think fans of the film might seek it out!

  8. My favorite Jeffrey Konvitz picture is 1971's SILENT NIGHT BLOODY NIGHT, which also wasted the talents (and magnificent voice) of John Carradine.

    1. Wow, that's a title from the past--one I didn't know Konvitz was involved in. It's a film I KNOW I saw, but can't remember a thing about. After Googling and seeing the cast credits, I think I need to check it out again.

  9. Beauteous ⭐️ AVA GARDNER and all her glamour saved the film for me She opens and closes the film with oh matter of fact character Miss Logan

    1. I know what you mean. At the time I first saw this, I'd only seen Ava Gardner in things like "Earthqueake" and "The Bluebird." Now, several decades later, after I've seen her great early work and have developed such a respect for her beauty and talent, I really appreciate what she brings to the movie. Her star presence alone is such a kick!
      Thank you for commenting and singing the praises of La Gardner.