The Tomb of Terror: The Sentinel (1977)
The tomb of terror is a new column. It will replace my previous teeny tiny Tweet-Size Horror reviews with a more in-depth discussion of a horror film each week.
Every Saturday night The Tomb of Terror opens, unleashing reviews of the obscure and the classic in horror cinema.
Sometimes a film comes along that wouldn’t have been able to exist without the success of another. After watching The Sentinel (1977), I’m convinced that the movie would not exist had The Exorcist not been a hit three years before. There are certain aspects of the film that seem carbon copied from that classic tale of demonic possession. The film is based on a novel by Jeffrey Konvitz that was released in 1974, the same year as The Exorcist hit theaters. Was the inspiration for writing it the box office figures of William Friedkin’s film? No one but Konvitz can know for sure. I am fairly certain, however, that the movie exists because of that film’s success, as well as the success of another hellspawn, The Omen (1976).
The Sentinel begins in Italy. We see a brief scene of a priest walking around a church and attending a secret meeting with other clergymen. This priest, played by Arthur Kennedy (Lawrence of Arabia), will show up later in the film and provide the main characters with guidance during their demonic disturbances. Sound familiar? A similar, seemingly disconnected opening appeared in The Exorcist, with Max von Sydow’s Father Merrin in Iraq. There’s not only that similarity, but the entire church conspiracy subplot seems lifted from The Omen and didn’t appear in the original Sentinel novel.
After this, we are transported to New York City. Model Alison Parker (Cristina Raines, Nashville) is living the good life. We see her on various sets as she’s photographed and acts in commercials. Having these scenes appear immediately after the opening in Italy brings about the biggest sense of Exorcist déjà vu you’ll get in the entire film. In the previous film, after leaving Iraq we met up with famous actress Ellen Burstyn on the set of her new film. If you want your rip-off to appear original, don’t copy the first film scene for scene.
After these scenes, the movie gets into a groove of its own. We meet Alison’s loving boyfriend Michael (Chris Sarandon, Dog Day Afternoon). He’s a lawyer and Harry Houdini fan who wants Alison to marry him. Unfortunately, Alison has some hang-ups about men, and the recent death of her father has brought them bubbling to the surface. Looking to have a life of her own, she moves out of Michael’s apartment and sets about finding her own place. She finds it in an ivy-covered Brooklyn brownstone that comes with cheap rent and eccentric neighbors. These neighbors include an animal-loving old man (Burgess Meredith, Mickey from the Rocky series), two very forward lesbians (including Beverly D’Angelo of Vacation fame), and a blind priest (horror movie staple John Carradine) who stares out his window at the top of the building all day long.
After spending a few days in her new home, Alison begins to feel uneasy. The apartment above her is supposed to be empty, but at night walking and loud banging can be heard coming from it. When she goes to investigate, she’s attacked by a vision of her dead father. She also begins to be overcome with fainting spells, which are preceded by a sharp pain at the base of her skull. She and Michael set about trying to find out what’s going on: is Alison going crazy or is there something more sinister at work? And how do the church and the blind priest fit into all of it?
Director Michael Winner (Death Wish) asks these questions, but doesn’t set about satisfyingly answering them. The action director is famous for his long and successful collaboration with Charles Bronson, but his skills in the action genre don’t translate perfectly into horror. Instead of telling a cohesive story, he focuses all of his attention on the oddball supporting characters and shock scenes.
Luckily, those shock scenes are crazy enough to keep you engaged as the convoluted plot moves slowly forward. Anyone who’s seen Death Wish 3 knows that Winner can get ridiculous with his set-pieces. Well, there’s one in the first 20 minutes of The Sentinel that tops, anything I’ve seen from his other films. Alison is back in her childhood home after the funeral of her father. It is here we learn why she has such a hard time getting close to men. In a flashback, we see a younger Alison walking in on the middle of what can only be described as a crazy sex birthday. Her father (who for some reason looks about 80) is in the middle of a threesome with a nubile young girl and an overweight older woman. Streamers hanging behind them read “Happy Birthday!” and they jam large handfuls of cake into each other’s mouths as they moan and groan. I’m sure the scene is meant to shock, much like The Exorcist’s scene of Regan masturbating with a crucifix, but it is so over the top that I couldn’t help but laugh for a good ten minutes after it was over.
Other scenes follow along those same crazy (sex birthday) lines. Alison goes to meet her two female neighbors for the first time and finds them to be very aggressive lesbians. While one goes to get Alison a drink, Beverly D’Angelo’s character begins to masturbate on the couch in front of her. Once again a supposedly shocking scene is undermined by the fact that D’Angelo’s orgasmic expressions are so silly and the fact that Raines just stares at her expressionless the entire time.
These shock scenes, while entertaining, fail to induce more than laughter. So, is the film able to scare us during the suspenseful scenes? The answer is yes. The scene where Alison imagines her dead father attacking her in the empty apartment is very scary. The look of the old man (aided by great makeup effects by the legendary Dick Smith) is chill-inducing, and the scene goes in unexpected directions. Scared by the apparition, Alison attacks it with a knife. Instead of disappearing or being unaffected (as you might expect from a ghost), the knife tears into the man’s face, slicing an eye in half and removing his nose.
The ending of the film also contains many unsettling images. I don’t want to stray too far into spoiler territory, but the finale finds Alison surrounded by demons in the apartment building. These include some friends that have died during the course of the film. The idea that a friend can reappear after death, only to discover they went to hell and are now a demon, is a very frightening one. Unfortunately, the movie’s other idea about the denizens of hell is supremely offensive. Winner hired people with physical deformities to represent many of the demons. While it is unsettling to see images of people with no legs or growths on their faces clawing after Alison, the scenes are heavy with the implication that these people should be feared like monsters. I couldn’t even imagine what it would feel like to be a person with a deformity and watch this sequence.
The acting in the film is, for the most part, one of its strong suits. The supporting players, especially Meredith, all turn in great bizarre performances. The cast assembled is honestly one of the best cast lists I’ve seen in a long time. In addition to those already mentioned, we have Ava Gardner (1946’s The Killers) as a Realtor, Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park) as a photographer, and Eli Wallach (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) and Christopher Walken (The Dead Zone) as cops investigating Sarandon’s past. You’ll also find Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) and Tom Berenger (Inception) in blink-and-you’ll-miss them appearances.
Chris Sarandon is fantastic as the boyfriend looking to make sure his disturbed love doesn’t go over the deep end. Sarandon’s known for digging into meaty villain roles, such as the vampire Jerry Dandridge in Fright Night (1985) and Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride, but here he does a great job of portraying an everyday guy trying to keep things normal in the face of insanity. These same compliments can’t be thrown out to Cristina Raines. The audience is supposed to sympathize with her plight and understand what she’s going through, but the actress gives us nothing. It’s actually hard for me to remember a scene where she emotes at all. For someone who goes through so much, she seems just as dazed and uninvolved at the beginning as she does at the end. Raines would be much more effective in the horror genre as the victim in the opening sequence of Nightmares (1983).
In spite of a weak leading lady, The Sentinel is still worth your time. The script presents some interesting scenes, even though it can’t pull together a completely cohesive narrative. The supporting cast is great and you might never see a more hilariously strange scene than the crazy sex birthday. It may not be as successful in the demonic subgenre as the films that inspired it, but for better or worse there are some truly unforgettable moments in The Sentinel.
Final Grade: C+
The Sentinel has come out twice on DVD in the US. The first release, from Goodtimes, featured a full frame transfer and a trailer. The second release, this time from Universal, contains an anamorphic widescreen transfer, but still no extras beyond the trailer. If you’re a fan of the film and region-free, I’d recommend picking up the Medium Rare Entertainment release from the UK. This disc features an introduction and commentary by co-writer/director Michael Winner, as well as a widescreen transfer.