Sometimes a review website is a confessional. In the case of The Sentinel (1977), it’s an acknowledgement of my weakness for seventies schlock. By no means a good film, this sordid horror thriller doesn’t do much right, but nonetheless it’s difficult to turn away from it—in the grubby, unmitigated style of its era. So bad it’s good, or just bad? Probably the latter, but mileage may vary for cult-horror fanatics.
Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) is a model in New York City with a troubled past. Now she’s moving forward with a successful career in commercial acting and an encouraging relationship with dapper, connected lawyer Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon). Michael is happy to put her up in his slick bachelor pad; in fact, he’s anxious to take their relationship to the next level. But Alison has something to prove to herself, so she’s determined to make it on her own. To that end, she rents a place in an old Brooklyn apartment building, a charming edifice that, aside from the creepy blind priest perpetually staring out its attic window, seems too good to be true. Sure enough, it is; turns out, the creepy blind priest might just have been a bad omen. Soon, Alison is plagued by terrifying experiences—but are they the result of her mental health problems, or something more sinister?
Spoiler alert (or not really): it’s the latter! Directed by Michael Winner, The Sentinel possesses vaguely interesting elements, such as the hallucinatory nature of its slow-build and its portentous religious iconography. The cast will delight cinephiles with its mix of slumming-it Golden Age celebrities (Martin Balsam, Ava Gardner, Burgess Meredith, Sylvia Myles, Eli Wallach) and soon-to-be-famous newscomers (Tom Berenger, Beverly D’Angelo, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken). But beyond that, it doesn’t have much going for it: not enough scares to be thrilling, not intelligent enough to provoke thought, and ultimately with nothing much of substance under its surface. It certainly culminates in a memorably gruesome scene that shoots for the unnerving artsiness of Nicolas Roeg or Ken Russell. Alas, it doesn’t even reach the heights of derivative early De Palma. Still, buffs of a certain sensibility might get something out of seeing this one through. Anyone else in search of entertaining, high-quality cinema should look elsewhere.