Part of the fun of horror movies is seeing which actors they get to be in them. “Oh, does this one have Christopher Lee? How about Slim Pickens, he was in several?” Especially in the ’70s and ’80s, this was a chance to see aging screen stars or up-and-coming actors who’d eventually strike it big. Rarely, though, has a single movie compiled such a ridiculous embarrassment of acting riches as Michael Winner compiled for his 1977 horror flick The Sentinel, a movie where virtually every speaking part (except the lead, interestingly enough) is played by someone you know and is often quite famous or would go on to be so. That it also happens to be a super strange and troubling affair is just icing on the terror cake.
The Sentinel was one of a handful of horror films of the decade that had to do with the scare factor of New York City. English director Winner had already tackled the subject from the standpoint of crime in his 1974 vigilante thriller Death Wish, which, though it would spawn Reagan-era right wing celebrations of violence in its sequels, was a very somber and not heroic look at a man turned to violence and madness. Here, though, Winner is using the backdrop of New York and the neo-Gothic landscape of brownstone apartments (much as Polanski did with Rosemary’s Baby) to stand in for haunted manor houses and spooky crypts.
Cristina Raines plays Alison Parker, a high fashion model and TV commercial regular living in New York. She’s looking for her own apartment, despite having a flashy bigshot lawyer boyfriend (Chris Sarandon). We find out slowly that Alison attempted suicide and has only recently gotten out of the hospital and wants to live on her own to get back on her feet, which her boyfriend tries to support. After several busts, she ends up seeing a very modestly-priced (way too modestly priced) brownstone in Brooklyn shown to her by Ava Gardner and she’s told she won’t have to worry about neighbors, except the old, blind priest (John Carradine) who lives in the penthouse. “If he’s blind, what is he looking at?” A valid question.
At the same time, her father becomes very ill and dies. In a flashback, it’s revealed that Alison walked in on her father having a weird orgy and he beat her up for it. This led to Alison’s first suicide attempt—it’s a theme with her. When she moves into the building she’s visited by the kindly elderly Mr. Chazen (Burgess Meredith) who has a pet cat and canary. She also meets a pair of “artists” played by Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo who are actually a super grope-y and vastly inappropriate lesbian couple. She eventually goes to a birthday party for their cat with everybody in the building, but she decides everyone’s really creepy and noisy. But when she complains to Gardner’s character, she finds out nobody else lives there except herself and the priest.
As you might guess, about here is where the movie’s plot starts getting extra strange. For only being 90 minutes long, there’s a lot of exposition and character to get through. Ultimately, some really scary things start happening and Alison investigates upstairs after hearing some noises and sees her father—her dead father—all white and milky-eyed attempting to attack her. She stabs him and calls the police but there’s no body there when they arrive. The police are played by Eli Wallach and Christopher Walken who have been investigating the boyfriend for awhile, ever since his first wife committed suicide and Alison almost followed suit.
Ultimately, it comes to pass that Alison has been chosen as the next “Sentinel,” the lone person to protect a cursed mystical gateway to hell, which is what the priest has been doing up until this point. The “neighbors” are the ghosts of murderers who are trying to drive Alison to suicide before midnight on a specific day so that no new Sentinel takes over and they’re free to infest the land of the living with their evil. The closer it gets to the time, the more creepy stuff gets, and we end with Alison trying to make her way to the penthouse while dozens of cursed souls (played in many cases by actual people with deformities like elephantiasis) block her path and try to lure her to her own death.
Now, earlier I mentioned all the people in the movie, and I’ve named a couple of them, but that’s not even the half of it. On top of Sarandon, Wallach, Walken, Gardner, Meredith, D’Angelo, and Carradine, we also have Martin Balsam, Arthur Kennedy, Jose Ferrer, Jeff Goldblum, Jerry Orbach, Deborah Raffin, Tom Berenger, and Deep Space 9‘s Nana Visitor. There’s just so many people it’s ridiculous—not to mention all the “that guy” actors you’d recognize but maybe not know their names. Again, this movie is only 90 minutes long and yet it has more character actors than any three Roger Corman, Joe Dante, or Hammer Horror films.
As bizarre as this movie is, Winner actually does a really amazing job of wrangling all the disparate elements together into something approaching cohesion. For the first 45 minutes or so, the movie plays like a drama with thriller elements but for the final half it becomes an explosion of Gothic and demonic imagery. That final onslaught of the dead really is the stuff of nightmares. It’s not the scariest movie of the decade, but it gets under your skin. And all the star talent will make all the weirdness at play even weirder.
The movie is out now on a special edition Blu-ray from Scream Factory with three audio commentaries and a lengthy interview with Winner’s assistant director. It’s worth a look this Halloween season.
Images: Universal/Scream Factory
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!