The Sentinel

A room with a view
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1977
Director: 
Michael Winner
Starring: 
Cristina Raines, Chris Sarandon, Ava Gardner, Martin Balsam
The Setup: 
Woman moves into apartment and encounters ghosts, devils, etc.
Discussion: 

So many people complain about Netflix streaming because it doesn't have a lot of new movies or a lot of, you know, GOOD movies, but it does have a lot of of older, cheesier movies, and thus a great crossover with what we cover on this site. It's a bit like having access to that smelly video store with all the old VHS tapes of forgotten titles. So I go there and see we have this cheesy horror thing from 1977, and that's all I need to know! And it turned out to be fun and interesting in all sorts of ways--with one scene that freaked me WAYYY out, much to my surprise and amazement.

So we open with the typical ancient church in Italy where wrinkly priests are bemoaning the coming of Satan or something. But as we look around the interiors I'm like; "That looks like The Cloisters," which, for the New York-challenged, is the 14th-Century Abbey that was moved brick by brick to upper Manhattan and now houses the Metropolitan Museum's Medieval collection. Then as they move room to room you think "That IS the Cloisters!" And so it is, which was a nice little surprise to open the movie. Then we have the credits and find that this has a cast worthy of a disaster movie: Chris Sarandon! Martin Balsam! John Carradine! Jose Ferrer! Ava Gardner! Arthur Kennedy! Burgess Meredith! Sylvia Miles! Eli Wallach! Christopher Walken! Beverly D'Angelo! Jerry Orbach! And, not receiving front billing, Jeff Goldblum! Who is this director, Michael Winner, that he can assemble such a cast? Well, he's well known, but not really such a big anybody (as far as I can tell). It's a mystery.

So our heroine is Alison Parker, played by Christina Raines, who has a bit of the Kate Jackson to her. She is a model who lives with Chris Sarandon as Michael, a wealthy lawyer with a lame stache. He wants to marry her, but she wants to move out, although this is not treated as a problem in the relationship, just that, you know, it's the 70s and she wants to have her own space. She goes to visit her childhood home, where she has a memory of walking in on her fairly elderly father naked and cavorting with two pleasantly plump ladies of ill-repute, all of them naked, and none of which you will want to see naked. Dad runs up to her, slaps her and rips off her crucifix, causing her to run to the bathroom and slit her wrists! So she's got some psychosexual issues, it would seem. She finds the crucifix dad ripped off, after all these years, and puts it back on.

So she goes to see a realtor in Brooklyn Heights, and gets this catty older women with an insinuating voice and I was like "OMG, it's the lady who played Ursula the Sea Witch!" But actually it's AVA GARDNER! She takes Alison to see this apartment, and again New Yorkers will bust a nut because--okay, in Brooklyn Heights right at the end of the gorgeous esplanade that looks across the river toward Manhattan is a well-known house--well-known because it is stupefyingly gorgeous and charming and Victorian-looking, causing any and all who look upon it to say "Oh my God, can you imagine living THERE?!" ...And this movie takes place IN that building. Furthermore, I think they may have really shot there, because many times you're looking right out the window toward Manhattan.

Two other crazy things: for one, Alison supposedly WANTS a furnished apartment, though for God's sake can you imagine the kind of dreadful, flea-packed furniture of dubious taste you'd get in the 70s? Secondly, this apartment is going to rent for $500 a month! Which Alison says is TOO MUCH (a one-bedroom averages $2,500 per month right now), so Ava lowers it to $400 since she is clearly Satan's emissary and Satan obviously wants some hot models on his team. Upstairs is a priest, and he sits night and day at the window on the top floor, never moving, always Watching. Waiting. Grating. Slicing. Dicing.

Meanwhile Alison is meeting the welcome wagon in the form of Burgess Meredith, who comes in like a big 'ol queen and leaves a picture of himself behind for her to enjoy. Then later Alison pops downstairs to meet the two women who live there, these kooky disheveled blondes in leotards. Alison asks is they're in ballet and the older one says "EXCUSE me..." and leaves the room, and the younger one starts touching herself rather frankly while staring at Alison, which makes her a little bit uncomfortable. When the older one returns Alison asks what they do and the lady responds "We fondle each other," and that's enough, Alison is out of there. Hey Alison, why so uptight?

Meanwhile she is getting headaches and dizziness and is hearing someone walking back and forth in the apartment above late into the night. But--that apartment's empty! Then she's at a commercial shoot where all she has to do is place the bottle down so the camera can see the label, which she still can't do after fourteen takes. Then she collapses! When she gets home Burgess has arranged a surprise party for her, where he has assembled everyone who lives in the apartment, as well as some former residents. That night Alison again hears the pacing upstairs. She returns to Ava the realtor and learns that... No one lives in the whole building except her and the priest on the top floor! AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!!

SPOILERS > > >
So Alison does what any of us would, and goes right back to the apartment to spend the night. She hears the pacing upstairs, and grabs a knife and goes right up there, still in her vulnerable nightie. Now I'm a jaded horror fan who has seen it all, and this movie so far hasn't been turning up anything too shocking, so imagine my surprise when what followed here FREAKED ME THE FUCK OUT. I'm not going to spoil it--and I don't want to oversell it--but we all have our things we find disturbing, and this one had me with my hand over my open mouth, shocked and horrified by what I was seeing! It freaks Alison out, too, with good reason, and she runs out into the street hysterical, making a huge scene.

This causes the involvement of Eli Wallach, who starts making appearances as a police detective that snoops around Michael, with his assistant Christopher Walken, who has little to do but stand around and smirk. It seems that Michael is a subject of investigation because his previous wife died under mysterious circumstances, after which Alison had another suicide attempt. Meanwhile Michael amps up his own investigation, visiting the church organization that owns the house, then hiring someone to break into the place after dark to peruse records. They find that everyone who has been the caretaker of the house had a suicide attempt, then became the resident of the upper apartment, under a different name, afterward. If you, at this moment, put together the title with this and surmise that the last shot of this movie is going to be Alison installed there in the upper window, well, who could blame you?

They also realize that Alison is scheduled to attempt suicide and be possessed (or whatever) TOMORROW. So Michael tells mutual friend Jenny that they must never leave Alison alone, which means she needs to be dragged to this party Jenny is giving. Alison is put in a room to sleep, they turn their back--and she's gone! She went, you guessed it, back to the house. Michael is already there, learning that the house is a portal to hell, which was spoiled by the Netflix description, by the way, and that they priest stationed upstairs if the "sentinel" appointed to guard it. Michael gets bludgeoned for his trouble. He then appears to the freshly-arrived Alison, who soon realizes that he's a walking corpse. Then all these horrible people appear, many of whom appear to be real freak-show denizens with real maladies, and they menace Alison, who naturally finds it more logical to keep climbing the stairs to the top rather than just LEAVE THE HOUSE. At the top, the priest appears to save her, but--- !

Then we see the building being destroyed (not really, as I said, it's still there) and a modern apartment building in its place. The Ava is back, showing the apartment, until--you guessed it, you clever cur--we tilt up and see that Alison is now stuck there in the upper window, guarding the place. At least she has a nice view.
< < < SPOILERS END

It wasn't that bad! And if you like the 70s and all things related, it was quite good! You have a fair amount of 70s glamor and parties with models and film directors, and photo shoots at high-end Manhattan apartments. Then there's the story, which isn't that bad, and includes a lot of crazy peripheral characters that provide much amusement. And the horror element is about as expected, with the sudden bursting out of genuinely horrifying elements in the middle and at the end. They also work better because the rest of the movie is so tame, you're not expecting anything really nasty. There's the cast of thousands to keep you spotting luminaries, and if you live in New York, the are the prominent locations to look at. Overall, a winner! Just as cheesy and just as fun and just as truly scary as one would like. Hats off to The Sentinel!

Should you watch it: 

If you like cheesy 70s horror movies, this is an undiscovered little gem.