The Sentinel (1977)

Knife-wielding lingerie models in the haunted house of Satan.

Oft-referenced (
Ghostbusters, 1984; The ‘Burbs, 1989) but witless horror yarn presents an intriguing tale with all the subtlety and sense of mystery of a shovel to the cranium. Often the words “Michael” and “Winner” are deal breakers for me, and The Sentinel is beset by his innately trashy sensibility.

Young. Innocent. Beautiful. Yeah, she's screwed.
What could have been a chilling, darkly erotic story, that of young, gorgeous, feted, but melancholy model, Alison (Cristina Raines, competent) who’s chosen to be the next guardian of the gates of hell, is instead reduced to a thundering grab-bag of cornball effects and tawdry stereotyping. Winner’s actively offensive conception of damnation presents onanistic lesbian ballerinas (three strikes and you’re out) and deformed and disabled people as hell's minions. Actual line of dialogue; “The people you saw here – the lesbians – all of them – are reincarnations – devils!” Yeah.

Here's an onanistic lesbian ballerina, just to prove I wasn't kidding.

The plot development is both obvious and disjointed, and quite often the reading of lines, especially from Chris Sarandon in the last quarter (“I am one of the them!” Sarandon hisses at one point, revealing his caved-in skull, with the cadence of a teenager telling a ghost story with a torch on their face), strain so hard to impress us with their spookiness that they become almost satiric. But it’s not in the least satiric, it’s just mercenary and contemptuous. And The Sentinel was obviously not cheap – Winner had just come off the success of another gross portrait of contemporary urban nightmares, Death Wish. The film boasts an astonishing, and astonishingly wasted, cast, from the old pros like Arthur Kennedy, Martin Balsam and Ava Gardner in thankless roles, to newbies like Jerry Orbach, Christopher Walken, and Jeff Goldblum, who, despite having appeared in Death Wish, is dubbed for some ungodly reason.

They warned me about these Greenwich Village parties...

The essentials of the story had promise, with its death-and-the-maiden keynote. The transitory quality of beauty and privilege, with Alison as a priestess of the modern cult of beautiful, shallow people, contrasted with an inevitability of decay, sin, and deathless responsibility, had rich potential.

The bottomless depravity of Alison's father's cake-and-sex orgies.

Cristina Raines' reaction to being cast in this film.

That potential isn't entirely squandered – the final image of Alison, decrepit, blind, cocooned in a nun’s habit, possesses some impact. But Alison is loaded down with comic book traumas; the flashback to schoolgirl Alison stumbling in on her father having an orgy, getting slapped around for her sins – he even tears off her crucifix necklace, so we get the point – and then making her first suicide attempt, is stupefyingly sensational. In the idiotic climax, John Carradine, to save the day, has to press his way through one of those hand-grabby free-for-alls that irresistibly calls Ed Wood to mind.

Snips and snails and puppy dog tails...

Only once does Winner’s vulgar bent pays off, in one sequence where Raines, scantily dressed in a nightie, armed with a carving knife, prowls her haunted house, encounters her dead father’s ghostly form and furiously stabs him – for this scene, at least, he captures some of the heady, morbid sexuality of underground gothic art.

Take warning, Kate Moss! This is where your coke-snorting, girl-kissing model lifestyle is leading you!

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