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My teachers and guidance counselors in high school told me, explained to me, screamed at me: “You’ll never learn anything being obsessed with all of these horror movies!”
I would argue that I have learned plenty — and 1977’s The Sentinel would be my doctoral thesis in “I Live My Life by What I Learned from 1970s Satanic Horror Movies.”
Lesson one: All models live dissolute lives and are mere seconds from an outburst; avoidance recommended.
When we meet Alison Parker (Cristina Raines, daughter of The Invisible Man), she’s a busy New York model. She’s gorgeous. And she’s always batshit crazy, suffering strange psychosomatic issues such as night terrors, insomnia and random flashbacks to all of the times she tried to kill herself. After she moves into a spiffy Brooklyn brownstone — because she wants to see if she can live on her own and not with her rich boyfriend, Michael (Chris Sarandon, more on him later) she starts hearing random noises and meeting people who don’t exist.
That all leads to work-related trauma, as she often passes out while modeling and ends up in the hospital. A young, pre Law and Order Jerry Orbach is having none of her shenanigans, asking if they can just move her and give her clothes to another model.
Oh yeah — she also hated her dad, who just died. Her first suicide attempt came after she walked in on her ancient pa playing with an entire roomful of prostitutes. And it turns out that her boyfriend is being investigated by the police (played by Eli Wallach and a super young Christopher Walken) for killing his wife. Whew! Needless to say, she’s gorgeous but doesn’t have issues. She has subscriptions.
Lesson two: Catholic priests have crazy secrets that will implode your fragile secular mind.
Only one person — supposedly — lives in the building with Alison: Father Halliran (“Skinny Dracula_ himself, John Carradine), a priest so blind that his eyes have gone whiter than Emily from The Beyond. All he does is sit in front of his window and stare into the void. Turns out that Alison’s new home is really owned by a secret society of excommunicated Catholic priests — all the cool ones are — and they guard the gateway to Hell. And that gateway? Yeah, it’s right here in the building. And Father Halliran is the Sentinel, the blind guardian of the abyss.
Why is Alison there? They’ve chosen her because with two suicide attempts, she’s the perfect candidate. The only way she can get to Heaven is by becoming the next Sentinel, because Halliran is ready to die, Biggie style.
Lesson three: If you are in a 1970s Satanic horror movie, DO NOT trust old Hollywood stars.
Alison’s neighbors may start off nice, but they’re all demented. Like the two leotard wearing ladies who invite her for tea, then begin rubbing themselves like some demented exercise video while Alison just tries to drink her tea. Seriously, this scene — it should be for shock or titillation — but it’s one of the unsexiest, most hilarious, take this movie out of the DVD player moments I’ve witnessed in a long time. Keep in mind — Beverly D’Angelo of the National Lampoon’s Vacation films plays one of them, the other is Sylvia Miles from Midnight Cowboy.
But it’s old Hollywood royalty that you really need to watch out for. Like Ruth Gordon and Ralph Bellamy in Rosemary’s Baby, Burgess Meredith’s Charles Chazen starts nice, but it turns out he leads the minions of Hell. At least he has a cool cat, right? He has an insane birthday party that Alison runs from, finally telling her real estate agent that the people in the building are driving her insane. Again, turns out no one else lives there. No one else but old Hollywood folks ready, willing and able to help the cause of Satan. Like the aforementioned real estate lady, played by Ava Gardner. Or José Ferrer, wandering around in a red robe. If someone you recognize from a 1940s flick offers you some tannis root, just say no.
Oh! I almost forgot Psycho’s Martin Balsam is in this as Professor Ruzinsky!
Lesson four: If you are the hero or heroine of a 70s Satanic horror movie, you’re fucked.
Spoiler mode on: Rosemary is gonna have to find a way to love that cloven hoofed infant. It doesn’t matter if you’re a legendary leading man, your adopted Satanic son is gonna cut photographer’s heads off and make sure you die. And in this one, well, Alison is gonna become the next guardian no matter what. Halliran and Monsignor Franchino (yep, played by the man WikiPedia refers to as “one of the premier character actors in American film from the late 1940s through the early 1960s,” so lesson three applies here as well) walk through an army of demons to give her a crucifix and transform her into the next blind guardian. Predestiny, y’all.
Lesson five: Never, ever trust Chris Sarandon — not even in the slightest way
Michael tries to help Alison, discovering the big secret to this film. He breaks into a church office and discovers that the moment that people with suicide attempts disappear, they show up as priests assigned to this building. What you don’t find out is that he dies — off-camera — and becomes one of the demons who tries to convince Alison to kill herself and bring Hell to our world. And just why is he a demon? Because of course he killed his wife.
But if you’re aware of Mr. Sarandon’s movie history, you shouldn’t be surprised. The guy is Jerry Dandrige from Fright Night, after all, a vampire who literally fucks with Charley Brewster to his face, in front of his mom, before killing and stealing his best friend and having vampire sex with his girlfriend. As if that dick turn wasn’t enough, Prince Humperdink in The Princess Bride spends an entire movie two-facing the titular princess.
Any time I see Chris Sarandon in a movie, I instantly put up my bullshit filter. I will not trust the man — despite the fact that he’s also the voice of Jack Skellington. If you are a character in a 1970s Satanic shockfest, I implore you to do the same.
Lesson six: Avoid Michael Winner at all costs.
I’m joking — I actually love a lot of his work despite the slapdash direction and general griminess of it all. His 70s output from Death Wish on gradually becomes meaner and darker and stranger, with the exception of Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood. And with that movie — and it’s preponderance of aging Hollywood star cameos — there’s a good chance at least one of them will go all lesson three on you and slice a pentagram into your chest.
He courted controversy (and was more well known as a restaurant critic and England’s rudest man at the end of his life) here by making, well, an artistic choice. Instead of costumed demons, he simply hired real deformed folks to wander around. It’s either pretty unsettling — or totally awesome, depending on your mindset — to see a crazed Burgess Meredith commanding an army of tumored faced and genetically challenged real folks to help a girl kill herself.
That said — Cristina Raines felt that Winner was a horror to work with. She claims that she was in tears nearly every day on the way to the set and refuses to watch this film, so as not to stir up any bad memories that remain.
If you follow the above rules, one would hope you survive your film plight. That said, the 70s were a horrible time to be alive, so there’s a very real chance that Satan will turn your happy ending into a twist downer and we’ll all have to reflect upon it. Oh yeah — and I love this movie, simply because I grew up Catholic and would read The Pittsburgh Catholic to see which films were given the dreaded O rating, which condemned them for being morally offensive. Just look at the amazing films so chastised and damned: Pink Flamingos, Dawn of the Dead, Barbarella, Billy Jack, The Wicker Man…so many films to adore!
EXTRA CREDIT ONE
The Sentinel was written by Jeffrey Konvitz, who gifted the world with the teen romp GORP and produced the sequels to Bloodsport and Cyborg. Speaking of sequels, he wrote one to this movie titled The Guardian (the alternate title was The Apocalypse) and holy shit — I’m just going to share the description verbatim: “She was the Sentinel, the living guardian of the gates of hell. She was the sole barrier between humanity and the forces of satanic evil pent up since the Fall from Grace. Hers was the most terrible penance of all; chosen for her sins, she had been committed to a living death, a blind nightmare in which the only reality was the reality of her demonic adversary, and the awful powers she had been endowed with to constrain Him. Now her penance is nearly up. For Monsignor Franchino that means the resumption of the most dreadful task the Church has ever bestowed; once again he, and he alone, must find and commit a new victim for the guardianship ; knowing that at every step the powers of evil will battle to pervert the change-over. For the Prince Of Darkness it means a final chance to unleash his minions on the world and begin at last His long awaited reign of evil. For Mankind it means…The Apocalypse.” I would watch the shit out of that.
EXTRA CREDIT TWO
If you’re looking for a film that hired Dick Smith just so they could push the R rating to the goriest of limits, this is a decent choice. Abusive dad ghosts get their noses shredded, eyes get decimated, blood explodes out of heads…it’s a shame that Smith didn’t get to create the actual demons!
EXTRA CREDIT THREE
Jeff Goldblum, Tom Berenger and Richard Dreyfuss all show up in this — but blink and you will quite literally miss them.
EXTRA CREDIT FOUR
Michael Winner died from eating poisoned oysters and his estate was questioned upon his death, as it was discovered he was paying for numerous ex-lovers. I think I’d rather watch a movie about his life than any movie he directed.