(1977, rated R) Chris Serandon (Michael Lerner), Christina Raines (Alison Parker), Martin Balsam (Professor Ruzinsky), John Carridine (Father Halloran), José Ferrer (Robed Figure), Ava Gardner (Miss Logan), Arthur Kennedy (Monsignor Franchino), Burgess Meredith (Charles Chasen), Sylvia Miles (Gerda), Deborah Raffin (Jennifer), Eli Wallach (Detective Gatz), Christopher Walken (Rizzo), Jerry Orbach (Film Director), Jeff Goldblum (Jack). Music: Gil Mellé. Screenplay: Michael Winner (based on the book by Jeffrey Konvtiz). Director: Michael Winner. 92 minutes.
Tags: Horror, Suspense, Kitsch
Notable: Jeff Goldblum almost invisible; Christopher Walken with about three lines; presentation of a lesbian couple (who are, of course, evil).
Model Alison Parker catches a great deal on a Brooklyn apartment, with her few neighbors being a bit eccentric, particularly the old, blind priest, Father Halloran in the upper floor apartment who sits in the window, staring at nothing, and never moves. It takes some time for her and her lawyer lover, Michael Lerner, to discover that the building is actually the gateway to Hell… and Alison has been invited to join the occupants of the building permanently.
Let’s talk about the short list of good (and amusing) points to this, Universal Studios’ answer to Warner Brothers’ The Exorcist (1973). If you’re going to produce a B-list horror film, populating it with big stars is usually a good idea. Burgess Meredith is delightfully creepy as the neighbor Charles Chasen. It’s amusing to see Christopher Walken as Eli Wallach’s “bag man” (secondary detective) and having almost no lines at all. Jeff Goldblum (shortly before breaking out in the quirky TV detective series Tenspeed and Brownshoe, 1980) sounds as if he’s had his few lines overdubbed by someone else entirely. The overall story, though reasonably transparent (even the trailer gives away most of the plot), has its scary moments; the final scenes are a happily make-up-driven meander through a freakshow of the damned. The music by Gil Mellé (The Andromeda Strain, A Cold Night’s Death) is well designed and, although orchestral instead of his superlative electronic work, it brings some of the chill along with it.
Okay. Let’s dissect what’s wrong with this beast. Scalpel, please…
First and above all, the lead (Serandon) is worse than useless; his flat, emotionless performance reminds one all too much of the term “phoning in” a performance rather than being part of it. Whether the fault lays with Serandon or the director is a moot point; he’s simply too bad to watch. Sadly, Raines isn’t much better as she tries to deal with the various weirdos in the neighboring apartments. The bit roles, handed off to superior actors, don’t really make good use of their skills, with the exception of Meredith (who, I believe, couldn’t have turned in a bad performance if you paid him to). There is — risking the pun — a lifelessness to the performances that lead me to wonder whether or not the Screen Actors Guild holds its contracts into the hereafter.
I’ve not read the book, so I have no idea if Konvitz (author) and Winner (screenwriter/director) teaming up to produce this film was such a good idea. In the following year, Winner would script and direct Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, which is excellent; with the exclusive exceptions of being put into 1977 and set in England, Winner’s script follows the book perfectly. This may explain the errors in the screenplay for The Sentinel, as many reviews of Konvitz’ book pan it rather soundly. The flaws may not be in the movie stars, but in the story itself.
All in all, the tale is one of the magnificent ability of the Catholic church to commit holy blackmail through threatening your soul with eternal damnation unless you come over to their own version of the right side of the universe. Even the trailer to the movie gives away the central plot point, which is that Alison is being groomed (one way and another) to make the choice: Join the church and become the next sentinel against the evil of Hell overrunning the Earth, or join the damned because of her long ago attempt at suicide because of her father’s abuses. Those are the rules, you see: You can’t save yourself, only the church can do that, so you have to give up your sight and the rest of your life to sit in a chair in a high window, watching out for the evil ones who might get loose. Oh, and inviting others who have “sinned” to get an apartment in your building, so that they can die in some way or other and join the rest of the damned.
The greatest flaw in the film is that it goes on too long with what plot it has, but not long enough to have bolstered the story into something that would not only make better sense but also be more frightening. There’s a line in another movie to the effect that “I could swallow a can of Kodak and puke a better movie.” The truism here isn’t so much that the movie is bad as it is that it failed its potential. I could guarantee that I could write a better screenplay “based on the book.” I would include such things as another “real” person in the building, someone more “normal” but troubled, who ends up dying in one way or another, because of his past – in other words, a fresh body for the minions of Hell to take in, giving Alison a reason to suspect much more in a much more reasonable fashion.
However, that ship has sailed. The inability of this movie to shock or scare me may be because the film is part of its era. Remember that Rosemary’s Baby (book and film both) wasn’t really “scary” by today’s standards; the intent was for creeping suspense, to which end this film barely makes that grade. Judged by its peers, it would still be a three-star film at best. Frankly, I’d like the opportunity to do two things with a new screenplay: Make it more creepy by enhancing what actually goes on in the storyline, and make it creepier still by playing up the all-holy blackmail angle. After all, who wouldn’t like an opportunity to give the church another well-deserved backhand to the face? (Okay, a little vindictive, but c’mon, it would increase the scary part of all this. No, really. Give it a try.)