The Sentinel was Michael Winner’s attempt to jump on the Catholicsploitation/satansploitation bandwagon of the 70s, and it’s a glorious mess of a film.
Fashion model Alison (Cristina Raines) movies into a New York brownstone to have some time to herself sway from her lawyer boyfriend Michael (Chris Sarandon). Michael is pushing her to marry him, but although she loves him she’s still a little uneasy about the mysterious death of his first wife. The apartment seems like just what she was looking for until she meets her new neighbours. Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith) is friendly, perhaps a little too friendly. He’s always accompanied by a small yellow parrot named Mortimer and a black-and-white cat named Jezebel. The other neighbours are much more disturbing.
When she complains to her landlady she is told that in fact there are no other neighbours, about from the reclusive blind priest on the top floor. Alison is somewhat prone to anxiety at the best of times, since the time when she walked in on her father having an orgy with two prostitutes. An orgy involving cake. Lots of cake.
Michael has his own problems. He has a grizzled old New York detective snooping around after him. The detective who didn’t like him in the first place and still has his doubts about the death of Michael’s wife. Things get really complicated for Michael when Alison is found in the street outside the apartment house covered in blood saying she has just killed her father. Her father actually died some days earlier but a corpse shows up that matches the blood type found on Alison, a circumstance that encourages the detective to take an even closer interest in Michael and Alison.
The climax is perhaps not too difficult to predict but I don’t consider that to be a major flaw in a horror movie.
This film is packed with good or at least interesting ideas, all mixed together in a rather ramshackle plot that leaves loose ends trailing all over the place. The looseness of the plot adds to the fun, giving it in some ways an almost eurohorror feel.
Michael Winner’s direction might not be especially inspired but the movie manages to combine some genuinely creepy atmospheric moments with some over-the-top gore and grand guignol excess. Personally I think he overdoes it a little towards the end but I suspect most viewers will enjoy the outrageousness of the ending.
If you get bored you can always play Spot the Star. And there are more stars here than I’ve ever seen before in one movie - Ava Gardner, Martin Balsam, Arthur Kennedy, Jose Ferrer, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, Eli Wallach, Sylvia Miles, Burgess Meredith, Jerry Orbach, Tom Berenger and John Carradine all pop up somewhere.
Chris Sarandon makes a rather low-key but fairly effective lead. Cristina Raines is less effective. Of the mammoth support cast the standouts are Ava Gardner (a delightfully tongue-in-cheek performance), Burgess Meredith and Eli Wallach.
It’s not a good movie in any conventional sense of the term. It’s one of those movies that succeeds by virtue of its own faults. It’s a highly entertaining shambles. Plus it has blind priests, lesbians, nuns, freaks, murderers and a cake orgy. And a cat in a party hat (because it’s her birthday). If that’s not enough to keep you entertained then there’s just no pleasing some people! This is what cult movies are all about.
Universal’s DVD is sadly bereft of extras but it’s a nice widescreen transfer.