Thursday, November 02, 2006

Film: "The Sentinel" (dir. Michael Winner)

Every October I try to make it a point to watch a lot of horror films. Somehow this immersion in darkness seems appropriately seasonal. This year I didn't get a chance to watch many new entries from the genre, but I did revisit some of my favorites (which have been mentioned previously). One of the best, in my opinion, is The Sentinel (1977). This film stars Cristina Raines as a model who, upon taking a new apartment (in Brooklyn Heights?), gradually becomes aware that fate has a purpose in mind for her that she could have never anticipated.

Michael Winner (Death Wish, The Mechanic) was somehow able to put together an impressive ensemble cast for this demonic chiller. A very creepy Chris Sarandon plays the male lead. Cult favorite Christopher Walken plays a smirking detective (who, despite being introduced in the credits, only has two lines in the entire film). Beverly D'angelo gets a chance to display her most intimate charms as a lesbian in ballet tights. John Carradine assumes his creepiest role, as a blind priest who has a special apartment in the building where Raines lives. Burgess Merideth (of Rocky fame) plays the dapper yet doddering head of the welcoming committee for our starlet. Ava Gardner, Jeff Goldblum, Jose Ferrer, Jerry Orbach, Tom Berenger, Eli Wallach, and Arthur Kennedy all make appearances.

Despite the many recognizable faces, it's arguably not the famous cast that makes watching this film so much fun. There's a lot of swank 70's fashion and style to revel in. Our protagonist is beautiful, and has a great wardrobe. Sarandon has a barely explored penchant for parlor magic. The brownstone where Raines lands is outfitted with antique charm. There are many interactions involving idiosyncratic peripheral characters that flesh out the story. Along with moments of kitsch and levity, there are some genuinely frightening sequences on offer.

Perhaps most striking about this film is the fact that Winner employed genuine human oddities during a crucial scene. This choice was hugely controversial, as it was right around the time that sideshows were being attacked and charged with exploitation. I have no doubt that sensitive viewers would consider Winner's use of these malformed people to be in poor taste. But there is historical precedent for their employment, and anyone who has seen Browning's Freaks will notice an example of inverted allusion. Whether or not you agree with Winner's choices, you will most likely have to admit that the results are effectively frightening.

Younger viewers, who are used to being inundated with graphic violence and gratuitous cruelty, may not find the pace of The Sentinel to their liking. The plot has religious themes and literary references. For much of the film it is not clear what is happening, or why the viewer should be scared by the events. The suspense builds slowly and creates tension and foreboding. It requires a patience and appreciation thay today's audiences generally lack. Despite the film's stubborn refusal to follow genre conventions, it certainly belongs in the horror section. While the genuine scares of the story are spread out, the ending is horrifically anxiety-inducing. It is a classic.


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Johnny Reb

3:54 AM  
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12:50 PM  

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