Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Sentinel

Score Technician: Joe Hemmerling

The supernatural horror film was having its moment in the '70s. Thanks to the success of Rosemary's Baby in '68, the Devil became a hot Hollywood commodity in films like The Exorcist and The Omen. Somewhere in that mix rests a lesser-known oddity called The Sentinel. Based on a novel by Jeffery Konvitz, the film centers around a young model with a troubled past who discovers a terrifying secret about her new apartment building. Sounds juicy. Let's see what the nanobots make of it.
  • Not yet sure what has prompted the Clerical Justice League to assemble. Maybe a threat from Apokalips? = +9pts
The one in the black and white vestments is definitely the Batman of the group.
  • Credits play over a montage of female lead Alison paling around with Prince Humperdinck. = -3pts (Never trust a guy who's that handsome.) 
  • Cast of this film is the center of a crazy Venn diagram of young actors on their way up and old actors on their way down. You've got Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, Beverly D'Angelo, and Jerry Orbach (not exactly young, but well before his career defining turn on Law and Order) on one side and Ava Gardener, Burgess Meredith, and John Carradine on the other. = +16pts 
  • The menacing priest following Alison down the street is surely a sign of good things to come. = -2pts 
  • Flying out to Baltimore for your dad's funeral, only to not go to your dad's funeral. = -4pts 
  • Alison flashes back to her high school years, to a day when she came home from school to find her dad canoodling with two ladies. Upon being discovered, he goes full Ike Turner on her. This raises a couple of questions:
    1. "Having sex" seems to be a lower priority with this threesome than "Eating a birthday cake," which... I dunno, maybe we've misunderstood what orgies were all about this whole time? 
    2. Who schedules their weird birthday cake threesomes for 3:00 in the afternoon on a school day? The responsible parenting choice is to have that shit wrapped up before your kid gets home. = -14pts
  • Traumatizing though the above scene would have been, immediately attempting to kill yourself in the bathroom is a bit of an overreaction. = -5pts 
  • Sound mixing is all over the place with this movie. It's like every line of dialogue was recorded in a different room. = -6pts 
  • "You know what would make this movie scarier? More scenes of people shopping for apartments." - Every filmgoer in the history of cinema, according to director Michael Winner = -23pts
  • Who wouldn't sleep easier knowing there's a blind, senile priest living five floors above them? = +6pts
  • Badly dubbed Jeff Goldblum. = +4pts 
  • Alison mysteriously collapses on the set of a photo shoot, adding Suspiria to the portfolio of films that The Sentinel is ripping off. = -3pts 
  • The part of Ruth Gordon played by Burgess Meredith. = +7pts 
  • Burgess Meredith's character is supposed to be gay, right? We're pretty sure he's supposed to be gay. -10pts in 1977; +15pts in 2015. Net score = +5pts 
  • Alison, calling into her downstairs neighbors' apartment and receiving no answer, proceeds to invite herself in. That could have gotten her shot in NYC in the '70s. = -3pts 
  • Beverly D'Angelo gives a whole new meaning to "Our bodies, ourselves." = -65pts (There's a time and a place. Come on.) 
  • Actual exchange: "What do you do for a living?" "We fondle each other." = +38pts 
  • The diabolical forces housed in Alison's apartment work their foul magic on her to...make her not do so great at her next commercial gig. = -8pts 
  • Burgess Meredith invites Alison to a birthday party for his cat, attended by all of their fellow tenants. It's every bit as sad as it sounds. = -13pts
"Sorry I can't stay; I was supposed to wash my hair tonight..."
  • Burgess Meredith goes from introductions to polka party in 0.2 seconds, then switches the music off while everyone is mid-dance. We're guessing that after all the party guests went home, he spent the next eight hours cleaning and redecorating his apartment, then went to bed and didn't get out of it three straight days. = -7pts 
  • We've all had that dream where a naked Beverly D'Angelo plays the cymbals two inches from our face. = +11pts 
  • After hearing strange noises from the (supposedly vacant) apartment above her the night before, Alison arranges a meeting with the lady who showed her the apartment and learns that the calls were coming from inside the house the entire time! Wait, that's the wrong movie. She learns that all the other apartments except for the priest's on the top floor are vacant! = +6pts 
  • Love is... hiring a private investigator to tail your girlfriend without her knowledge. = -17pts 
  • When investigating mysterious footsteps in the abandoned apartment above yours in the middle of the night, you want to make sure that you're as vulnerable as possible, so don't pause put on clothes, or shoes, or even throw on a robe. Just wander on up there in your sheer nightgown. = -22pts 
  • Zombie dad > Ghost Dad. = +4pts 
  • Was stop-motion really the only feasible option for capturing the scene of Alison stabbing her dad? We're pretty sure the shower scene from Psycho might have been able to offer a few pointers. = -11pts 
  • So far, the scene with a bunch of New Yorkers running out of their homes in the middle of the night to respond to a woman screaming for help is the least believable thing about this movie. = -8pts 
  • A grizzled detective casts suspicion on Prince Humperdinck over his wife's suicide the year before, while Christopher Walken stands in the background, looking pretty. = +6pts 
  • "If we didn't exaggerate some of the evidence, every crook in town would go free... instead of only 90% of them." In 1977 = +5pts; in 2015 = -30pts. Net Score = -25pts 
  • Prince Humperdinck helps Alison identify one of the party guests at Burgess Meredith's place as a long-dead woman who killed her husband with an axe. Good thing he happened to have The Picture Book of Obscure New York Murderers lying around. = -3pts 
  • The detectives pay a visit to Prince Humperdinck's apartment when the body of his private eye turns up bearing stab wounds that match Alison's description of the encounter with her zombie dad. Humperdinck denies ever seeing the dead man before, to which the grizzled detective responds by smiling like a baby that's just farted. = -2pts 
  • An excerpt from The Catholic Pastoral Handbook, 1977: "When encountering a young woman in prayer at your church, it is proper for the clergyman to stand a short distance off and fix her with a rapt, unnerving gaze for so long as it takes for her to notice you in order to treble the graces received by her pious action." = -8pts 
  • Why would a quotation from John Milton need to be translated from Latin when Milton, quite famously, wrote in English? = -9pts 
  • Humperdinck enlists the aid of a locksmith played by Uncle Louis from Christmas Vacation to break into the creeper-priest's office and learn more about the blind priest who lives above Alison. We like the idea that National Lampoon did all of their casting from watching this movie. = +17pts 
  • Gate to Hell discovered in New York City. In other news, water found to be wet. = +11pts 
  • The unintentional hilarity of watching Prince Humperdinck try to strangle an old blind priest. = +13pts 
  • Prince Humperdinck, now dead and damned for the murder of his wife, provides us with a handy information dump: Alison is meant to be the next "sentinel" who will guard the gates of hell once the old blind priest passes on. = +7pts 
  • The Sentinel caused controversy for casting people with real deformities as the souls of the damned in its climactic scene. So it's like Todd Browning's Freaks, only instead of shining a light on the indelible human dignity of the disabled, the filmmakers were likely just trying to cut their prosthetic makeup budget in half. = -40pts 
They mostly look kinda sad.
  • Burgess Meredith makes for a surprisingly good Satan. = +20pts 
  • According to Humperdinck, the only way the devil can prevent Alison from assuming her role is by convincing her to commit suicide. We're not sure how marching her through a Boschian labyrinth of horrors is going to incentivize that. "Hey, this is really terrible isn't it? Now hurry up and kill yourself so you can experience it forever!" = -18pts 
  • Creeper priest to Alison: "Guard us against evil and your soul that is doomed for your attempted suicides can be saved." So God, in this movie, is basically a hard-nosed district attorney who holds your priors over your head in order to get you to flip on the Devil. = -35pts 
  • Alison assuming her role as Sentinel apparently failed to stem the rise of demonic forces, because we've just flashed forward an indefinite number of years, and everything still looks like the '70s. = -9pts (If that's not hell, we don't know what is.) 
Total Score = -169pts
Available on: Netflix DVD; the shelf of a vacant apartment, inexplicably translated into Latin

The Sentinel is a very '70s film, not only for its supernatural themes, but also for the heavily erotic overtones and liberal use of nudity, which seem uniquely at home in that era. Yet unlike David Cronenberg's Shivers or Lars Von Trier's more contemporary offering Antichrist, The Sentinel never gets much further into exploring our unease with the sensual than to say, "Hey, sex is kinda creepy, right?" In that way, the movie comes across as simultaneously prurient and puritanical, like it wants to have its tits, but wag its finger at them, too.

Mostly what we can't stop thinking about in this movie is poor Beverly D'Angelo. She only gets to wear clothing in half of her scenes, and in one of those she's rubbing one out over her red leotard. Watching this made us wonder how many actresses have a Sentinel in their past, some movie that reduced them to a body to be lusted over, which they just had to bank against the possibility of it leading to more work down the line. Major bummer.

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