The Sentinel Excavated
I use the word “excavated” in my title not because the 1977 horror film The Sentinel , directed by Michael Winner, is lost to film history, but because it has been buried – with some justification – by legitimate criticism worthy of respect. I will argue in a bit that the film is one of the “incoherent texts” of the 1970s, not because it is unreadable (although there are some gaps in the narrative caused by bad editing and awkward direction that may mislead the viewer, causing one to mistake error for unresolvable ideological contradiction, but we must deal with the evidence available), but because it undermines the political vision it seems to advance. The Sentinel captures some of the atmosphere of the post-Vietnam/Watergate 1970s, with a gothic, overcast New York City providing key mise-en-scene to a drama without consolations. The film, for all its flaws, contains the apocalypticism and despair typical of the best 1970s horror (although I hesitate associating The Sentinel with the “best”) that ultimately condemns institutions, including some central to patriarchal civilization.
For a fairly small horror film, The Sentinel has one of the most distinguished casts in history, including Ava Gardner, Jose Ferrer, Burgess Meredith, Arthur Kennedy, John Carradine, Martin Balsam, Eli Wallach, Jerry Orbach, Sylvia Miles, and newcomers Jeff Goldblum (whose lines are dubbed), Christopher Walken and Tom Berenger. This is impressive until we learn that the presence of these actors had nothing to do with their love of the project (although almost every star gives more than a cameo), but because the money-men insisted on “Airport-casting,” that is, filling a poster with big names common to the disaster films of the period, not realizing that audiences attending those films would run away from another movie of the demonic possession cycle of horror. Such was the case, soon consigning the film to TV, where it would be butchered due to its sex and violence. It reemerged on VHS over a decade after its TV run.
Robin Wood wrote about The Sentinel that it was “the worst – because most offensive and repressive – horror film of the 70s […]. Winner, with his usual taste and humanity, uses real freaks, unforgivably, for their (socially defined) ugliness, to represent demons surging up out of hell” (2003: 136). I want to return to these remarks in a moment, but will first observe that many journalistic reviewers of the day, in contradistinction to authentic critics, praised The Sentinel. Their observations serve Wood very well. Rex Reed, whose trashy gossip I once enjoyed while never thinking of him as other than a peddler of such, thought the film comparable, in its ingenious use of deformed people, to Freaks (1932), apparently noting no difference between the two films. Tod Browning’s masterpiece, one of the great meditations of the horror film on the nature of the Other, presents the so-called sideshow freaks as ordinary and very good-hearted people, in contrast to the two stereotypical leads, the conspiring blond bombshell trapeze artist (Olga Baclanova) and her strongman boyfriend (Henry Victor). At times the film almost deifies the freaks (the early romp in the forest grove, the bearded woman giving birth), although to be sure they are placed in the realm of Expressionist horror when they take their revenge for one of their number being wronged; they end up scurrying through the rainy night. I mention this to note how utterly unreliable are media reviewers, even on simple matters of story, much less a work’s social-philosophical ambition. Reed’s comments, and others like them, justify Wood at least in Reed’s utter failure to make distinctions and to raise questions about the value of a work.
Wood is certainly wrong that The Sentinel is “the worst horror film of the 70s.” There are any number of candidates for that title, both of the high-end and low-budget varieties (to me, The Exorcist  is as absurd and reactionary in its image of women as any film of its day; we won’t go into the then-emerging slasher genre). Wood is on point in his comment about Michael Winner, the contract director of the 1970s known for his offensiveness, at all levels, by at least a small audience and many of the people with whom he worked (if we are to believe comments on the new Blu-ray of The Sentinel). Death Wish (1974), his most famous film, is his contribution to the vigilante genre, but neither the most effective (in the manipulation of the angry, post-Vietnam/Watergate bourgeois audience) nor most thought-through film of the cycle, although it without question made its mark.
That said, Winner’s use of “freaks” in The Sentinel needs to be questioned beyond Wood’s dismissal. The accounts of the casting of these people, using ads and a solicitation of a sideshow (did these still exist in the 1970s?), come from people in charge of the production, like Winner and writer-producer Jeffrey Konvitz, so vested interests must be considered. But assuming their stories are true, the malformed people were well-aware of what they were doing when they were cast. Do they not have a right to make a living? Were they all so stupid or naïve as to be unaware of why they were cast? Accounts on the commentary tracks of the Blu-ray inform us that after initial shock on the part of the “normal” folk, the deformed people got on well with the cast, talked about their own families, and in general had a pleasant time (although some people could not dine with them). Of course one doesn’t know if the deformed actors considered the issue of representation, and how the film would conflate physical deformity with evil, a monstrous idea embedded in religious dogma since the Middle Ages, and still visible in some discourse. Can we assume for the moment that these people were aware of how they would be seen and could care less about the nonsense – didn’t some make a living exhibiting themselves under similar assumptions? Aren’t there any number of important movie monsters that are essentially deformed people, but realized through prosthetics, their function being to raise questions about the Other? I don’t pretend to have an answer to this ethical question, and am prepared to grant that the film’s use of the deformed is among its sins, and will go further than Wood in delineating why the film is “offensive and repressive” before I make some positive claims for what appears its uniformly noxious behavior.
At the center of the film’s horrors isn’t physical deformity but rather sexual transgression, no better exemplified than in the early scene with two lesbians, Gerde (Sylvia Miles) and Sandra (Beverly D’Angelo), fellow tenants with Alison (Cristina Raines) in an old Brooklyn brownstone turned into apartments; we later learn that no one is living in the house except Alison and an old priest named Father Halliran (John Carradine). The other tenants who introduce themselves to Alison are in fact demons. Gerde and Sandra are mentioned several times in Jeffrey Konvitz’s grubby, adolescent novel as “the lesbians,” apparent harbingers of evil because of their perverse sexuality. In the film, the two women introduce themselves to Alison, a fashion model, who wants an independent life (hence the apartment) despite protestations of her lover, attorney Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon), who wants to set up housekeep – underneath his wishes is a clear interest in controlling Alison.
Gerde and Sandra, both dressed in tight leotards, claim they “fondle each other” for a living. Gerde momentarily leaves the room as Sandra masturbates to orgasm (albeit through the leotard) in front of an uncomfortable Alison. The scene is pivotal, occurring early in the narrative, establishing the film’s sense of the dangers facing Alison’s independence, and more importantly its view of sexuality as grotesque (Sandra seems deranged as she masturbates, with all sense of mutual love and sensuality – or even seduction – drained from the scene as she gazes at Alison, as if a vampire about to pounce on a victim). But the film’s view of sex is modified by its view of patriarchal control.
Shortly after attending her father’s funeral, Alison hallucinates, envisioning a scene from her girlhood; she enters the parental bedroom to find her aging, skinny, mean-looking father in an orgy with two women, one of them obese, leering, filling her mouth with cake (the association of sex with the grotesque is constant even as standing institutions are criticized). The father jumps off the bed nude and pursues Alison, jerking a crucifix necklace from her neck (the father as devil); Alison runs to the bathroom and promptly cuts her wrists. She attempts suicide a second time (much later) when she learns of the death of Michael’s first wife.
The recurring scenes of the monstrous father, who is manifest in the gates-of-hell finale as a zombie, are closely related to Alison’s relationship to Michael. Michael is the archetypal controlling male who decries his fiancé’s pursuit of her own apartment and separate lifestyle. Michael, as it turns out, is not just a manipulator but a murderer, who killed his first wife (and possibly others) with the help of private investigator Brenner (Hank Garrett), who in turns ends up murdered. Michael is pursued by Detective Gatz (Eli Wallach), convinced of Michael’s guilt; one of Gatz’s problems is the indifference of his superiors to the study of a closed case involving a prominent lawyer. A dispirited Gatz remarks to his boss that “90%” of criminal suspects go free because of a collapsed justice system, a familiar complaint with a rightist tone that vented itself in the 1970s vigilante cycle (Gatz should more realistically say that 90% of cases against blacks are manufactured). But Gatz’s complaint has only a little ideological complexion, and is merely one among many expressions of despair in a bleak psychological/moral landscape.
Alison’s insistence on independence takes us to the film’s essential contradiction. Her apartment building happens to be the “gateway to hell,” the demons of which are held back by the aged Father Halliran, a Sentinel, or guardian of humanity, one of many chosen by the Catholic Church to keep an eye on the inferno. How the blind Halliran and the previous Sentinels do this is obscure.
At the film’s opening, a crisis has occurred – a group of high-ranking clergyman meet in a church outside of Florence to discuss the impending death of Halliran and his replacement, who turns out, for very obscure reasons, to be Alison. (Some accounts of the film say that the clergymen are an “excommunicated” cult, an idea for which there is no evidence – the meeting at Florence is presided over by a Cardinal [Jose Ferrer] wearing the typical red cassock of the Vatican’s elite). Alison’s pursuit of independence takes her to the heart of darkness. Halliran hardly comes across as a saintly, glowing person impervious to evil. He, like the other forces of good, is menacing. Father Halliran is a frightening, wizened old man with wild gray hair and white, marble-like eyes destroyed by cataracts. He pops up in a quick shot to startle the audience when Michael examines the brownstone. Monsignor Franchino (Arthur Kennedy) murders Michael, who has discovered the bizarre plan to replace Halliran with Alison. Michael’s investigation, which includes a Watergate-style break-in into the Catholic diocesan office in New York, reveals the Sentinel plot: for centuries the church has transformed an ordinary person into either a nun or priest, and made them Sentinels at the geographic point now occupied by the brownstone. The only thing these people had in common was attempted suicide, a mental affliction of course shared by Alison. Central to the film is the portrayal of the clergy as equally repressive as the forces it seeks to put down – in this it resembles Rosemary’s Baby (1968), where the witch cult is heavily associated with Rosemary’s Catholic girlhood.
But Polanski’s film has nothing like The Sentinel’s bizarre problems. How does a suicide attempt, a mortal sin in Catholic theology (although a few things have changed as the church slowly noted psychology), qualify one for virtual sainthood and the job of keeping locked the gates of hell? The church seems to have been involved in a centuries-old kidnapping plot, corralling neurotics to sit in empty buildings. Have the attempted suicides brought the soon-to-be-Sentinels “closer to God?” Alison is a lapsed Catholic who revisits a church twice in the film; during one visit she encounters Father Franchino, the church’s secret agent. But while Alison wears a crucifix and seems to want the occasional comfort of church-going, she spends much of the film a hysteric, frustrated by Michael’s insistence on marriage and a family; her madness and screams are in high gear as she witnesses the apocalyptic return of the freakish demons. The hysteria seems a legitimate response to the impossible Michael, and the freaks/demons (lead by a pleasantly malevolent Burgess Meredith), symbols of the “good old days” of patriarchal wealth and power embodied in the brownstone itself. But for Alison there is no way forward – even as the film seems to want to suggest that she enjoys some triumph at the end.
When Alison encounters the animated, horrifying corpse of her father, symbolically castrating him, gouging his eye and cutting off his nose with a butcher knife, she destroys part of her awful past. But her striking out is accompanied by screams; she is never more than a bewildered, put-upon young woman trapped in a situation whose meaning eludes her entirely, at least until Michael returns from the dead to tell her the Sentinel saga and the plan awaiting her. There is a hint that Michael was always a key figure in the Church conspiracy to Sentinelize Alison, given his use of suicide as a cover story to conceal the murders he’s perpetrated, but there is no clear evidence that Michael was always a stooge in the church’s plot. He is simply one of many symbols of “evil” that permeate the film, but it so happens that this evil is embodied in men. Through editing, Michael is associated with Monsignor Franchino – who is essentially a stalker watching Alison’s behavior before he approaches her in the church – and certainly with the demons, whose ranks he ultimately joins. The issue of suicide appears during the Michael/Franchino meeting; the theme runs throughout the film, but how are suicides, real or staged by the psychopathic Michael, linked to Alison’s attempts? The only apparent answer is that the suicide attempts of the Sentinels, past and present, show their openness to “redemption,” preparing them for their fantastic burden. But as Michael pages through the Sentinel volume in the diocesan archives, the protection of the earth by the Catholic Church seems utterly monstrous, the old photos and sketches of past Sentinels conveying an eeriness equal to the “true crime” books revealing that the demons in the brownstone (the visible, vaguely comic ones introduced to Alison by Chazen/Meredith) were in life fiendish killers.
The crux of the matter is that the film seems to condemn all sides. The early meeting of the church officials resembles a secret cabal on the order of SPECTRE in the Bond films. They appear in chauffeured limousines, underscoring their relationship to patriarchal power. They meet in a church outside of Florence, symbol of humanity’s rebirth after the repression of the Middle Ages (a period much loved by the church as a time when it had unchallenged authority over “Christendom”), co-opted here as one more locus of church power. The church authorities are as ugly in the end as the demons they repress – Monsignor Franchino is an outright murderer in his killing of Michael, who, although a murderer himself, tries to save Alison from a terrible fate. The tussle among Michael, Franchino, and Halliran gives us a snapshot of the film’s contradictions – by killing Halliran, Michael ensures Alison’s future, although at that moment he wants to save her from it. And why does Franchino kill Michael, other than to mark himself (for the spectator) as merely another monster/demon? Why does an outraged Chazen throw a dagger at Michael, since he is at that point already dead and at the devil’s beck and call? All this adds to the technical incoherence of the film, but the narrative problems don’t detract from the film’s pervasive sense of malevolence and decay.
There is no relief for Alison, from the abuse by her father to her criminal boyfriend to the bullying photographer (Jerry Orbach) who makes Alison do multiple takes for an absurd wine commercial – the label is never quite straight. But the fashion industry is portrayed as the evil of the “secular world,” with its strife and temptations. Were Cristina Raines a better actor (and Winner a better director), she might have added nuance here, showing how the oppression of men, not the world at large, is the source of her misery. Too often Raines/Alison is used in horrific set-pieces where she merely screams her head off. It should also be said that based on this film, Raines is a limited talent.
The denouement has the demons unleashed, Chazen a kind of ringmaster. The “freaks” parade across rooms or pop out from behind bannisters for shock effect. Complaints have been registered that the sequence should have been shot in Expressionist shadow, a style at that point in film history a bit hackneyed. Winner was no doubt trying to save time, but the effect here is refreshing, answering Arthur Cravan’s call for “mystery in broad daylight.” The demons appear matter-of-factly, even if the scene is accidental. Michael is of their number after being dispatched by Franchino. He grins evilly at Alison, telling her the church’s plan. Quotes from Dante and Milton are part of the church’s incantation – wasn’t Milton a foe of the church, even as, according to Blake, he was “of the devil’s party” (a true rebel), and what is secular literature doing in the world-saving religious formula? We see Michael having his brains eaten by the “two lesbians,” a scene that brings closure both to the film’s repressive sexual politics and the theme of men and the ideology of the heterosexual bourgeois couple as irredeemable – the holocaust is halted as Franchino brandishes a cross at the demons, restoring Christian power.
The final scene shows the brownstone destroyed, replaced by something more modern. As real estate agent Miss Logan (Ava Gardner) shows the new building to a prospective renter, the camera reveals a figure in the familiar top-floor window. Alison, dressed as a nun, has replaced Halliran. The camera cuts to a medium shot. Alison, looking mummified, sits in her nun’s habit, clutching a crucifix to her bosom. She has the same blank eyes as Halliran. Alison has been condemned to the proverbial fate worse than death, a fate manufactured by the men in her life as well as male-dominated institutions.
But how are we to judge all this? The bombastic score by Gil Melle suggests the moment is indeed dreadful, Alison’s fate sealed, yet doesn’t the film want us to think that the Sentinel’s role is good? We can agree with Wood that the film’s endorsement of repression – in its portrayal of sex as disgusting, etc. – condemns it, but what do we say about the portrait of the church and the male order? We can say that the film, like much horror of the era, shows us no way forward, with no institution redeemable. This would correspond to the vision of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), or masterpieces like Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). But The Sentinel displays none of the mastery of these films (which are very different of course in quality, vision, and control of their ideas, but at least equally clearheaded). It could be written off finally as a welter of confusion, caused by the incompatibility (or plain stupidity?) of Winner and Konvitz. The apocalypticism of The Sentinel probably corresponds to the corrosive negativity (and politics) of Death Wish. Whatever the case, it is a “dark fascination” in the words of Norman Mailer, one that needs further investigation – or perhaps reinternment?
Christopher Sharrett has taught film studies for many years at Seton Hall University. He writes often for Film International and is a Contributing Writer for Cineaste.
Wood, Robin (2003), Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan and Beyond, New York: Columbia University Press.