By the late 1970s, it seemed like each major studio had its own classy horror franchise. Warners had THE EXORCIST, Fox had THE OMEN, even Disney had its WITCH MOUNTAIN series. Not to be outdone, Universal brought us 1977's THE SENTINEL (directed by food critic Michael Winner- it's true, look it up!), based on the novel by Jeffrey Konvitz . Like many thrillers of the decade, the story starts in a faraway land where some kind of religious curse is established and then the action shifts to modern-day USA where innocent victims fall prey to the ancient evil. At its heart, THE SENTINEL is really a cautionary tale of a beautiful, but troubled young supermodel who gets in with the wrong crowd. Kinda like MAHOGANY meets ROSEMARY'S BABY.Christina Raines is Alison Parker, a flat-chested cover girl who is about to sign a lease on her first apartment, in an elegant Brooklyn brownstone. Her real estate agent is played by the then-still-glamourous Hollywood legend Ava Gardner–in a performance that has subliminally inspired many a drag queen. We learn that Alison is recently out of the looney bin and is engaged to a slick young lawyer named Michael (Chris Sarandon) who only wears Sansabelt slacks and who is a recent widower. Alison's problems seem to stem from her walking in on her decrepit father while he was celebrating his birthday with lots of balloons, two overweight hookers and some really messy cake. Her reaction to this: she slit her wrists! Alison's new $400 a month apartment comes already furnished, and aside from the blind priest (John Carradine) who lives in the penthouse - all seems quite normal. She is welcomed into the building by an elderly bon vivant (Burgess Meredith- having a ball with the role) and his pets which I dubbed "Sylvester and Tweety". We next meet a wacky lesbian couple played by the great Sylvia Miles and Beverly D'Angelo. Bev's character does not speak, but she does likes to masturbate to orgasm through her clothes right in front of Alison. Yup. Charming! The rest of the tenants are quite an odd bunch, but they seem nice enough, especially when they throw a lavish cocktail party to welcome her and her cameltoe.Things take a turn towards the creepy when Alison is awakened by noises coming from the apartment above - and a swinging chandelier above her bed. The apartment above her is supposed to be abandoned!!! When she tells Ava about the disturbances, she finds out that no one lives in the building besides her and the old priest on the top floor! Spooky. Plagued by headaches and fainting spells, Alison's modeling career begins to suffer - but yet she refuses to leave the building, which is clearly haunted by the cast of THE WILD PARTY. Worried about her mental health, her fiancée Michael hires a private eye to look out for her. One night Alison dreams that Sylvester finally gets his paws on that little yellow canary. Awwww.
Alison then is suddenly attacked by a zombie who looks like her dead father - so she goes at him with a knife. Later, the body of the private eye shows up dead with multiple stab wounds. Ouch! At a party with real people (as opposed to the friendly ghosts in her building) she has another of her headaches and passes out. Meanwhile, Michael learns that the apartment building, owned by the Catholic church, was built over the gateway to hell!!! Apparently the blind priest is the night watchman who keeps all the demons at bay - and Alison is next in line to BE the Sentinel!
We also learn that all Alison's ghostly friends are actually dead murderers who are trying to escape from hell and that sweet, kindly Burgess Meredith is Satan incarnate.This leads to the real disturbing part of the film, coming at the climax when the gates to hell are opened and Alison's apartment is filled with demons, lesbians and deformed people (played by real life ‘circus freaks’) that creep towards our heroine in hopes that she'll commit suicide, therefore releasing them from hell forever.
While I think Christina Raines is gorgeous, her acting is a bit wooden and I would have loved to see the first choice, Kate Jackson in the lead role. Chris Sarandon is perfect as Michael. Along the way some great, reliable actors get to chew the scenery: Martin Balsam as a professor, Jose Ferrer as a priest, Arthur Kennedy as the Monsignor, Eli Wallach and Christopher Walken as cops, Jerry Orbach (looking like a young Adolph Hitler) as a commercial director and Jeff Goldblum as a smarmy fashion photographer.
While not a classic, fans of big, gothic 70s horror films should check it out. On my old "Huh" scale - THE SENTINEL gets a big fat 9 outta 10 for Beverly D'Angelo's ridiculously over-the-top and surprisingly graphic masturbation scene alone which I've dubbed THE DaCUCHI CODE! I'll leave you with this image...Boo!