So if you thought we at Death Ensemble abandoned the Tour Through Hell, here’s our third entry in the series, Phil’s look at Michael Winner’s THE SENTINEL; a flick which rewarded him with a new Fasso category for horror films, Brilliant Trash.
Sometimes I watch a film and I can’t tell whether it’s brilliant or trash. This type of film is usually so audacious, so beyond the realm of what a normal movie-going experience has to offer, so lurid in aesthetic and storytelling, that it confuses my senses. The answer should be obvious: the film is brilliant trash. One such film is 1977’s THE SENTINEL, Michael Winner’s flick that sets the gold standard for such flicks. As with so many other religious horror films, this one starts off in a church in Rome, and a conversation with priests about impending doom.
But that doesn’t even begin to tell the story. The movie then shifts to New York, where it chronicles the life of model Alison Parker, who wants to move out of her boyfriend Michael’s apartment. After her father’s death, Alison meets a realtor who offers her an incredible deal on a vast, furnished apartment, which she can’t refuse. Upon exiting, she looks up at her new building and sees someone staring down at her from a high-up window; the blind Father Halliran. It should come as no secret that there’s something wrong with the priest, the building and Alison herself. I’m afraid a plot summary could not close to express just how whacked out this film is. It’s probably better if I explain some of the odd occurrences.
At the 20 minute mark, Burgess Meredith shows up as Charles Chazen, Alison’s neighbor. He’s accompanied by a parrot on his shoulder and a cat in his hands. He introduces the parrot, stating, “This is Mortimer. He’s from Brah-zil,” as only Burgess Meredith can. The cat’s name is Jezebel, and later in the film, Chazen will throw the feline an insane birthday party, complete with party hat for the guest of honor; at the soiree, a phrase as innocuous as ‘Black and white cat, black and white cake” becomes an unhinged motto. An encounter with the lesbians on the first floor makes the flesh crawl, as Beverly D’Angelo’s Sandra, dressed in a red leotard, suddenly begins to masturbates on a couch in front of Alison. When Alison asks her partner Gerde what the two do for a living, the big German replies, “We fondle each other.” Sex is filthy in this movie, as in the earlier flashback when Alison walks in on her decrepit, aged father having a threesome; the camerawork is absolutely lurid as it zooms in and out on the dirty old man’s leering face. A dream sequence that reconfigures the cat’s party is abundant in both nudity and sleaze. As disjointed scenes roll one into another, offering no progression but that of a bizarre nightmare, Alison’s reality rapidly falls apart.
More disturbing than any of these scenes, though, is Winner’s dementedly inspired casting choice for the climax of the film. In a move that echoes Tod Browning’s FREAKS, the director cast real freaks as the monsters from Hell, a decision that not only drew great outrage against the film at the time of its release, but perfectly fit the film’s tawdry aesthetic. There’s something seriously tacky in Winner’s casting choice, and yet for THE SENTINEL, it seems not only the right choice, but the only one. If all this sounds gaudy and exploitative, that’s only because it is. But it’s exploitative genius. Winner’s film is so bold in its imagery and ideas, so far out there past where any sane film takes its audience, that I absolutely love it. It’s the horror genre’s answer to a John Waters film.
Ironically, the film only falters when it bogs down in more mundane storytelling, as it involves the police and tries to explain what is happening through the trappings of a crime procedural. Its offer to decipher things theologically, with Arthur Kennedy popping up throughout the film as a priest who knows Halliran’s secrets, falls flat as well. If the movie had only stuck to its chosen path, these answers would be unnecessary; because there are no answers to a nightmare.
My favorite aspect of THE SENTINEL is Winner’s choice casting. In between ROCKY movies, Meredith was playing lots of oddball parts in oddball horror movies; this is my favorite of them, as good old Burgess is absolutely outlandish, and plays Chazen to the hilt. As Allison, Cristina Raines does a great job of falling apart, growing paler and seeming thinner and thinner in later scenes. As Michael, Chris Sarandon walks the line between caring boyfriend and potentially dangerous sociopath perfectly. Ava Gardner doesn’t belong in her role as Miss Logan, the realtor, which is exactly why she belongs in that role.
And if you’re going to choose an aged actor to play a creepy, blind priest who stares out a window all day, would you choose anyone other than John Carradine? No, because John Carradine was born to play that role. I’ve read in a number of places that THE SENTINEL was supposed to be Universal Studios’ answer to THE EXORCIST. With its religious elements, it should fit right alongside movies of that ilk. But it’s not a classy affair as THE OMEN is, nor is it as pretentious as THE EXORCIST. That much I knew when I first saw it. What I didn’t know was whether it was brilliant or trash. The answer should have been obvious. As so often the case is when I come to question a movie as such, it’s because THE SENTINEL is brilliant trash.