Originally titled "The Bumblebee"
Religion and horror go together like peanut butter and jelly. They serve as the perfect foil for one another, the holy and the unclean. Why there are some horror movies that touch on other religions, the main one used in most horror is Christianity/Catholicism. In exorcism movies, there is always need for a priest or holy man. In vampire movies, a cross is frequently used to ward off the creatures of the night. There are even holiday-themed horror movies based around Christian holidays such as Black Christmas and Silent Night, Deadly Night. A cursory search of Christianity in horror movies brings up a slew of websites asking if it is OK for Christians to watch horror movies. Many of these movies could be interpreted as anti-Christian while some may see the same movie as pro-Christian. Regardless of what you believe in, the imagery used in these movies is very powerful and can help a horror movie gain a sense of importance for people.
The Sentinel is a 1977horror movie starring Cristina Raines (Nightmares, Sunshine) as fashion model Alison Parker. Alison learns that her father has become ill and dies shortly after. As a young child, she witnessed her father having a bizarre sexual encounter with other women and tried to take her life. Despite living with her boyfriend, Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon, Child's Play, Bordello of Blood), Alison is determined to find her own place to live. Her search leads her to a brownstone house in Brooklyn, New York. The top floor is inhabited by a blind priest named Father Halloran (John Carradine, The Ten Commandments, The Grapes of Wrath) who just sits at the window, staring into space. She meets other neighbors, such as the eccentric Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith, Rocky, Magic) and a lesbian couple that makes her incredibly uncomfortable. Alison begins to have bouts of passing out and other medical conditions while living at the apartment. She beings to hear footsteps and strange noises in the apartment above her. When she speaks to the realtor, Alison learns that the house is only occupied by the priest and herself. She visits a local church, where she meets a priest who gives her guidance and tells her to reaccept Christ in her life. The priest is in fact part of a secret order of Catholic priests who actually own the building she lives in. Michael begins to investigate and uncovers a conspiracy wherein every religious figure that lived in the house went through most of their life as another person and had attempted suicide. He also finds a file with Alison's information, stating that Father Halloran will die and Alison is to take his place tomorrow. It is revealed that the building is the gateway to Hell and Alison is to be the guardian, keeping the demons from escaping. The people she believed to be neighbors were in fact devils and they are trying to keep her from becoming the next guardian. Will Alison succumb to the will of Hell or become the next sentinel?
The majority of The Sentinel is a mystery movie with only the last 15 minutes being true horror. The mystery is just enough to keep the audience interested because we want to know just what the hell is happening. It would have been nice to have more action as there isn't much to go on. The movie does a good job of teasing out the answer with Alison's condition worsening and including references to the secret society throughout. The movie does slow down though when the focus shifts from Alison to Michael. There is a subplot with Michael and two detectives who are chasing after him due to the mysterious death of his first wife. Nothing ever really comes of it and it just serves to take away the focus from Alison which is far more interesting than anything going on with Michael. The only good part about it is that one of the detectives is a young Christopher Walken. When the movie finally goes into full horror-mode, it goes all the way. The apartment fills with hideous demons and deformed monsters pursuing Alison while Charles Chazen tries to convince her to commit suicide. The use of actual disfigured people and circus performers add authenticity to the movie, though it did create some controversy when the movie was originally released. Regardless, their looks and the general atmosphere are particularly scary and unsettling.
As far as Catholic-based horror movies go, The Sentinel is light on scripture but heavy on imagery. Since I am not a Catholic, this doesn't really mean much to me and it occasionally became annoying to sit through. The cast has an impressive list of movies under it's respective belt. Burgess Meredith is great as the eccentric and almost whimsical Charles Chazen, but he really shines as the evil Chazen. Cristina Raines is a little flat through the film and I would have liked more emotion from her. Same could be said for Chris Sarandon especially when the movie focuses on him. There are a few bit roles for actors that are now better known such as the aforementioned Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, and Tom Berenger. The direction is good, though very much entrenched in the aesthetics of 70's film-making with musical flourishes in-between scenes that no longer exists in modern films.
Just another night in Philadelphia
The Sentinel has an intriguing mystery for a rather plain story, but the final act is highly entertaining and legitimately unsettling. While the mystery is solid, I could have used a little more foreshadowing as the revelation that the building holds the gates of Hell seems to come out of nowhere. I also would have liked a little more horror in the movie, especially when the police subplot threatens to derail the entire movie. The movie tries to makeup with the lack of horror by cramming in 15 minutes of it at the end. It's a great 15 minutes as the “devils” look very scary and Burgess Meredith creates a terrifying atmosphere. The Sentinel has some very good moments and while it's not amazing, it is still an interesting watch.