Film Review: The Sentinel (1977)

I learned about The Sentinel first through the book Paperbacks from Hell, where it was described as a book made in the wake of the success of The Exorcist, while playing on the collapse of cities in the ’70s. When I learned in turn that the novel received a film adaptation, I thought I’d check it out.

The film puts its best foot forward, as the film’s credits have an array of “Hey, I know them!” moments – Burgess Meredith, Jerry Orbach, Chris Sarandon (from the Princess Bride), Eli Wallach, and Christopher Walken are all in the film’s cast. Unfortunately, the film can’t pay that off.

There are bits of this film’s plot that works. The focus of the film is Allison Parker (Christina Raines), a fashion model in New York who is dating successful lawyer Michael Lerman (Sarandon), and in a flip of the usual formula, Lerman wants to get married, while Parker fears commitment. So, Parker is looking for her own apartment, while Lerman is looking for an apartment they can share, which is set up well with a nice montage of the two going apartment hunting separately, with each looking for different things, with Parker settling for an apartment in an old brownstone.

However, shortly after moving in things get weird. Parker’s abusive, philandering father dies, and she hallucinates the time she tried to commit suicide after he beat her when she walked in on him having sexy-times with two of his mistresses. Then she collapses on the set of a photo shoot, followed by a series of surreal and disturbing encounters with other tenants that may or may not exist.

This melt-down gets the police involved in the form of two officers played by Wallach & Walken, as Lerman has been married before, and his previous wife had died under suspicious circumstances, and his mistress of the time had been institutionalized. It makes for what could, on paper, have made for compelling dramatic points – is Parker’s apartment haunted, or is she being gaslit by her fiance? And what’s with the blind priest standing silent vigil in the 5th floor apartment?

The problem is that part of the plot is undercut by a prologue showing a group of Catholic priests meeting in a church in Italy. It undercuts the question because it means that the Church has a reason to be involved with what’s going on in one form or another.

Related to this is a poor use of religious imagery, as the film describes both the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost as canonical works of Catholic theology and treats them as such in the film’s plot. However, the Divine Comedy was written by a poet, not a member of the Church, and is as much a work of satire as anything else. The use of Paradise Lost here is even more egregious, as it was written by a Protestant.

Ultimately, the film has its moments, but they’re moments that don’t quite have enough to make it stand out among other works of ’70s satanic horror.

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