The Sentinel

The Sentinel (1977)
★★ / ★★★★

Although they have been together for two years, Alison (Cristina Raines), a fashion model, does not yet feel ready to move in with Michael (Chris Sarandon), a hotshot lawyer, and get married. Having a history of attempted suicide, twice, she feels that she first needs to prove to herself that she can function as an independent woman. With the help of Miss Logan (Ava Gardner), a real estate agent, Alison finds a place that seems peaceful, with a nice view, and quite spacious. For only $400 a month, Alison just has to take it. But the keyword here is “seems” for the apartment holds something sinister. Just after Alison has moved in, she begins to have fainting spells.

Based on the novel and screenplay by Jeffrey Konvitz, “The Sentinel” has a slow, appropriate pace but is ultimately held back by its inconsistent build-up of horror. I enjoyed that it pays special attention to the identity of our protagonist. We learn that even though she comes from a palatial home, it is important for her to work hard for her money. This piece of information is significant because it helps us to believe Alison’s motivation with regards to her not wanting to jump into marriage and be defined by a man who can easily have taken care of her financially.

We are also shown that she is very good at her job. When she goes on a go-see and a client looks through her model book, the camera immediately adopts the perspective of the client. We see the contents of her book and each page features her on a cover of a popular magazine. This, too, is important because it communicates to us that she is a person with drive. So when she eventually encounters the paranormal, it makes sense that she does not want to seek help as long as she feels she is in control.

Elements of horror are present only periodically in the beginning which is smart because if they had been present the entire time and we did not have an idea of who the characters were, the film would have felt cheap or unconvincing. However, about halfway through, the scares start to feel desultory, sometimes forced. I caught myself admiring the make-up of the ghouls more than the director’s execution or control of the terrifying situations that Alison faces in that apartment complex.

Several supporting characters are sidelined. They are introduced but never seem to have any real impact to the plot. This is best exemplified in the all too brief appearances of Detectives Gatz (Eli Wallach) and Rizzo (Christopher Walken). Wallach is great as someone who asks a lot of penetrating questions about Alison running out in the street at four o’clock in the morning, claiming that she has murdered someone.

Walken is very enigmatic as the quieter half who mainly uses his eyes to communicate that some bits of information do not quite add up. Both characters are very professional and seem to know what they are doing. I wished they had been in it more. For a duo that relies on physical evidence to solve cases, it would have been interesting to see how they might have fared if faced by the paranormal.

Directed by Michael Winner, “The Sentinel” has plenty of great ideas that pertain to the horror surrounding Alison but some needed to be excised so the ones that do remain can be expanded upon and really get under our skins. Even though it is not necessarily an exemplary horror picture, I enjoyed that it is open to interpretation. There is a theme involving the subjugation of women. Notice that if Alison had won or lost against the evil brewing in the apartment, her identity, something she values deeply, would still have been taken away from her.

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