I’m as bored with the recent wave of horror remakes as anyone, but if there was a film that actually needed to be remade, it’s The Sentinel. As it stands, the film has an interesting premise but is done in by a screenplay in need of another draft, heavy-handed direction, a weak lead performance, and a denouement that’s downright tasteless (and not in a good way).
The Sentinel opens in Italy where a bunch of religious leaders wearing very distinctive rings meet and look concerned. Then we’re off to New York City where model Allison (Cristina Raines) is nervous about committing to her lawyer boyfriend Michael (Chris Sarandon and his ridiculous mustache). Needing time apart, Allison looks for an affordable apartment, but is interrupted by the death of her father. Allison goes to the funeral and it’s soon clear that her relationship with dear departed Dad wasn’t all that great - a helpful flashback shows her come home from Catholic school to discover her dad in a naked, cake-eating (?) orgy with two hefty prostitutes, an experience that so shattered young Allison that she immediately ran to the bathroom and cut her wrists. Um, OK.
Anyway, Allison returns to the Big Apple and scores a sweet deal on an apartment. It’s fully furnished, is insanely gorgeous, and just never mind that blind priest (John Carradine) who lives in the top-floor apartment and spends all his time staring out the window. Allison gets settled in but is soon plagued by headaches and fainting spells, by creepy noises from upstairs, by annoying neighbor Mr. Chasen (scenery-chewing Burgess Meredith), and by the lesbians downstairs (Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo) one of whom makes a coffee date REALLY awkward by masturbating in front of Allison (it’s like a coffee commercial gone horribly wrong: “We’ve replaced this lesbian’s coffee with Folgers crystals. Let’s see what happens!”). Sounds like a typical New York apartment to me, but nope, there’s supernatural shenanigans afoot!
There is no one single huge problem with The Sentinel – lots of little problems kill the film. For a 1970s film it’s aged relatively well save for the fashions. What’s more annoying is the score, which switches between “Look! Spooky stuff is happening!” and schmaltziness that threatens to turn into a ballad (something with a title like “Don’t Look Away From Love”) but thankfully never does. The cast is extremely odd, a mix of old, familiar faces (Ava Gardner, Burgess Meredith, Eli Wallach, Jose Ferrer) and young ones (Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Tom Berenger) – many of whom literally have nothing to do (Walken gets about three lines). The bulk of the acting is left up to Raines and Sarandon, neither of whom have the chops or charisma to make much of their underwritten roles. Raines in particular is weak – she’s pretty and screams well but simply isn’t compelling as Allison.
Director Michael Winner, best known for the Death Wish movies, has an adept way with cheap shocks (i.e., the flashback naked cake orgy). But his direction is heavy-handed at best and lacks visual style and subtlety. Worse, it crosses the line into outright exploitation when a host of damned souls show up, portrayed by people with extreme physical deformities. Yuck.
The screenplay is interesting enough to make me seek out the source novel, but has some plot threads that go nowhere. More frustratingly, there are crucial questions that arise by the movie’s end. Is Allison’s fate redemption or damnation? What exactly happens if she does not accept her fate? If she’s redeemed, where is the transcendence that should accompany this? And what does the real estate agent make of all this?
I haven’t watched such a frustrating good-premise-bad-execution movie since Stigmata. Bring on the remake, I say.
The DVD transfer is an improvement over the early, GoodTimes video release but extras are limited to a trailer.