Big Movie Flashback: 'The Sentinel' (1977)

Big Movie Flashback: 'The Sentinel' (1977)

Too many ’70s era horror movies featured acting that could most generously be described as indifferent.

The 1977 shocker “The Sentinel” hardly stood out as a master’s class in acting, but the sheer number of famous faces on screen ensured it wouldn’t resemble its crude, low-budget peers.

Burgess Meredith. Jose Ferrer, Christopher Walken, Eli Wallach, Jeff Goldblum, Sylvia Miles, Ava Gardner, Martin Balsam, Chris Sarandon appear either for glorified cameos or thoroughly unpleasant plot lines.

The film itself triumphs chiefly by delivering what ’70s horror films did best – ratchet up the jangly soundtrack while putting the viewer at near constant unease. The mumbo jumbo factor, alas, occasionally makes it a chore to reach the bloody finish line.

A tormented fashion model named Alison (Christina Raines) finds a too good to be true Brooklyn apartment at a reasonable cost. She’s been living with her lawyer beau (Sarandon) for some time, but she craves some personal space before they settle down and get married.

But the apartment in question is hardly a place for solitude. Alison’s neighbor (Meredith) introduces her to the building’s creepy assortment of characters, and their oddities turn menacing when the building’s realtor (Ava Gardner) tells her the building has been mostly empty for some time save the blind priest on the top floor.

It’s best to view “The Sentinel” without knowing much more behind the spooky old apartment house. The film deliberately hides most of its cards, letting clues slip out in spare, sometimes maddening fashion.

Raines is an uncommon beauty, but she’s the least gifted performer on screen and struggles to fill in her character’s emotional blanks. Sarandon, sporting a mustache that spells either trouble or purity of heart, keeps us guessing as to his character’s intentions right through the final frames.

And that’s where “The Sentinel” leaves a mark. The dam holding back all those unanswered questions breaks in a wave that apologizes for making us wait so long.

“The Sentinel” takes a sour turn in its waning moments, using people with severe physical deformities to help flesh out the film’s devilish threat. It’s cruelly effective, assuming one can swallow the morally ugly calculations behind the casting moves.

And pity poor Beverly D’Angelo, making her big screen debut as a self-pleasuring beauty whose behavior simply adds to the film’s creepy tone. The “Vacation” actress has enjoyed a long, impressive career since then, but it’s hard to imagine what she was thinking when she first eyed “The Sentinel” for herself.

NOTE: “The Sentinel” is available now on Netflix’s streaming service.

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