Movie Discussion: Michael Winner’s The Sentinel (1977)

  • Monthly Theme: Religious Cultssentinel
  • The Film: The Sentinel
  • Country of origin: U.S.A
  • Date of U.S. release: January 7, 1977
  • Studio: Universal Pictures & Jeffrey Konvitz Productions
  • Distributer: Universal Pictures
  • Domestic Gross: $4 million
  • Budget: $3.7 million (estimated)
  • Director: Michael Winner
  • Producers: Jeffrey Konvitz & Michael Winner
  • Screenwriters: Jeffrey Konvitz & Michael Winner
  • Adaptation? Yes, of the 1974 novel The Sentinel by Jeffrey Konvitz.
  • Cinematographer: Dick Kratina
  • Make-Up/FX: Bob Laden, Tony Parmelee, et al.
  • Music: Gil Mellé
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Remakes? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Horror legend John Carradine (The Astro-Zombies, Beast of the Yellow Night, etc.).
  • Other notables?: Yes. Screen legend Ava Gardner. Hollywood stars Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum (The Fly). Character actors Chris Sarandon (Fright Night), Martin Balsam (Psycho), José Ferrer, Burgess Meredith, and Beverly D’Angelo.
  • Awards?: n/a
  • Tagline: “There must forever be a guardian at the gate from hell…”
  • The Lowdown: Of all the post-Exorcist films that came out in the 1970s, The Sentinel may be the craziest. The film is filled with weird details, gonzo moments, bizarre digressions and shocking images. The movie was made by Michael Winner, a British director best known at the time for his grimy action movies starring the likes of Charles Bronson (Chato’s Land, The MechanicDeath Wish), Burt Lancaster (LawmanScorpio) and Oliver Reed (Hannibal Brooks). His film I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname is often credited as being the first mainstream film to use the word “fuck.” The Sentinel deals with Alison (played by Cristina Raines), a New York fashion model recovering from a series of suicide attempts who rents a beautiful brownstone in Brooklyn Heights that may or may not be the gateway to Hell.

If you haven’t seen The Sentinel our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Sean: So…. this movie is crazy.

Kristine: I still cannot believe some of the things I witnessed. Can we start off with – the crazy cast????

Sean: I mean, Beverly D’Angelo alone is worth the price of admission.

Kristine: I died. Sean, I was dying. Her masturbating in a leotard was… leotarded.

Sean: I mean, can you even believe?

Kristine: It was so, so upsetting.

Sean: Is that what a lady orgasm looks like? Because it seemed authentic.

Kristine: I mean, that’s a gross version, but, essentially, yes.

Sean: Wow.

Kristine: Sean, those lesbians. They are why you can’t get legally married. That’s what the moral majority thinks of when they think of lezzies.

Cakehole fisting.

Sean: Her naked with the cymbals in the dream?

Kristine: Naked with the cymbals was amazing. Though, the best line was when the older lez says for a living “we fondle one another.”

Sean: I know. I couldn’t decide how to feel about it.

Kristine: Sean, you realize I only associated Beverly D’Angelo with National Lampoon’s Vacation… until now.

Sean: I loved how Alison reacted to the masturbating. Just weirdly averting her eyes.

Kristine: Like, pretend it’s not happening, drink some tea, hum a happy song. Wicked WASP behavior. I loved Alison, by the way.

Sean: Tell me your take on Alison.

Kristine: I liked her. I liked her wanting to be independent, and I even liked her guilt (and subsequent suicide attempt) after her lover’s wife commits suicide (or did she?). And she was beautiful and funny and flip. Sean, that scene when she walks in on her dad’s cake orgy with those ladies…

Sean: Yeah, the cake orgy.

Kristine: That was so horrible.

Sean: I love how one lady was so fat and stuffing cake in her mouth, laughing.

Kristine: Shove it in your cake hole, Sean. I loved how the cake orgy ladies kept showing up and tittering and tormenting Alison.

Sean: Has a real orgy like that ever gone down?

Kristine: I’m sure a real orgy like that is going down right now. I’m in Texas, so it’s probably racks of ribs and sheet cake instead of fancy bakery cake…

Sean: But when Alison walks in on the cake orgy and then runs into the bathroom and immediately slices her wrists, I was rolling on the floor, dying laughing. Like, it’s the only sane possible reaction. Right?

Kristine: Well, yeah, her reaction is crazy. But she obviously was a troubled young woman. The part I thought was more ridic was her dad tearing the crucifix off her neck.

Neutrogena gone awry.

Sean: This movie.

Kristine: I thought that was more heavy handed then the wrist cutting.

Sean: It is so so so so hilarious, the whole thing.

Kristine: Especially because, um, he’s her dad. Presumably he sent her to Catholic school.

Sean: What about her mother? Where is she?

Kristine: The mother is in the other room, weeping with a glass held up to the wall to hear the orgy. After it is over, she cleans up and eats the stale cake crumbs. That’s the mom’s role. But I liked Alison. She was pretty and had cute clothes.

Sean: Alison as a fashion model was awesome. But Alison is not served well by this movie – I think it’s wicked sexist. Like, more than Maniac for sure. I mean, you were talking about the “message to ladies” of Maniac, and this movie has a similar message of…. the quest for independence will turn you into a sexless, comatose nun-monster.

Kristine: Well, I wanted to talk about that. My read on the movie is: Alison is punished for wanting independence (a.k.a. not wanting to get married) by getting a life sentence as The Sentinel (a.k.a. a nun). So, those are her choices.

Sean: I love the Alison of the opening who is like, “Um, I just want my own space, dog!” But by the end she’s a hysterical, whimpering spazz.

Kristine: Gals were taught in the olden days: be a wife and mother or be a nun. However… her potential mate is revealed to be a monster.

Sean: He’s a murderer of women and a total tool with a pimp’s moustache.

Kristine: Yeah. Chris Sarandon is such a weasel ass. She was so much hotter then him.

Sean: She was lovely and cool. This movie would be actually a great candidate for a remake. They could update Alison.

Kristine: So, do you think this movie was a cautionary tale to independent 1970s gals?

Sean: I really think the message of the movie is deeply sexist and offensive. Yes, I think it’s a response to women’s lib in a way, like see what happens when you try to “have it all”? Chris Sarandon wants to turn her out so bad. Like Joyce from Mad Men would say, He wants to be the soup.

Kristine: True that.

Goldblum and the Case of the Plunging Neckline.

Sean: And Alison’s fundamental instability is a problem.

Kristine: Agreed. She doesn’t come to the table a secure, whole person and her lack of financial resources, despite her thriving modeling career and rich parents, is also a problem.

Sean: I don’t think the movie really takes her suicidal past seriously. I mean, did you notice how the perspective in the movie shifted three times? The movie starts off being Alison’s story, following her as the point-of-view character. Then for like ten minutes, the old RIMA [Rational Inquiring Masculine Authority] cop becomes the protagonist, then it switches to Chris Sarandon’s character. Then for two seconds again at the end, it’s Alison. [Editor’s Note: For the backstory on RIMA, see our discussion of Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy.]

Kristine: You’re right and it’s gross.

Sean: The movie wrests control of the story away from her character. It also is not comfortable with Alison being the investigator, asking questions. It assigns that role to the male characters, which is of course totally sexist and problematic.

Ms. Gardner hopes her hat can shield her from all of the crotch rubbing, cake orgies and nose carving in this movie.

Kristine: I was excited that Ava Gardner was in this, but I was disappointed in her performance. I thought it was just okay when I wanted her to tear it up. But it did make me think… are horror movies where the grand dames of film go to get one last shot at stardom? And if so, is this awesome or problematic? Since they are usually playing a crazy shrew or something, right?

Sean: Well, yes to all that. It is the final domain of the classic Hollywood actress because they can’t play “real” roles ever after 40 (see the “Hagsploitation” entry in our Genre Guide). And of course it’s kind of gross that that’s the way the system worked/works, but we also can’t deny the batshit awesomeness of some of the scenery-chewing those actresses did in their horror phase. I mean, look at how much we adored Jessica Lange on American Horror Story this past season. I did think that Gardner’s role in this was dignified, though. She isn’t a debased old hag, running around in her nightgown. She is a bitchy awesome NYC real estate lady.

Kristine: I thought it was meh. I wanted her to be bitchy and awesome, but I didn’t think she was.

Sean: I love how she arches an eyebrow and is all “Hmmph.” I thought she was mildly catty but would have loved more, I agree. There’s too many stars in this movie to like, even give her room to strut her fierceness.

Kristine: She was, like, in a restrained movie and not campy enough to hold her own in this cray cray film.

Sean: True. But I don’t think she was willing to go full vampire, Bette Davis-style.

Kristine: What about young sexy Jeff Goldblum? And Lenny from Law & Order?

I Was on a Star Trek Spinoff meets I Was in Platoon.

Sean: And Tom Berenger at the end, and Chris Walken. Natalie Wood was probably in his trunk during filming.

Kristine: Is Walken the guy that murdered Natalie? I am dying, Sean.

Sean: He was on the boat the night she died and…

Kristine: And they argued.

Sean: No, she and her husband argued.

Kristine: Oh.

Sean: But it’s a total tabloid legend that Walken was an accomplice to her murder in some way. And since I adore Natalie Wood and think Walken is gross, I hate him.

Kristine: Hmmmm… Remember Burgess Meredith, with Jezebel and the canary? That guy. By the way, the Jezebel scene was upsetting.

Sean: Jezebel was a freak. Just another misogynistic detail: the mad pussy(cat).

Kristine: Another question for you… would you live in that boss apartment for $400 a month (in today’s money) if your neighbors were crazy lesbians (et al) and you knew their mission was to try and drive you to suicide?

Sean: Hmm. I might.

Kristine: Because I feel like I have done that at times in my life… though the apartments weren’t that boss.

Sean: That apartment was sick’ning.

Kristine: Right?

Sean: Sick.

Kristine: Real estate porn, for sure.

Sean: I loved Alison at the weird Jezebel birthday party, all being a good sport and dancing with Burgess Meredith.

Kristine: That was cute, but also supporting the argument that she’s a bit crazy herself.

Satan’s grampa did too much blow.

Sean: Yes, the idea is that she’s susceptible to the crazies and needs to harm herself. “Black and white cat, black and white cake” is my favorite moment in the movie.

Kristine: Okay, I like when Allison says, “Sex and money have their appeal, too” after Ava Gardner is trash-talking the debauchery of NYC high society.

Sean: Me too. I loved that. Even though, does that scene mean that Ava’s role is supposed to be like a guardian angel or something? And she’s trying to steer Alison towards being a good Christian?

Kristine: Ava’s role is, I think, essentially neutral. Did you like Alison’s bland banana pudding friend? Who was like, “You are a dick” to Chris Sarandon?

Sean: Her pudding girlfriend was whatever. I wish she’d been in it more.

Kristine: I think Ava Gardner’s job is to bring Alison to the apartment and then let it play out as it should.

Sean: Alison saying money and sex are ok is her being a fallen women though, don’t you think?

Kristine: According to this movie, yes.

Sean: Right, but to me it made her a real person.

Kristine: I agree. Did you think it was a red herring that maybe Chris Sarandon was behind it all, trying to drive her crazy and scare her so she would marry him and give up living on her own?

Sean: Yes, I entertained that thought, that Chris Sarandon was gaslighting her. I thought that until suddenly he was the main goddamn character while Alison took a lot of naps. I love all the model scenes, but the guy from Law & Order as the chauvinist director was too much. Like “Listen girlie, just put the fucking bottle down! Label out!!!!”

Kristine: I loved that scene and I decided it was real and accurate.

Sean: All her lame fainting spells were annoying.

Kristine: Have you ever read this?

Sean: No.

Kristine: It is fascinating. Lots of dirt on Linda Evangelista.

Sean: I love it and will check it out.

Kristine: Excellent. Okay, what do we know about this director?

Sean: Kristine.

New Freaks on the Block, from left to right: Joey McInfacelump, Jordan Satanicus, Donnie Gnarledhead and Jonathan “Lippy” Dangleflab.

Kristine: I am steering the conversation towards to infamous “freak” scene…which is the only thing I read about him. So, enlighten me and then I have thoughts about deformed people in films.

Sean: Well, this director, Michael Winner, was involved in a very heated press battle with… Helen Mirren. Like, 2 years ago.

Kristine: What?

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: Over what? I’m on Helen’s side, immediately.

Sean: Helen Mirren gave an interview when she was winning her Oscar for The Queen and was like, in the 1960s I went to an audition and Michael Winner treated me like a piece of fucking meat and made me take off my clothes and spin around and it was humiliating.

Kristine: Oooohhh awesome. I love it.

Sean: And Helen was like, “And I am still pissed off about it!!!” And then the British tabloids had a field day.

Kristine: I would so do that if I won an Oscar. I would call out everyone would have ever wronged me. Instead of a thank you speech I would read the audience my enemy list. I would unfurl the scroll across the stage and say, “Let us begin at the beginning.”

Sean: You would, it’s true. Michael Winner wrote this unbelievably condescending “open letter” to Helen calling her a liar.

Kristine: Like, why would she lie about that? What a toad.

Sean: In the letter he is like, “Helen my dear I don’t know what you were on that day….” Stuff like that. “The problem was your saggy boobs, not my directing.”

Kristine: Pig man.

Sean: This is a row in 2007 about one audition in 196something.

Kristine: Well, I love dirt like that.

Sean: And at the end of his open letter, he’s all “Well, I still love you. Ta!”

Kristine: I do admit that while he seems like a pig man, his career path is intriguing. He’s now the New York Times food critic? That is… interesting.

John just saw a vision of his granddaughter guesting on Rizolli & Isles and he went instantly blind.

Sean: He is the “auteur” behind Charles Bronson’s Death Wish trilogy. I mean do you know about those movies?

Kristine: I have never seen those movies. I don’t really know about them. Preach it, Brother Sean. Lay it down.

Sean: They’re the most Republican, vile, racist things ever. I mean, they’re hilarious exploitation and should not be taken too seriously, but they’re sick in the head. They’re basically just Charles Bronson killing ethnic people for two hours.

Kristine: Are you serious?

Sean: In the first one, he’s a pussy who’s for gun control and then his wife and daughter are savagely raped and murdered by a gang (and Jeff Goldblum is one of the rapists, so clearly Jeff and Michael Winner were in love)…

Kristine: Umm, Jews don’t rape people…

Sean: And then he goes to Tucson and sees the cowboys and goes back to the city and buys a gun and goes and shoots minorities for 45 minutes.

Kristine: I am dying Sean. I am having a mom reaction and wanting to not even talk about this anymore because it is so gross.

Sean: I know.

Kristine: How weird.

Sean: Then in one of the sequels he literally kills “jive-talking” street Negroes for the whole 2 hours.

Kristine: I feel ill.

Sean: So that is Michael Winner.

Kristine: This man sickens me…

Sean: But yes, he caught a lot of flak for the real-life freaks at the end.

Kristine: I am trying to decide if this new information changes my opinion on the real-life freak parade scene in The Sentinel.

Sean: It was very controversial.

Kristine: Because truthfully… I am all for casting the real mongos.

Sean: I’m just happy he is a man with such bad taste, because I love The Sentinel and only someone with terrible bad taste could make it. The real life freaks scare me. Though can I say this – the nighttime scene where she stabs her dad? Amazing. And I was scared.

He doesn’t like lemon birthday cake either, because no one does. Don’t ever serve your guests lemon cake.

Kristine: Truth talk. It resonates more that his vision articulates Republican fears about “the other,” whether that is independent ladies, lesbians, or freaks…

Sean: Yeah, queerness is literally Satanic in this movie. It is dykesploitation.

Kristine: So, I see the issue with aligning disfigured people with Satan. But I think putting normal actors in freak makeup to make the same point is way worse. That’s like… putting a skinny woman in a fat suit to play a fat role cause using a real fat chick is offensive.

Sean: Well right, why not just have them be devilish monsters? Horns, claws, the whole nine. Instead they’re these Bosch-ian deformed mutants and it totally works.

Kristine: Exactly, because it is more effective then devil horns. Because freaks do scare and repulse people, as do fiendish lesbians. Way more effective.

Sean: I think they probably had a lot of fun.

Kristine: I was going to say, you know I worked with developmentally-disabled adults and they would have loved to be in a horror movie. They loved horror movies.

Sean: I mean, they must know that Halloween is their one night to go out….

Kristine: I am ignoring that comment.

Sean: Were you scared of the mob of human oddities at the end?

Kristine: Not really scared… I was more trying to get a good look at each one.

Sean: Can you tell me what you thought of the scene where she stabs her dad? Did it scare you when he like, walked across the room real fast?

Kristine: I loved it. I was like, stab him. Stab him.

Sean: But she bursts his eyeball and she cuts off his nose.

Kristine: I know.

Sean: It is so over the top amazing.

I also sweat when I have diarrheal cramping.

Kristine: Did you think the current Sentinel was scary or dumb?

Sean: Just fyi, the current Sentinel is played by John Carradine, a horror legend from the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s and part of an acting dynasty (David Carradine, Keith Carradine).

Kristine: That’s pretty cool. What do you think about the gateway to Hell being in Brooklyn Heights? I have to say, even though I liked the movie, I thought the storyline was… meh. It was okay. I do like the idea of a calling you can’t refuse, no matter how improbable. But I didn’t think the movie did a good job explaining that concept.

Sean: The story was ridic. So can I ask you something? To me this movie is part of a crop of movies from the late 1960s to the end of the ‘70s: Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, The Exorcist…. And I was wondering what you thought of that, that at that time in the culture all these horror movies were re-articulating the need for the Catholic Church in our lives. I mean, you wouldn’t see the Catholic Church represented in those ways in this day and age. We’re so much more suspicious and over it after all the priest abuse stuff.

Kristine: Right.

Sean: I feel like this movie and The Exorcist are basically ad campaigns for the Catholic church.

Kristine: Well, I think it is an absolute reaction to society becoming a place where it was easier for a woman or black or gay person to traverse. And the Catholic church is like, Not so fast. I think it is also a reflection of society’s deep fondness for tradition and rituals from days of yore… Like, it’s old so it must be good and true. Ancient = reliable, when the shit hits the fan. I totally disagree with that, of course.

Sean: But don’t you think our fondness for the rituals of Catholicism has expired? Like, in 2012?

Kristine: Yes to Catholicism, but not to “looking to the past” (even an invented past) for answers.

Sean: I like that idea of “looking to an invented past” as a framework for horror movies in general.

Kristine: Today’s version of that is romanticizing and fetishizing Ronald fucking Reagan.

Sean: The Pope telling Africa not to use condoms… I mean, Catholicism is over, right?

Michael Winner to actresses: “So go ahead and strip down and we’re going to put these guinea pigs right here on your labia, ‘kay?”

Kristine: How do I say this… I think it is over because it is in equal parts too demanding yet too loving for today’s society.

Sean: Too “loving” how?

Kristine: Okay, well the Christian Right, at least in Texas, these fuckers get to go through three or four divorces, drink, blah blah, be red necks and as long as they identify themselves as Christians, they get away with all of it. Catholics don’t play that. That idea of actually being beholden to a church and a set of behaviors is not appealing to many people today. Too loving in that while Catholics have done horrifying things (no condoms in Africa, et al), service is still a very big thing. And service and sacrifice is not very appealing to people today, either.

Sean: Aha right. But I mean the end of this movie is basically the most patriarchal thing that’s ever happened, right? The old wise men of the church taking this young, beautiful woman and turning her into a living doll?

Kristine: Yes, you are right, but if it was, say, Southern Baptists instead of Catholics – they would have beat her in the street for being a harlot. Catholics don’t hate on people in the overt way that other religions do… though their actions are certainly hateful at times. Catholicism is not glossy and shiny enough or something.

Sean: I don’t agree, but I see your point.

Kristine: Well, I am exaggerating and oversimplifying.

Sean: I think what’s crucial to the formula for the movie is the Catholic idea of penance.

Kristine: Explain.

Sean: Of being able to absolve yourself of sin through confession, etc. The idea that she can remove the stain on her soul by being an obedient mannequin.

Kristine: Right.

Sean: I mean what is unique about Catholicism is the idea that you can fuck up, then just repent. It’s a lot different than the “born again” thing.

Kristine: Truth.

Sean: If you’re born again but then you smoke crack, you’re kind of fucked. I, as a Catholic, can go smoke crack, then repent and be cool. But Alison as someone who NEEDS to repent is so problematic. I mean, why does she try to kill herself? Because of her father’s indiscretions the first time, and her inability to handle them… and then her boyfriend’s wife kills herself (but actually is murdered) and so she’s guilty.

“I don’t feel fresh today,” she thought.

Kristine: The second time is also because of her own participation in adultery.

Sean:   But it’s the sin of her boyfriend (the death of the wife) that seems to drive her to do it.

Kristine: I actually liked that she referenced the dead wife to her boyfriend who never said her name. But Alison did. She was all, it’s only been two years since Susan (or whoever) died… So it’s the sin of men.

Sean: In both cases, a patriarchal figure fucks up and she responds by trying to kill herself? I mean, it’s weird. I think that’s why the Church stepping in at the end is so crucial to the “moral” of the movie. The idea that all these fallen men have led her astray (and her own weak, feminine nature of course) and the “Catholic fathers” can set her back on the right path.

Kristine: So she’s a pawn either way. Ugh.

Sean: Yes.

Ratings Roundup

The Girls Rating: Total trash… I loved it!!

The Freak’s Rating: Batshit insanity.

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9 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Michael Winner’s The Sentinel (1977)

  1. What is it about ’70s movies? But polyester, logical inconsistencies, numb nuts theology, and layered hair aside, THANK YOU Michael Winner for revealing what awaits fallen away Catholics if they do not obey HOLY MOTHER THE CHURCH. Still, I cannot forgive you going all Fellini on us in the film’s last 10 minutes. Dave P.

  2. …..and don’t forget the terrifying MODEL MONTAGE! And on an unrelated note….the director of “The Sentinel” & the Death Wish-es is now a food critic for the New York Times?? Wow-ah.

  3. Michael Winner was the worst fucking director in the world. His movies are a master class in incompetence. Having said that, you’ve made me want to see The Sentinel.