For those who’ve followed this Duo Post series of ours, where the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I perform concurrent reviews of books and the movies adapted from them, we’ve reached the end of the line. Our tradition of closing the doors on All Hallows Eve with the last reviews of the year carries a bit more weight this 31st. I’m getting out while this is still fun to do. Don’t get me wrong, I consider it a great run and an honor to have participated in it. Seven years, but it’s time to put the series to bed1.
In keeping with our custom of not only eclectic material this series regularly examined, and with the dark seasonal fare of Halloween afoot, our last offering ever will look at holding back the gates of Hell with a horror title that could only have crawled out of…wait for it…the 70s. The rare book title that began life as a screenplay, but when no takers were found became the basis for hardbound horror fans with its publication in 1974. Later paperback sales would rise to #2 on the New York Times Mass Market Best Seller List2, then Hollywood came calling.
A synchronicity which vaulted New Yorker Jeffrey Konwitz, a lawyer-litigator and part-time writer, to film producer. The 1977 cinematic treatment care of another British filmmaker, the author co-producing and co-writing, gave life to a film that drew infamy with many critics who found it abhorrent upon release. So, for her sins as my parallel post partner, Rachel will delve into the novel that launched it all while I’ll review its screen adaptation that’s attained cult status by a director more noted for his work with Charles Bronson.
The wordy one’s book review can be found here:
A brief synopsis of the film(s): A fashion model with a legacy of suicide and horrid family memories, Alison Parker fears commitment to marriage with her attorney boyfriend. Looking instead to find a place of her own in New York City, she moves into the second-floor apartment in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone. One with a view, and below market rent, to die for. Its only other tenant, a blind recluse priest on the top floor*.
Soon after, she begins manifesting strange physical problems, difficulty sleeping at night, and nasty recurring flashbacks of her troubled childhood. That’s not even the half of it when she discovers others making her acquaintance claiming to be her neighbors. Her crisis, including her lapsed faith, will be put to the test when the long-held secret and shocking purpose as to why she alone can hold back something unspeakable is unearthed.
* And no, it’s not related to you-know-what.
[spoiler warning: some key elements of the films could be revealed in this review]
Miss Logan: “I find that New Yorkers have no sense for anything but sex and money.”
Alison Parker: “Well, I guess there’s something to be said for that.”
It is said a new era of contemporary horror fiction seized popularity among readers during the revolutionary ’60s and cynical ’70s, and subsequently through their film adaptations. The upheaval and unease of those times feeding our fears and misgivings. A case can be made that Rosemary’s Baby (one of our earlier Duo Posts) and The Exorcist were the quintessential examples of the phenomena. Stephen King’s The Shining would be another to include on the list, surely.
Maybe this title and adaptation should finally join the party.
Let’s be clear that for a long while Jeffrey Konwitz’s tale fell back into the shadows as one of the influential horror novels of the ’70s once the Reagan Administration and the ’80s came in. Hell, I still have the well-worn paperback, a piece of classic era cover artwork if there ever was one, which opened to a Hellish landscape across its two-page insert, still in my library. I’d argue it slipped some in due part spilling into the hands of Universal Studios and Death Wish director, Michael Winner.
Both then having bequeathed a rendition of The Sentinel onto movie screens that resulted in less than stellar receipts and viewers stepping out before the end credits arrived.
Granted, its heyday of Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man long past for this era of studio Universal. More into mass-producing TV and film off their backlot and flat lighting it all by then. Execs thought they had another Exorcist and someone like Winner3 could work such dark material like Bronson vehicles Chato’s Land, The Mechanic, the aforementioned Death Wish, and others. Classic genre fare, to be sure, just that both entities lacked the essential ingredient for the type of horror called for…touch.
The result a somewhat fumbled screen distillation.
Having seen this film first-run when it came out in January of 1977 (and no, there isn’t a TMT associated with the experience), after reading the paperback, I can say that in all honesty. Yet, there remains a strange fondness with the off-kilter adaptation to this day. How else to explain owning each subsequent release to the home market in VHS, DVD (including the poorly cropped pan-and-scan and widescreen editions) and Shout! Factory’s wonderful Blu-ray Disc I screened for this last Duo Post.
Believe me…not going to put down good money on things I don’t re-watch.
For all one knows, the duality of quality and subject matter is likely part of the reason I like to criticize the work while ungrudgingly pressing “Play” to bring Father Halliran (a fittingly cast John Carradine) back to life once more. Sitting stoically and imperturbably before his East River perch, holding back the denizens of Hell before Sister Therese spells the old wasted Padre. For its slow build-up amid the distinctive NYC skyline, which had already slid into ’70s-era crime and corruption, it still pays off.
Even if Gil Melle’s melodic score (John Williams turned them down for another gig4) can get overly melodramatic and boisterous, at times, and on more than one occasion, way too loud5, it adds to the weird charm of it all. Of course, sticking to his promise to deliver shocks, Michael Winner favored gory make-up and pulled Tod Browning’s Freaks casting stunt with deformed circus sideshow performers, which some found distasteful then, for the climatic sequence of the film.
That whammy, by the way, a tad ruinous to the author’s more sinister tone in his Ira Levin-influenced novel for the finale6.
Yet with today’s Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead obsessed audiences, the effect is both familiar and unconventional enough that it only adds to The Sentinel‘s now acknowledged cultish appeal. So, you could say the director who attained a second life over on this side of the pond during Tom Wolfe’s Me Decade, had just been ahead of the curve with this. If it wasn’t the ’70s, that is. Boundary-pushing the je ne sais quoi for cinema, and particularly horror, that peculiar decade no matter how you slice it.
Det. Gatz: [looking at old police mugshots] “Rebecca and Malcolm Stinnett. Sell. Gerde Engstrom. Emma and Lillian Clotkin. Anna Clark. All people the Parker girl said she met.”
Det. Rizzo: “All killers, all dead. She went to a party with eight dead murderers.”
Det. Gatz: “Doesn’t everybody?”
Universal, having taken a cue from the period’s profitable disaster films, cast older stars near the end of their careers in supporting roles, and Winner obtained a host of up-and-comers from the NYC repertoire of stage and screen to fill out the ensemble. So, this an all-star cast7, of all things. With then cresting Chris Sarandon and TV movie actress Cristina Raines bearing much of the load (or abuse) the director heaped on them to see this through, it’s remarkable a film like this had the legs it has.
Coming up on four decades now.
†Universal Studios similarly suffered and succeeded with John Carpenter’s The Thing.
In many ways, it strangely mirrors that of another dark, but more uplifting work, It’s a Wonderful Life. Like it, the lack of box office success surprised the studio who thought it had a sure-fire moneymaker, having disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived†. Though, for the few who saw it, the film had a lingering effect. The same for Bedford Falls, The Sentinel eventually took new life as TV movie fare, though its most shocking sections (let’s hear it for Beverly D’Angelo’s “self-help” scene) edited beyond recognition.
Built a ’70s flick faction to this day, which keeps adding new fans of those who’ve “discovered it”, amid the crowd who only knew of its more sanitized broadcast version. Michael Winner, who had a successful run of movies till this (along with alienating Raymond Chandler and Bogart-Bacall fans with the ill-advised remake of The Big Sleep8 the following year), somehow put together a horror movie that’s offbeat and gross, and yet engrossing. In other words, par for the course for something that survived this span.
“The angel Uriel was stationed at the entrance to Eden to guard it from the devil. Since that time a long line of guardians… sentinels, have guarded the world against evil. Right now it’s Father Halliran upstairs. But tonight YOU become the next sentinel. All the people you saw here, the old man, the lesbians… all of them are reincarnations. Devils. The only way they can stop the new sentinel is to make you commit suicide. That’s what they were trying to do.”
Your mileage may vary, of course, which seems a more that fitting way to close out the review and this series. 😉
Parallel Post Series
- Strangers on a Train
- The Three Musketeers
- 52 Pick-Up
- Life of Pi
- The Laughing Policeman
- The Joy Luck Club
- Like Water For Chocolate
- Edge of Tomorrow
- – 2015 posts
- – 2014 posts
- – 2013 posts
- – 2012 posts
- – 2011 posts
- – 2010 posts
- Not closing up the blog, just this series of posts. Who knows, maybe we will revive it when the mood strikes. Time and family, along with work, making it too hard to continue without feeling obligated to do so. Not the best incentive to keep it as an ongoing series for me, speaking as editor of ‘ye old blog. ↩
- The success of the novel later spawned its ’79 sequel, The Guardian, also a bestseller. In fact, Konwitz will make it a trilogy as he finishes writing the third in the series. ↩
- “Universal had hoped to sign on Don Siegel as director, but Siegel ultimately bowed out due to his discomfort with this particular movie genre.” ~ IMDB ↩
- A little film for George Lucas…Star Wars. ↩
- Jeffrey Konwitz and others voiced concerns, but the studio, perhaps cheaply, refused to perform another remix for the film’s soundtrack. ↩
- The screenplay glossing over God’s cruel purgation and the director’s notorious way of working kept the author-producer and Winner at odds throughout the production. ↩
- From Eli Wallach, Martin Balsam, José Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, Ava Gardner, Burgess Meredith, Sylvia Miles to Beverly D’Angelo (as a lesbian couple of the troupe), Christopher Walken, Deborah Raffin, Jerry Orbach, Nana Visitor, Tom Berenger, an overdubbed Jeff Goldblum and a Richard Dreyfus cameo. ↩
- At this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, the MC opening the screening jokingly scared all in attendance by welcoming them to Michael Winner’s version of The Big Sleep before alleviating their fears. ↩