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The House of Burgess Meredith

Emboldened by Jovanka Vuckovic’s favorite horror movies, Ashley and I went ahead last night and watched The Sentinel (1977). It’s a pretty weird movie, if not entirely successful, with a hodgepodge of disturbing imagery, plots that go nowhere, and all the veteran Hollywood actors the 1970s had to offer. It’s your typical gateway-to-hell movie. Alison (Cristina Raines), a model with some severe daddy issues, doesn’t want to marry her mustachioed boyfriend (Fright Night‘s Chris Sarandon) just yet, so she goes apartment-shopping in New York and finds a cheap, spacious place with no neighbors – other than a blind priest in the attic, some lesbian ballerinas, and a cat-obsessed Burgess Meredith who’s [spoiler] actually kind of Satan.

But Alison is not easily fazed. Even when the dizzy spells start, even when all hell breaks loose right above her ceiling, and even when her real estate agent proves that her neighbors don’t really exist, she goes on living there. However, when she hallucinates (?) stabbing her dead zombie father, that’s the last straw. And that’s when detectives Eli Wallach and Christopher Walken get called in. Yeah, if there’s one thing The Sentinel has, it’s big names of the past and future. Jeff Goldblum, on the road to stardom, shows up as a photographer; Psycho‘s Martin Balsam plays a Latin prof. I mean, Ava Fucking Gardner is the real estate agent!

I love how 1970s Hollywood had all these past-their-prime legends just sitting around, and could insert them into character parts. Need someone to play a slightly threatening monsignor in your slightly sleazy horror movie? Well, how about five-time Oscar nominee Arthur Kennedy? The upshot of this trend is that we get to see dozens of our favorite old actors in amusing if undignified roles. This is the basis for much of The Sentinel‘s entertainment value. The rest of it comes the creepy shit that engulfs Alison courtesy of Dick Smith’s special effects.

Much digital ink has been spilled about the climax, wherein a mob of giggling demons, led by hell’s emissary Burgess Meredith, follows Alison into the attic and tries to get her to kill herself. It’s scary, yeah, and it has some troubling ableist implications, but for me the creepiest scene comes about 45 minutes in. It’s the one that made Bravo’s “100 Scariest Movie Moments.” Alison wanders through the darkness, flashlight in hand, when something crosses her path. And hey, it’s that zombie father I mentioned earlier! The blood, the nose-hacking, and the naked female zombies make it that much worse.

So yes, The Sentinel has some scenes that made me curl up into a fetal position (while maneuvering my arms so I could still see the screen). Unfortunately, it feels like it was written by several people who weren’t on speaking terms, but each picked a different set of genre clich├ęs to use. It’s ostensibly a psychological horror movie, but it veers off into a police procedural in its second act, then decides it actually wants to be a religious conspiracy thriller. The Wallach/Walken episode is the funniest manifestation of this disconnect, as they go from character to character, digging up extraneous but lurid back stories in generic cop fashion. (Walken only gets a few stray lines! That’s the real horror.)

But even though the parts don’t cohere into a sensible whole, The Sentinel is enjoyably ridiculous enough for me to recommend it. The all-star cast, the build-up and reveal as a septuagenarian John Carradine enters the picture, and Burgess Meredith’s sublime hamminess all paid out great dividends on the time I invested. When the movie finally gets focused, it manages to be a fairly terrifying, oddball foray into the demonic. You could say it’s the best 1970s apartment-centered horror movie that Roman Polanski didn’t direct.

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