Alison Wonderland

The Sentinel (1977)

The Sentinel (1977) | art by Dani Manning
illustration by Dani Manning

It’s hard for me to separate Michael Winner’s The Sentinel (1977) from John Irvin’s Ghost Story (1981). 

As a kid, without much supervision and with the help of an indulgent neighborhood video store owner, I’d go on weekend horror movie benders based at first on the luridness of the VHS cover art, then eventually just on what I hadn’t seen before or was desperate to see again. So although their releases were buffered by four years, I saw these two films one after the other in the early days of our VCR adoption. Both films are surreal by today’s standards in their tolerance of un-pretty violence and weird insistence on largely-unmotivated and explicit nudity, both are not so scary as they are extraordinarily uncomfortable, and both feature casts overloaded with veterans from Hollywood’s Golden Age. The old-timers alone make them feel like the card game at the beginning of Sunset Blvd. (featuring Buster Keaton and Anna Q. Nilsson and H.B. Warner), giving by their presence The Sentinel and Ghost Story this air of a spectral meta-presence. They’re movies about supernatural visitations featuring what are essentially holdovers from a dead era, and occupy the same space in my mind even after revisiting them consecutively now some 40 years later. But where Ghost Story strikes me as a pretty nasty little number that strips the melancholy from the Peter Straub source material in favor of ugly shocks and somehow uglier sex, The Sentinel feels now like it has something to say in its zaftig way about suicidal ideation and the evils of organized religion. 

Directed by Michael Winner, one of the great directors of terrible movies, The Sentinel is a trainwreck I can’t stop watching. It’s not unlike other Winner disasterpieces, like his unfortunate prequel to Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, the unfortunately-named The Nightcomers; and his Charles Bronson vehicles Death Wish, The Stone Killer, and what’s arguably his best film, The Mechanic. Divorced from its obvious technical shortcomings—the unimaginative camera work, the slapdash editing—The Sentinel is also dramatically inert: the wrong people are in the leads, the script is ever on the border of incoherence when it’s not dangerously offensive. And, when the tortured plot finally resolves, it pushes the message that the Church is involved in bartering an eternity spent boiling in Hell in exchange for a tortured half-life of lonesome, shackled, blinded limbo in service to an unmerciful God. It’s no wonder, really, why I love it. 

Winner, in his extraordinary and reckless incompetence, has actually put his finger on the exact place where Catholicism intersects with some of the Pagan traditions it absorbed and eradicated. It gives shape to an Old Testament vision of God as this remorseless prick, putting His followers through perverse tests of their fidelity to gratify His divine ego in front of His disgruntled ex-employee, Satan. Winner even references Milton’s Paradise Lost a couple of times—the poem the Romanticists looked upon as ‘proof’ that action, any kind of action, was better than passive servility. Milton’s Satan declares it’s “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” and that just by itself would be a fascinating place to land, except that Winner proceeds to have his hero cast into a servile position, and…it’s pretty clear that Winner doesn’t have ecclesiastical poetry on his mind so much as punishing a young woman for her trauma. I’ll say, though, that The Sentinel is all the more fascinating (and it shares this with Winner’s other work—a real auteur) for his blinkered, some would say vile, worldview that pushes women into an impossible position in this society: robbed of volition, robbed of sanity, robbed of autonomy, and after it’s all done, even robbed of salvation.

Alison Parker (Cristina Raines, boasting a real Kate Jackson vibe) is a successful commercial model living with her unctuous, dimwitted boyfriend, Michael (Chris Sarandon), when she decides that maybe she’s moved towards domesticity too quickly and would like a place on her own. Michael objects, of course, but Alison strikes out on her own, looking at a fully-furnished, lush corner apartment in a spooky building suspiciously priced to her exact budget by mysterious real estate agent Miss Logan (Ava Gardner). Her first weekend there, she’s visited by eccentric neighbor Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith) and his twin familiars, Mortimer the parakeet and Jezebel the cat; stumbles upon some other neighbors (a former ballerina, Gerde [Sylvia Myles], and her voice-less girlfriend, Sandra [Beverly D’Angelo], the latter of whom aggressively masturbates at Alison); and is invited to a birthday party for Jezebel that will be attended by what appears to be a gallery of dead murderers. But what of the mysterious priest Halliran (John Carradine) living on the top floor? The blind one who never speaks and never joins in the fun? 

It’s true that Alison, in her desire to be her own woman for a while, has just leased a flat in the Brownstone of the damned. Not accidentally, it turns out, but because she is predetermined to succeed Fr. Halliran as the titular sentinel keeping the demons at bay. Call it an audition. Call it an early echo of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where a young woman is put in charge of a hellmouth. All Alison has to do is resist killing herself long enough to accept Jesus back into her life, and then spend the rest of it sitting quietly, dressed as a nun, blind, on the top floor of a building, alone except for a bunch of demons who look like the traveling cast of the original Twilight Zone series. In fact, the only thing qualifying Alison for this job is that she—like all of her predecessors, we learn—has failed to kill herself multiple times. 

In flashback, Winner helpfully shows us Alison’s first attempt. It comes as a teen when she, after walking in on her dad (Fred Stuthman) having a birthday threeway, has her necklace brutally ripped off by the old bastard before he strikes her about the face a few times. Why? Because, again, Alison the young woman has transgressed social law by going somewhere she’s forbidden by a man to go. The film’s reason why suicide is the prerequisite for being the sentinel is that people who’ve attempted it have damned themselves, and so if they want to save their souls, they’ll agree to endure a living death until their replacement can be vetted and installed. It’s the single most dire interpretation of Christianity I’ve ever seen in a film that’s presenting its doctrine as benevolent. It’s the product of a diseased mind, and, consequently, an extraordinarily cogent critique of fundamentalism in all its misogyny and deep patriarchal hypocrisy. 

The parallel story to Alison’s is a question of whether boyfriend Michael had anything to do with the death of his late wife. In the pursuit of an answer are detectives Gatz (Eli Wallach) and Rizzo (Christopher Walken), who are given both too much screen time and not enough. Martin Balsam pops up as a barmy classics professor tasked with translating a phrase from Paradise Lost from Latin for some reason (it wasn’t written in Latin, and if translated from the Latin would probably require a different kind of professor to recognize what he’d translated, but look, that kind of stuff is for a movie concerned with making sense). It doesn’t matter. What The Sentinel is concerned with is making sure this beautiful young woman with severe trauma and depression is condemned now by a silent lifetime of meaningless, sedentary vigil to demonstrate her penitence for being so broken by abuse and gaslighting from her father and her murderer boyfriend that she’s tried to kill herself a few times. 

If we take as a given that the film is appalling on its surface, more’s the wonder when The Sentinel actually gains some emotional power in its telling of a story of how there’s really no recourse for mental illness, particularly as it manifests in young women, in a culture designed explicitly for the exploitation, objectification, and disbelief of young women. I was reminded of a line from Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria update in which a young woman tells a therapist that women come to him with their pain only to be told it’s delusion. It’s easy to say Cristina Raines is not very good as Alison, but I find her performance to be precious for its lack of polish. She would, in fact, be perfect as any Dario Argento heroine. She’s never comfortable in her skin, never seems right for a moment in any of her actions or decisions. Her line readings are slow and monotonal, and all of it plays for me like someone who is (as Raines likely was) struggling to make it through the day pretending to be a person she’s not. Easy to say (as Winner does on his director’s commentary—a legendary yakker well worth the listen) that Raines and Beverly D’Angelo should have swapped roles, but a more effective horror film would have made The Sentinel a less effective female melodrama. 

Foreshadowing of Alison’s ultimate fate comes early, when she asks Miss Logan why the blind Halliran is “staring at” her. “I’m sure you’ve been stared at before,” Miss Logan says, reminding us that she’s played by Ava Gardner, easily one of the three or four most beautiful women to ever be in a motion picture in the United States. The price of being beautiful in this world is being gawped at by men: dehumanized and preyed upon. Alison’s job as a model is the curse of being a pretty girl commodified, and a trio of staged shoots with her at work provide a genuinely fascinating (if certainly unintentional) symbolic framework for the piece. 

Over the opening credits, a photographer played by Jeff Goldblum arranges Alison and three other models in unnatural poses in front of landmarks before the montage shifts to Alison and Michael spending the day together, then back to a studio where she’s in a spotlight and on an ornate staircase, then back to the couple at play, then to them buying a copy of Esquire magazine from a newsstand with Alison on the cover. It effectively blends Alison’s life pretending for the pleasure of anonymous men to Alison pretending for the pleasure of one specific man. As DP Dick Kratina’s name comes onscreen, a dour man behind a desk flips through a large album of Alison’s photo clips—Alison, silent, sitting across from him. She gets whatever job he’s booking as the next image is of Alison in a field of flowers, rotating her head unnaturally as another shutterbug snaps pictures. In terms of disorientation and paranoia, it’s—no kidding—as rich as the Parallax Test in Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View. In two minutes, we understand that Alison is not only obviously not in control of the gaze, but not even in control of her identity. 

Her next shoot, again with Goldblum, is in a green courtyard with a menagerie of animals (dogs, swans, a horse, peacocks [spoken of but not seen]) all going amuck in a tableaux striking for its groomed artificiality. And then the last photographer (played by Jerry Orbach this time, though Goldblum is lurking in the crowd) tries to stage a shot involving her pivoting and placing a wine bottle, unnaturally, in just such a way at the edge of a table as to showcase its label: a task she’s incapable of doing over the course of multiple takes—the score and repeated cuts to people looking at her seeming to increase her anxiety until she faints, falling through a window to the irritation, and not concern, of the photographer. She has been abused and belittled to the point of collapse, and her suffering is regarded as an inconvenience to masters who want her appearance to help them sell their product. She is literally through the (looking) glass. We all are.

The cleanest way to deconstruct The Sentinel, however, is to use Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a template for Alison’s descent into madness in pursuit of lost time, only to re-emerge at the end of it all into the quotidian holding pattern of an acceptable notion of domesticity. Like Alice, Alison ‘escapes’ into an otherworld peopled with grotesqueries and metaphors, learning that she must deal with an altered reality by adjusting her perceptions of what is sane and reasonable—even what is moral and right. Told she’s living alone in the rambling house with the good Father, and that all the neighbors are hauntings or projections, she becomes the detective retracing her steps through now-abandoned and cobweb-festooned rooms. She goes into a musty, long-abandoned one where she’s had a mad tea party for a mysterious cat, and, in a grotesquely Freudian movement, has murdered the shade of her swinger dad by stabbing him in the eye and cutting off his nose (to spite his face?). 

Like Carroll’s Wonderland, Alison’s is punctuated by paroxysms of startling violence (“Off with her head!”) separated by incoherent interactions with obviously insane characters. As Alison makes her way through the levels of her home, ending up in the attic with the choice between annihilation and devotion, a case could be made that her journey has been one through the levels of her own subconscious, and that The Sentinel is an allegory for the way we come through trauma, battered and devastated, to be the guardians of our actualized selves. It’s not as clean a metaphor as a long fall into a rabbit hole and the emergence through waking from a dream, but it’s not bad, especially if one includes the film’s recurring visual motif of birds in cages (or smashed out of cages occasionally, the better to be eaten by cats) as an Emily Dickinson simile. Alison’s hope is a thing with feathers and The Sentinel is to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as Walter Murch’s Return to Oz is to Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: a barbed atrocity exhibition that serves as the kind of movie Robert Aldrich might have made once upon a time with Joan Crawford. It’s so formally shoddy that it makes itself easy to dismiss, but it has barbs on it and refuses to be dislodged. The Sentinel, both within its text and without, would work hauntingly in a double feature with Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby as stories of how a woman’s independence is leeched from her by a society that only offers women two choices: a literal death or a death of her spirit.