This post is about both the novel and the movie based on it, both called The Sentinel. The book was written by Jeffrey Konvitz, and published in 1974. The movie was made in 1977 and directed by Michael Winner, but the screenplay was written by Konvitz again. Probably because of this, the movie is one of the more faithful adaptations of a novel. As in my earlier Underrated Horror Gems post (Sole Survivor), I’ll clearly mark the paragraph with spoilers in it at its beginning.
To give a basic synopsis of The Sentinel, it concerns a young model named Alison Parker (played by Cristina Raines), who has a promising career, and a successful attorney boyfriend Michael (played by Chris Sarandon). She decides to move, and finds an place which seems too good to be true—a huge apartment in a NYC brownstone for an absurdly low rental price. Things quickly get weird and ominous—the building’s fellow tenants are strange, the owners of the apartment are not what they seem, and the police are hounding Michael, who they believe may have killed his late wife. Alison also suffers physically—odd fainting spells, and weird events which she may or may not be imagining. It all climaxes in a bizarre twist ending.
Konvitz’s writing style is rather sparse, but it really works for this story. No time is wasted as he lays out the story, and its steadily building menace. Despite the weirdness of the plot and its characters, it all seems reasonable and believable. There are plenty of good scares, along with the overall feeling of paranoia.
The movie is also very well done. The cast is unusually high caliber—with lots of recognizable names for a small horror movie, with Sarandon, Ava Gardner, Burgess Meredith, Eli Wallach, Christopher Walken, Jerry Orbach, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Berenger, Beverly D’Angelo, and John Carradine. I guess some of these stars were in it because they were older, and weren’t getting many offers by that point, and some of the younger names were clearly starting their careers, and only became famous later. Really, the main character’s portrayer, Christina Raines, was about the only younger actor who didn’t go on to a big successful career.
(SPOILER ALERT—DON’T READ FURTHER UNLESS YOU WANT PLOT POINTS RUINED) I’m a sucker for Devil/evil themed horror, so this book and movie were right up my alley. The story is surprisingly nasty, too—Alison’s “good” boyfriend turns out to be exactly the killer he’s accused of; her father cheats on her mother with skanky women and then attacks Alison when she catches him; the church is using Alison as its puppet, forcing her to abandon her life and serve a role she doesn’t want; the Devil and associated damned souls try to manipulate Alison (who’s attempted suicide twice before) to finally succeed at killing herself. The movie makers took some heat with their choice of some of their actors—the final scenes with the damned souls evidently were filmed using some actual deformed people, in the vein of Tod Browning’s infamous 1930’s movie Freaks. I also particularly liked the scene where Alison forces the real estate agent (Gardner) to tour the building with her after she’s lived there for a while, and she sees nothing but empty, dusty rooms in apartments which housed bizarre folks the day before, kind of a Fight Club style it’s-all-in-her-head moment. In the movie, Burgess Meredith, who I was used to as a good guy from roles like Rocky’s gruff but lovable manager, or as a friendly landlord in Foul Play, is very effective as an initially boring and lonely-seeming old man named Charles Chazen, who turns out to be The Prince of Darkness.
(END OF SPOILERS—SAFE FOR EVERYONE) Jeffrey Konvitz has had an odd career. He went from writing horror novels in the 1970’s and early 80’s (including a disappointing sequel to The Sentinel and a novel about the Loch Ness Monster), to mainly producing movies after that, up into the 21st century. I haven’t seen any of his movies aside from The Sentinel, but the critical consensus is not very promising. They range from action sequels like Cyborg 2 (1993) and Bloodsport 2 (1996) to cheap Airplane-style spoof movies like Spy Hard (1996) and 2001: A Space Travesty (2000).
I’m not sure why The Sentinel never got its due. Both the book and movie came out at a time when horror was doing big business. It may not be The Exorcist or The Omen, but it’s still very good. As I said, to be fair to Mr. Konvitz I would have to read his other books, and see his other movies before I could be confident of this opinion, but it sure seems like he was a literary and cinematic one-hit wonder. But that one hit was something exceptional.
And now for the gratuitous self-promotion—my second ebook, Kaishaku is due out shortly, on August 24th, 2012, also from Musa Publishing. A blurb and excerpt are below.
After receiving a DUI, Dustin Dempster is working off some community service hours at a hospital. While there he’s asked to do some amateur counseling of sometimes difficult patients. He thinks this a waste of time, but he reluctantly agrees.
One of these difficult patients is Levon Howard, a man paralyzed from the neck down because of a car accident. He’s initially uncooperative, but after being charmed by Dustin’s brutal honesty and willingness to break some small hospital rules, he agrees to participate. Soon he’s revealing his biggest secrets to Dustin…
For Levon is an obsessed and unrepentant killer of the worst sort, only with a personal quirk. Despite his revulsion, Dustin finds himself intrigued by Levon’s story. Soon he finds himself doing what was once unthinkable, and realizes that he’s being affected by what he’s learned. Will Howard’s madness claim yet another victim, or even another perpetuator?
Dustin pulled up his chair, and listened intently.
“For starters, my name is Levon, so call me that. Not big on ‘Mr. Howard.’ Fort is right in a way—I do want to talk. Just not to someone like him, or his flunkies, or a nurse. What I’m going to tell you I’ve never told anyone—but I figure, why not? My life—my real life—is over.
“You never told anyone? Why not?”
“Shut up and listen! You’ll see. But anyway, the most important thing in my life is that I’m obsessed with killing. With a catch—I’m not a murderer. I’ve never been arrested, never went to jail, and never even broke the law.”
Levon paused to catch his breath, and Dustin just stared at him, and resisted the urge to laugh. Come on! This guy’s gotta be fucking with me! Or was he? He looked pretty sincere—could he be serious? Maybe he would have been better off not talking to him. But, on the other hand, Levon could hardly attack him even if he wanted to, and besides, Dustin was a little curious. So he waited for the paralyzed man to resume.
(Precious Monster’s I Love Horror/Paranormal Novella Blog Hop Code is posted below)