The Sentinel June 17, 2019
1 Hr., 31 Mins.
aunted apartment buildings are much freakier than haunted houses. Ghosts and ghouls and an inextricable connection to middle-of-nowhere manors feels natural, analogous to peanut butter and jam. You expect the supernatural and anything adjacent to fester like gooey puss swimming under a days-old blister there. That’s just the way it goes when you've have generations’ worth of familial turmoil all
unfolding under one roof.
See an apartment building in the middle of the city, however, and your thoughts don’t immediately move in a paranormal direction. To start driving down that road of thinking, you either have to live there yourself for a little while or do a little digging online. As such, there’s an extra freakiness added to horror movies about people who unwittingly move into haunted apartment buildings. You yourself don’t immediately expect that the situation’s going to get bad sooner or later for an unlucky character— it’s just a friendly looking complex downtown! — and so the eventual mouth-agape, totally horrified reaction to something evil from the person who buys the place at the beginning of the film matches our own for the most part. (Though after the first in a series of night bumps, I’d like to think I’d be out of there if I were in the shoes of the protagonist.)
Especially indelible is the inevitable moment in the feature when the protagonist realizes that the other occupants are ghosts or something similar and/or are all wrapped up in some sinister plot catered to them. Many directors have made the case for the superiority of the haunted-apartment-building movie: Roman Polanski with Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant, from 1968 and 1976, respectively; David Cronenberg with Shivers, from 1975; Hideo Nakata with Dark Water, from 2002; and so on.
Conceptually, The Sentinel (1977) sounds like it should be the mother of all haunted-apartment movies. The establishment in which most of the film takes place is, without a doubt, the spookiest thing about the feature itself. Without giving too much about the movie away, it concerns a young, outrageously successful supermodel, Alison Parker (Cristina Raines), who moves into a Brooklyn brownstone only to discover that it sits atop the gates of Hell, her neighbors maybe not the people trying to get by that they initially introduced themselves as.
Perhaps even revealing that’s revealing too much too soon. But an idea close enough bubbles up, anyway — or something close enough — in our heads, based on the film’s opening and what’s gone down by the time the first 30 minutes are up, soon enough. Besides, this is a movie so tied to its narrative and its plot twists — scenes and sequences practically crash into each other like bumper cars because co-writer and director Michael Winner is so eager to reveal what’s really going on — that slightly indulging in one on the page isn’t too big a deal.
The Sentinel is based on a 1974 novel by Jeffrey Konvitz, which I picked up at a bookstore and read a couple of days before deciding to give the movie a go. The novel is clogged with emaciated character development and unbelievable dialogue — characters speak as if they were reading a particularly flowery New Yorker essay aloud — but I liked it anyway. Konvitz, as any good writer who wants to evoke hungry page-turns above everything else, does an effective job of getting us invested in Alison’s eldritch tragedy, even though we might find it a little silly.
The movie adaptation, which Konvitz helped bring to the screen, is exiguous and lazy — too hasty and obviously little cared-for to be a guilty pleasure. The film has the same problems the book does: it's plot-prioritizing, largely suspense-free, hurried. By so faithfully bringing the novel’s shortcomings to the adaptation, it of course looks like a haunted-apartment movie going through the motions, excited to turn the auto-pilot button off before the closing credits start to roll. That’s how the book was for beach-read lit, after all.
Winner directs impersonally and without style, and writes, with Konvitz, detachedly. Bad things are happening to Alison and those closest to her, but never does the film, neither visually nor emotionally, complement the way any of the helpless protagonists might be feeling in the face of surefire ruin. This isn’t a case of a horror movie being more thrilling than outright scary, either. If a director more competent was at the helm and sitting with the pen, in no doubt would neck hair be perennially pricked. But this movie is so factory-made, like a classic-era, Big Four-network TV movie or a cut episode of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), that it couldn’t get a goose pimple to rise up if it tried.
It’s difficult to deny the power of the finale of both the novel and the ensuing film, though. It's pessimistic to the point of making substance-free viewers want to take up smoking or some other soothing vice — something a good horror feature often can prompt once we head out of the theater. But mostly everything coming before it is cynically vulgar, devoid of inspiration. Like the book, the cinematic rendition of The Sentinel is macabre entertainment overloaded with potential that cuts corners where it shouldn’t, without the pleasurable phenomenon of page-turning to assuage its weaknesses. C-