Chris Sarandon saves The Sentinel from its own excess.
The film stars Cristina Raines as a fashion model who moves into a fantastic apartment in a converted Brooklyn brownstone. A series of strange encounters with her eccentric neighbors leaves her paranoid and on edge. Her boyfriend, a hot-shot defense attorney played by Sarandon, investigates and uncovers a horrific conspiracy involving the Catholic Church and a gateway to Hell.
The setup invites comparisons to Rosemary’s Baby (1968). But unlike that film, which was about women's reproductive rights, The Sentinel isn't about anything. It's an exploitation picture offering a smorgasbord of gore, nudity, lesbianism, human deformities, and female masturbation. I don't mind these things. I object to the film’s middling execution.
Movie fans will enjoy spotting the once and future stars peppering the cast. José Ferrer as an unnamed robed figure. Ava Gardner as a charming real estate agent. Burgess Meredith as a creepy neighbor. Eli Wallach as a cagey detective. Christopher Walken as Wallach’s grinning partner. Jeff Goldblum as a fashion photographer. Beverly D’Angelo as a mute exhibitionist. An unrecognizable John Carradine as an aging priest.
But the film wastes its talented ensemble. It regulates most of the former stars, like Ferrer, Gardner, and Carradine, to throwaway roles for name recognition. Other performances veer into camp. Beverly D’Angelo’s memorable scene elicits chuckles instead of chills. Eli Wallach's phoned-in turn plays as caricature.
The sprawling cast is a byproduct of the convoluted, nonsensical plot. Consider the scene where a character breaks through a wall in the brownstone and uncovers a plaque bearing an inscription from Dante’s Inferno. It’s the film in a microcosm: effective and atmospheric, but its logic crumbles under the slightest scrutiny.
What saved the film for me was Sarandon. Despite sporting a mustache that only adds to the film's second-rate feel, Sarandon is perfect in his role. He avoids the idiot plot and acts according to character. And there's just something about him playing a charming but ruthless character that I enjoy.
The first time I saw The Sentinel, I thought its mix of camp and shock hit more often than it missed—if only just. Watching it again, I’m not so sure. The performances don’t hold up well to repeat viewings, but Sarandon was every bit as good as I remembered.