The Sentinel boasts an all-star cast of up and coming stars mixed old school actors, a popular trend of the decade.
It was directed, produced and written by Michael Winner. While not as successful as The Exorcist or The Omen, the two movies that clearly inspired it, this one has a number of good moments.
The film opens in Northern Italy in a chapel, as Father Figure (Jose Ferrer) leads a group in prayer. "There is danger," says Monsignor Franchino (Arthur Kennedy).
The action shifts to New York City. Alison Parker (Christina Raines) is a successful actress/model who leads a glamorous life of photo shoots and commercials. She lives with her lawyer boyfriend Michael (Chris Sarandon) but is currently feeling like she needs to have a place of her own.
Alison's best friend Jennifer (Deborah Raffin) goes with her to check out a brownstone...but Alison balks at the rent ($600 a month...can you imagine that?)
Alison tells Jennifer that she's been with Michael for two years, "ever since I got out of the hospital." Michael wants to get married but Alison isn't ready to make that leap.
One afternoon, she gets a call from her mother (Lucie Lancaster) informing her that her father (Fred Stuthman) is in the hospital. Alison goes to visit him in Baltimore but the old man dies shortly after.
Upset by his sudden death, she decides to stay at her parents' house rather than go to the cemetery. While walking around the huge estate, Alison has a flashback to an incident that happened when she was a young girl.
Coming home from school one day, she found her father in bed with two women. Her dad was so surprised, he smacked the young girl and ripped a crucifix off her neck. Alison ran into the bathroom and cut her wrists. It was her first suicide attempt. In the present, she finds the crucifix among her father's belongings.
She asks her mother why she stayed him all those years. "I had nowhere to go," her mom replies.
When Alison arrives back in New York, there are several messages from real estate agents. She still insists on getting her own place...especially after what her mother told her. Before John leaves for a business trip, she gives him a pair of cufflinks as a gift.
Answering an ad she sees in the paper, Alison calls Miss Logan (Ava Gardner) about an apartment in Brooklyn Heights with a view of the Manhattan skyline. She meets with her and fills out the paperwork, before heading out to see the place. The building is charming and only twenty minutes from downtown. It's Alison's - for the bargain price of only $400 a month!
Alison accepts the offer and upon leaving, notices someone staring at her from an apartment on the fifth floor. Miss Logan tells her it's Father Halliran (played by John Carradine), a blind and senile priest who likes to sit by the window.
During a photo shoot, Alison's photographer, Jack (Jeff Goldblum) excuses her so she can take a call from Michael - who's phoning to check up on her. After speaking with him, she suddenly faints. At the new pad, Alison explains what happened to Jennifer and awaits Michael's return.
The doorbell rings after Jennifer has left. She opens it and is greeted by Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith), an eccentric old neighbor, along with his cat Jezebel and pet parakeet Mortimer. He welcomes Alison and she inquires about the other people in the building.
Charles says they're all nice except for "that old priest." He doesn't stay long but before he goes...Alison asks if she can use his phone in case of an emergency - since hers isn't set up yet. Oddly enough, Charles doesn't have a phone. He does, however, leave a photo of himself behind for her.
Michael and Alison attend a party given by a friend of theirs. Afterwards, Michael asks Alison to marry him and again is turned down. He notices she's wearing the crucifix and tells her he didn't know she was Catholic. "Does it matter?" she replies.
Returning home from grocery shopping the next day, Alison enters an open apartment on the ground floor. She introduces herself to the two tenants, Gerde (Sylvia Miles) and Sandra (Beverly D'Angelo), a lesbian couple. They offer Alison coffee, which she graciously accepts.
However, their conversation and behavior makes her increasingly uncomfortable. When Gerde goes to answer the phone, Sandra begins to masturbate right in front of Alison! Gerde returns and when Alison asks what they do for a living, Gerda says, "they fondle each other." This response causes Alison to flee the apartment.
During a shoot for a wine commercial, Alison isn't feeling well and repeatedly flubs the filming, much to the dismay of the director (Jerry Orbach). After many takes, she faints and is unable to continue. She's taken to a hospital and later phones Michael to tell him she's alright and that Jennifer is going to take her home.
That night, Charles stops by again and tells Alison he has a surprise for her. He takes her up to his apartment where there's a birthday party in progress...for his cat Jezebel.
Among the guests are: Anna Clark (Kate Harrington) from 4A, Emma Clotkin (Elaine Shore) and her sister Lilian (Jane Hoffman) from 3B, Malcom and Rebecca Stinnett (Gary Allen and Tresa Hughes), two former occupants, and Gerde and Sandra. Charles plays some polka music and a good time is had by all.
Later, Alison has trouble sleeping. She has a nightmare and wakes up to the sound of a loud banging noise. The chandelier above her is rocking back and forth and she's frightened.
Michael calls his friend Brenner (Hank Garrett), a private investigator, and asks him to check out what's happening at Alison's building. Meanwhile, Alison meets with Miss Logan once again.
She tells her about the strange neighbors and that someone was "banging metal and walking back and forth" in the apartment above her. "My dear Miss Parker, aside from the priest and now of course you, nobody has lived in that building for three years," replies the agent.
Alison is insistent and takes Miss Logan back to prove her point. The two women enter several of the apartments...but they're vacant and covered with cobwebs.
Alison tries to see the priest but he doesn't open the door. Father Halliran has a guest that afternoon: Monsignor Franchino, who tells him he's there to "help share his burden in peace."
Thinking she's losing her mind, Alison tries to reach Michael...only to find out he's out of town. That evening, she takes sleeping pills and is again awakened by the same disturbances. She jumps out of bed, grabs a knife and a flashlight - and heads upstairs.
At the top of the staircase, she finds Jezebel eating Charles' parakeet. The revolting scene startles her. She then enters Apt. 3A and in the darkness, she sees her father, hideously disfigured.
Alison also sees what appears to be the two women from his orgy years before. She tries to run but when her father grabs at her, she proceeds to mutilate him with the knife. Alison then goes out into the street screaming...and falls on the ground, as several neighbors rush to her aid.
She is taken to the hospital, where Michael is met by Detectives Gatz (Eli Wallach) and Rizzo (Christopher Walken). (Apparently there has been bad blood between Michael and Gatz because of Michael's first wife's suicide. There was reason to believe it was actually a murder.) The officer is now on this case because Alison claims to have committed a murder for which there is no corpse.
At the station house, Gatz and Garrett discuss the fact that Alison claims there are other tenants in the building besides the priest. The name Anna Clark is familiar to the officers. In fact, the next time Michael visits Alison...he brings along a pictorial crime book. There's a page for Anna Clark, who was sent to the electric chair for killing her husband.
A body turns up, belonging to Michael's investigator friend Brenner. The blood type is the same as what was found on Alison (a coincidence?) The body has multiple stab wounds and detectives believe he was killed on the night Alison claims she stabbed someone.
Authorities are aware of Brenner's somewhat shady reputation for being a charlatan. Gatz and Garrett show Michael the crime scene photos but he claims to have never met the man.
Alison goes to church to say a prayer and is befriended by Monsignor Franchino. She confesses to adultery and two suicide attempts. In one of the funnier lines, she says, "I saw my father. I stabbed him...and he's already dead!" The priest tells her to embrace Christ.
Michael informs Alison he'd like to go back to her building, with a set of keys obtained from a client of his. They go into one of the apartments and it looks to Alison like the carpet has been changed. She walks over to a bookcase and as she reads off some of the titles, something odd happens.
She claims that one of the books is written in Latin and that all the pages are the same. When Michael looks at it, the text is in English with different pages. He asks her to write down what she sees and sure enough, it's all in Latin. The couple attempt to get into Father Halliran's apartment but the lock has been changed.
Michael pays a visit to Professor Ruzinsky (Martin Balsam) to get a translation of what Alison wrote. The professor tells him it's a passage from "Paradise Lost" by Milton. It says, "To thee, thy course by lot is given. Charge and strict watch that to this happy place...no evil thing approach or enter in."
Alison goes to the same church but finds that Franchino is nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, Michael meets with the Monsignor at the Holy Diocesan Council of New York and tries to obtain information about Halliran. (He pretends that a client has left money for the priest.)
Franchino tells him that the priest suffers from Palsy and doesn't take kindly to visitors. He does, however, pull out his file and tells Michael that Halliran retired in 1952. He refuses to let Michael make a copy of it and claims to not be familiar with the quote from "Paradise Lost."
That night, Michael pays off a thug named Perry (William Hickey) to break into Franchino's office. He finds a file which reveals that Father Halliran's real name is William O'Rourke. He also discovers other files of people who led ordinary lives before becoming priests or nuns. All (at some time or another) tried to kill themselves.
He then finds something startling: a file for Alison Parker AKA "Sister Theresa"! It mentions her previous suicide attempt and says that she was killed on a day in 1976, which happens to be the following day. "If these files are right," Michael says, "Father Mathew Halliran dies the same day Alison Parker disappears and becomes Sister Theresa."
The next day indeed arrives. Alison has been staying with Michael but he intends to be at her building that night. He tells Jennifer to keep watch over her friend and not to let her out of her sight. Jennifer has planned a party that evening but agrees.
Night falls and Michael prepares to bring Alison to Jennifer's apartment. At that moment, detectives realize that all the people Alison claimed to have met at Charles' place were all convicted murderers who are now deceased.
Michael leaves Alison behind at the party and heads over to her residence armed with a gun. There, he finally sees Father Halliran face to face. Only the whites of his eyes are visible as he mumbles something about "the entrance to hell."
Michael follows the priest up to his apartment but the old man doesn't respond to anything he says. Michael is so frustrated...he begins choking Halliran, until a stranger knocks him out with a miniature statue.
Alison faints and is taken to a bedroom - where she is able to make an exit from Jennifer's party and head for her building. She finds Michael's cufflink as a spec of blood drops on her near the staircase.
As she's hiding in a closet and clutching her crucifix, Michael walks in and she thinks she's being rescued. It turns out he was killed by Monsignor Franchino and he has been condemned to hell for trying to strangle Halliran...and for having his wife murdered.
Michael goes on to tell Alison that the Latin she saw in the book is an ancient warning from the angel Gabriel to the angel Uriel. The angel Uriel was stationed at the entrance to Eden to guard it from the Devil.
Since that time, a long line of guardians or "sentinels" have guarded the world against evil. He tells her, "Right now it's Father Halliran upstairs. But tonight, you become the next sentinel."
He goes on to say that the people she saw in the building are all reincarnations, "devils" he calls them...and the only way for them to stop the sentinel is to make Alison commit suicide. (Got all that, folks?) Alison runs out of the apartment as Michael's face seemingly begins to peel away.
She bumps right into Charles and then sees a group of deformed and disfigured people appear all around her. In the hall, she observes the disgusting sight of Gerde and Sandra eating Michael's corpse. Alison's father is part of this "army of hell"...all of this is intended to make her kill herself.
Charles presents her with a knife for that purpose as he asks her to join the dead. As she is about to cut herself, Father Halliran and Monsignor Franchino appear. Halliran is holding a huge cross. The dead wail and try to grab the cross but are unsuccessful.
Alison clutches the knife to her bosom - as the dead start to wither away and disappear. Charles, angry that his plan has been thwarted, tosses the knife at Michael and hits him in the neck. (Temper, temper!)
The only thing left to do is to knock the building down and we see a huge wrecking ball do just that. A brand new modern apartment has risen and Miss Logan is shows it to prospective tenants.
The couple (one of whom is played by Tom Berenger) ask about other people living in the building and the agent tells them about the woman in 5A. Miss Logan calls her a recluse and says she's no problem at all...she's a nun.
The Sentinel never reached a wide audience and probably wasn't helped by a controversy that ensued soon after its release.
According to writer Robert Bookbinder, director Michael Winner let it be known that he used actual people with deformities in the final scene. Apparently, he had rounded them up at sideshows and hospitals!
That aside, the film is a guilty pleasure. Beautiful girl lives in NYC brownstone...which just so happens to be situated on the threshold of Hell. Is it ludicrous at times? Yes.
But Christina Raines is believable as the hapless girl journeying towards her destiny. Although at any given point, you know where it's headed - it still comes off fresh and enjoyable. As with 70s films in general, the climax is a keeper.