31 (More) Days of Fright: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Space flowers for Algernon.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. What better to follow up on last night’s movie than the (first) remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), directed by Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being), and suggested by friend, president of book distributor Ampersand, and former college instructor of mine Saffron Beckwith. I also picked up a DVD of this version Invasion of the Body Snatchers from Queen Video. Lets compare and contrast, shall we?

What happens:

The late 1970s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is nearly identical to the original (and, I imagine, the book by Jack Finney upon which it’s based), but differs in a few notable ways. For one, our story does not take place in the fictional small town of Santa Mira, but the swingin’ 70s metropolis of San Francisco! And instead of opening with a frame in which our hero recounts hist story, this film opens on an alien wasteland, where we see the seed pods rise from the planet, travel through space, and rain down on the Golden City, infecting the plant life. Department of Health employee Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) spots an unusual flowering plant and decides to take it home.

She returns to find her dentist boyfriend, Geoffrey (Canadian treasure Art Hindle) busy watching basketball with headphones on. She shows him the special plant and has a difficult time identifying it in her plant reference books. Across town, tough-as-nails health inspector (and Elizabeth’s co-worker), Matthew Bennell (other Canadian treasure Donald Sutherland) is putting the screws to a French restaurant after he finds a rat turd in their soup stock. (They assert it’s actually a caper.) Not everyone appreciates Matthew’s work ethic, and he finds his car’s windshield broken by an inexpensive bottle of French wine. Fittingly, we view much of the film’s later scenes through Matthew’s splintered glass.

No rat turds on the watch of Matthew Bennell, ace health inspector.

When he returns home, Matthew calls Elizabeth and informs her he needs her to come into work early the next day. Reluctantly, she agrees and falls asleep with the newfound plant set at Geoffrey’s bedside. Atypically, her sports-loving boyfriend is up and dressed early, sweeping up debris on the bedroom floor. He doesn’t say much, just takes the refuse directly to the back of the garbage truck, and heads off to work. Elizabeth, however, confused by Geoffrey’s behaviour, arrives within the marbled walls of the Department of Health later than expected. Once there, she shares with Matthew how strange Geoffrey has been acting: “He was just weird.” After work, he becomes stranger, passing up Warriors tickets in favour of a mysterious meeting. When Elizabeth questions him, he puts up a wall: “I don’t need to justify my every action to you.”

Left alone for the evening, Elizabeth visits co-worker Matthew at his apartment, where he’s whipping up a delicious stir fry and flirting up a storm. She tries to explain how Geoffrey has changed: the feelings, the emotions are different. But he’s clearly the same person. Elizabeth starts to wonder if she’s experiencing psychotic delusions. Matthew offers to introduce her to his friend, celebrity psychiatrist, Dr. David Kibner – not because he thinks she’s mentally ill, but because Kibner could help eliminate possibilities, such as if Geoffrey has “become gay” or has contracted a “social disease.”

The next morning, Matthew drops off some stained clothing at his Chinese dry cleaners, and the co-owner tells him his wife is not his wife. Elizabeth later surprises him when he’s working late at the office to dish more info on Geoffrey’s strange behaviour. That day, she followed him to work, and witnessed him meet with people she’d never seen before, passing around things swaddled in blankets. Overnight, everything has become frightening and conspiratorial. They decide to meet with Dr. Kibner right away – that evening he’s launching a new book – and drive to see him. Along the way, they nearly run over a man ranting in the street (Kevin McCarthy, star of the original film, in a clever cameo). The seemingly disturbed man is run down by a car moments later and a gathered crowd seems content to just watch him die in the street.

At the book launch, they meet their friend, Jack Bellicec, who seems to be a failed writer of sorts, and doesn’t take much stock in Kibner’s acclaimed ideas. That’s when we meet Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), busy on-stage consulting a woman, Katherine (Leila Golden) who loudly proclaims her husband, Ted (Tom Luddy) is an impostor. Elizabeth wants to intervene with valuable information – namely that she’s felt the same way about her husband and, further, that she’s seen this woman’s husband meeting with her own. But Kibner refuses to let Elizabeth talk, and instead reconciles husband and wife with his quiet, soothing words.

Kibner takes Elizabeth and Matthew outside to discuss Elizabeth’s personal crisis. He doesn’t believe that Geoffrey is an impostor any more than that woman’s husband was. Instead, he sees this rash of people claiming their loved ones as impostors as a symptom of the modern world, where people enter and leave relationships too quickly. He suggests that Elizabeth is seeing Geoffrey as an impostor because it’s an easy way to excuse herself from their relationship. Then, confusingly, as Jack approaches them, Kibner throws him up against the wall, to “shock her.” (These Invasion movies are, invariably, packed with suspect psychiatrists.)

Jack returns to his place of business, Bellicec Baths, a spa and mud bath that doesn’t seem overly hygienic. (They definitely reuse the mud at Bellicec Baths.) His wife, Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright), a crunchy granola type, is hard at work assisting customers, but Jack, aggravated by his encounter with Dr. Kibner, treats himself to a steam. We learn that Mr. Gianni, an intense reader and regular spa customer, recently gifted Nancy a plant (!), which explains why why she later finds a half-formed slimy clone on one of the massage tables and screams blue murder.

There are much worse things you can find in spa than a Jeff Goldblum clone.

Matthew has accompanied Elizabeth back to Geoffrey’s apartment, but the dentist is nowhere to be seen (though we viewers see him lurking in the shadows). Shortly after Matthew has brought Elizabeth home safe, he gets a call from the Bellicecs to do a little unofficial health inspection. He arrives and sees the smooth, vague body with his very own eyes, declaring it not unlike some sort of adult fetus. As you’d expect, they soon determine this body is the same height and build as Jack (though Goldblum’s Jack is significantly taller than King Donovan’s). Realizing what impossibly seems to be occurring, Matthew calls Geoffrey’s apartment to warn Elizabeth, but Elizabeth is already being drained by and covered with plant tendrils. Geoffrey takes the telephone from her and leaves it off the hook. Sensing skullduggery, Matthew leaves immediately.

This leaves Jack and Nancy with the half-formed clone. At some point, Jack injured himself and got himself a nosebleed. So when Jack lays down to rest, the clone opens his eyes the very moment the real Jack’s eyes close. Also, his nose begins to bleed. Oh, and tendrils start to creep out from his body. Nancy sees this alarming phenomenon and wakes her husband, and then Dr. Kibner arrives to surprise them both. Back at Geoffrey’s house, Matthew decides to break in through the basement window. Geoffrey has headphones on to watch the basketball game, so doesn’t notice at Matthew creeps upstairs to see an Elizabeth clone, surrounded by lush plants, and the real Elizabeth, unconscious in her bed. He tries in vain to wake her, and when this fails, he carries her out the way he came.

Back at the Bellicec Baths, Kibner returns to his friends in the lobby to tell them there’s nothing remotely like a body in there. Jack and Nancy can’t believe this and tear the spa apart looking for the clone. Kibner thinks one of Jack’s friends must have played a practical joke on him. “I don’t have any friends,” Jack mumbles. That’s when Matthew returns with Elizabeth and asks Nancy to take her back to his apartment. He calls the police from the spa and reports a body at Geoffrey’s, but when the police, Kibner, and Geoffrey arrive, what was a clone is now a few ceramic pots surrounded by houseplants. Elizabeth, however, is missing, and – given the circumstances, it looks like Matthew kind of kidnapped her. However, Kibner is able to smooth things over with the police – the detective’s wife is a big fan of his books – and Geoffrey decides not to press charges.

Our protagonists go over the situation at Matthew’s apartment, and Dr. Kibner can’t believe what his friends are saying – they seem to be buying entirely into fantastical notions. Most fantastical of all: that a flower – the flower Elizabeth found and the one that a client brought to the spa – is somehow responsible. A flower, perhaps, from outer space! (“Why do we expect metal ships?” Nancy asks.) However, Kibner agrees to do a favour for Matthew and set up a phone call with the mayor, one of his patients. However, Matthew gets the runaround from every government official he contacts. No one will listen to his plea. (However, we viewers expected that, for we saw Kibner later enter a car with noted pod people Geoffrey and Ted. He’s already one of them.)

Elizabeth, while Matthew is attempting to elicit help from the authorities, takes the flower to her colleague at the Department of Health to be be analyzed. (Nothing ever comes of that.) Over the course of day, people who had previously believed their loved ones were impostors – the dry cleaner, Katherine from the book launch – assure Matthew and Elizabeth they were mistaken. Our heroes hole up in Matthew’s hilltop apartment, where Kibner advises a good night’s rest before departing.

Matthew Bennell visits his apartment’s rooftop garden, but soon begins to doze in a lawn chair. As he does, tendrils emerge from the garden to ensnare him. Then a giant flower (not noticed by Matthew earlier) basically begins to give birth (it’s very yonal), ejecting a plant fetus that slowly takes shape as a Donald Sutherland duplicate. Also on the rooftop, clones of Jack, Nancy, and Elizabeth begin to take shape. Luckily, Nancy ascends to the roof and wakes Matthew up with a scream when she sees the slowly forming doubles. Matthew and Nancy race downstairs to call the police, who somehow already know who’s calling. Everybody’s in on it! Then the power’s cut and the streets outside are barricaded.

The green roof movement has gone way too far.

Our survivors go to the roof to leave via the fire escape. Before leaving, Matthew picks up a shovel and attempts to work up the courage to kill the Elizabeth clone. While he fails, he succeeds in smashing in the face of his own clone in a horrible, gory mess. Once the four hit the street level, they are chased through the night by nearly everyone in the city. The pod people begin emitting a horrible screech as chase them down a long flight of stairs (way easier a trip than up the staircase, as in the original!). They overcome numerous obstacles but are completely stymied by a chain link fence that’s about the height of Jeff Goldblum. When a police helicopter arrives, Jack and Nancy race in the other direction to draw it away, leaving Matthew and Elizabeth on their own.

Elizabeth and Matthew speed-walk into a seedier area of the city (which seems like it hasn’t been infiltrated by pod people). They find a cab and instruct the driver to take them to the airport, but become increasingly paranoid with every question the cabbie asks. The airport is crawling with police, and when the cops stop the taxi, Elizabeth and Matthew escape out the back. They make it back to the Department of the Health (must be near the airport), where their busker friend and his dog companion are unconscious beside a large flower. (Matthew gives the flower a swift kick and it oozes blood.)

A police officer follows them into their offices, and Elizabeth and Matthew have to hide in a darkened closet. While in hiding, Matthew and Elizabeth kiss, with Matthew looking for the world like he’s trying to loosen a screw with his lips (further bolstering my theory that Donald Sutherland can’t kiss – a theory first established after watching Don’t Look Now). After the cop leaves, they take a look out the window and spot trucks distributing massive seed pods to dozens and dozens of people. Elizabeth begins to lose hope. The pod people seemingly control the city, and she’s too exhausted to go on. Luckily, they find a solution in their office: speed. “How many does it say to take?” Matthew asks. “One,” Elizabeth answers. “Take five.”

Jack Bellicec arrives at the office, but he’s also brought Kibner, Geoffrey, and a few others with him. Jack has been assimilated. They restrain Matthew and Elizabeth while Dr. Kibner injects them both with a sedative to assist them in falling asleep, all while making a speech similar to the one Kaufman makes in the original film. Being a pod person frees them from troubles, from anxiety, from feeling. Matthew argues that becoming a pod person also means you all think the same – Jack and Kibner always fought before, and now they agree on everything. Elizabeth confesses to Matthew, “I love you,” but Matthew leaves that admission just hanging there.

The pod people drag Matthew and Elizabeth in front of two fresh pods, but Elizabeth breaks a bottle over Kibner’s head and Matthew chokes Jack out (and apparently stabs him in the back of the head with a dart). Seeing the elevator guarded, they try to escape via the stairs. They encounter Nancy in the stairwell, but she seems to be her old self. (Not a pod person!) She provides our heroes with some helpful tips – she’s discovered you can fool the pod people by not showing emotion. The three leave the office and line up to collect pods as blankly as they can.

It’s approaching *that* point of the party.

However, while waiting in line, they encounter a grotesque sight: the busker’s dog has fused with the human busker’s face. (Why this happens is never explained.) The frightful sight causes Elizabeth to shriek, and they’re found out as humans! Found out, Matthew slaps an old lady and they flee, leaping unseen onto the back of a transport truck.

The truck brings them to an enormous factory where the pod people’s operations are centred. Unfortunately, Elizabeth rolls her ankle, which slows them down a bit. After the injury, Matthew then admits he loves her too. (Sure. When no one else is around, Matthew.) While hiding in some tall grasses outside the factory, they hear bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace.” Realizing only a human being could be idiosyncratic enough to enjoy the sound of bagpipes, Matthew tells Elizabeth to stay put while he investigates. The music is coming from a radio upon a large cargo ship, which is when Matthew remembers he lives in a port city! They could escape on a ship! Unfortunately, the ship in question is being loaded with massive seed pods.

Matthew returns to Elizabeth to see she’s fallen asleep in the reeds, and her body is covered in vines. He tries to shake her awake, promising her that the ships will take them away. But Elizabeth rots and turns to plant goo (answering the question of what happens to the original humans once cloned). The clone Elizabeth pops up in the reeds, stark naked, and beckons him to join her in sleep. Matthew runs and Elizabeth cries her banshee wail, pointing out the interloping human being.

Our surviving human hero returns to the pod compound, where he encounters a massive greenhouse with rows and rows of pods being incubated by overhead lights. Matthew scurries up to the rafters, a la Soylent Green, and grabs a fire axe. Alarms immediately sound and a nude Elizabeth storms in, pointing toward Matthew above and emitting her piercing wail. But it’s too late. Matthew starts attacking the light rigging with ferocity, bringing the lights down on the plants in a series of fiery explosion.

Matthew slides out of the compound via the roof, with the pod people hot on his heels and the factory exploding around him. The pod people chase him down the street and Matthew finds refuge under a boardwalk. One pursuer peers down into the boardwalk below and shines a flashlight that provides a nice filmic transition to the next morning.

The next day, we see Matthew sauntering down the street, walking among the unsuspecting pod people doing their old jobs, if somewhat more joylessly than usual. Matthew, as before, cuts clippings from the paper. Business as usual. At lunch, he walks over to City Hall when he’s stopped by Nancy. (Remember her? She’s still human.) Hearing Nancy’s voice, Matthew turns, raises his pointer finger at her, and shrieks the pod person shriek. (OMG!)

Whatcha gonna’ do when Sutherland-mania runs wild on you?!

Takeaway points:

  • If the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers was either an allegory for Communism or allegory for McCarthyism, what does this film, made in 1978 mean? The same premise is in place: individualism crushed by a collective will, a creeping inhumanity infecting the populace. But there are clues that this inhumanity arises not from any sort of political dogma, but (strangely) the social phenomenon of self-interest. This is the era of the Me Decade. This film is set in a city, where people are naturally more distant (rather than the quaint and friendly small town of Santa Mira), precisely to emphasize this reading. Kibner notes people these days are more self-interested, less willing to work out a difficult relationship (something a male psychologist would say). Even when the street ranter is run over in the street, no one makes a move to help; they just watch him die. And this is before most of them are pod people. It’s not a stretch to say that Kaufman uses Invasion as a warning that people’s individualism not turn to solipsistic self-interest.
  • Interestingly, if you read the man ranting in the street as Dr. Miles Bennell (from the original film), this Invasion becomes not a remake, but a sequel of sorts. The framing device in the first movie could be read as a dream sequence. The invasion has spread from Santa Mira to the major city of San Francisco. And instead of saving humanity, Miles dies in the street. (Grim!)
  • Though the remake lacks the framing device of the original, the cosmic introduction (revealing definitively the extraterrestrial origin of our seed pods) does the job of removing any ambiguity. We know it’s an invasion; we saw the pods. There’s never a question over whether this is a mass delusion. It does, however, also have a way more cynical end. Perhaps post-Vietnam and Watergate, Americans couldn’t believe in the false hope at the end of the original. There’s no chance for Nancy. All hope dies at the film’s conclusion.
  • Though there have been two other remakes of the central Invasion of the Body Snatchers story, it would be interesting to see a non-white and non-American (or specifically recent immigrant) director tackle the story. The films are about assimilation, but it’s invariably the white American majority who are fearful of this assimilation. What would a similar film look like from the perspective of someone who has had to struggle with his or her own assimilation into white America? That would likely be a very different and very interesting Invasion.
  • Can we admit that Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright) is the real hero of Invasion of the Body Snatchers? She first alerts people to the duplicates, she survives the longest, she’s the first to champion the idea of the “space flower,” she draws the police away from Matthew and Elizabeth, and she comes up with the idea to act blankly to confuse the pod people. Without Nancy, our other protagonists would have died forty minutes into this film.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a solid remake – mostly faithful to the original with an added level of Watergate-era paranoia, and a couple unsettling scenes of gore. And the sounds the pod people make are enough to give nightmares on their own. There are scares, for sure.

Oh, and I suppose you just leave the back of your hand naked?

Best outfit: There’s a lot of great 70s-era fashion on parade, but you have to hand it to Dr. Kibner, king of the useless accessory, for his leather half-glove that he wears for no apparent reason.

Best line:What’s a big conspiracy?” Matthew asks Jack. “Everything,” he responds.

Best kill: Matthew Bennell smashing in his own face with a shovel haunts my dreams. After seeing it, you won’t be able to see Donald Sutherland’s face without imagining it caved in by a garden implement and gushing blood.

Unexpected cameo: The inclusion of the original film’s star, Kevin McCarthy, playing the exact same role he did at the end of the first movie, is a stroke of genius. Additionally, the original film’s director, Don Siegel has a cameo as the taxi driver who takes our heroes to the airport. Weirder still, Robert Duvall has an inexplicable cameo as a priest playing on a child’s swing in one brief scene.

Unexpected lesson learned: Most health inspectors are, at heart, failed chefs themselves.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Worlds in Collision (the title of the book Nancy’s literate client recommends).

Next up: Mr. Vampire (1985)

31 (More) Days of Fright: The Sentinel

Scene from the upcoming Daddy’s Home 3?

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. Today’s film, selected by friend, freelance editor, and writerr Catherine Chen is a late 1970s American oddity, The Sentinel (1977), directed by Michael Winner (Death Wish). I rented The Sentinel digitally from YouTube, as it was a bit difficult to find in other formats.

What happens:

Trigger warnings: suicide.

The prologue to The Sentinel begins in rural Europe, where a secret cabal of Catholic priests from around the world have met. They begin to chant what seems like a sacred oath, all while looking very worried about looming evil. Then viewers are whisked away to the heart of all evil: 1970s New York City!

Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) is a high-profile fashion model, with regular commercial spots and cover shoots for the likes of Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar. Her longtime boyfriend, Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon, Humperdinck himself!), works as a lawyer. Though they’ve been together for two years – ever since Alison’s mysterious (to us) stay at the hospital – Alison isn’t interested in moving in with Michael. They both hunt for apartments, with Michael intending to find a shared love nest, but Alison more interested in finding a room of her own. Interestingly, one of the priests from the European cabal, Monsignor Franchino (Arthur Kennedy), follows Alison during her apartment hunt.

All these real estate good times grind to a halt when Alison receives a phone call from her mother that her father is dying. Before long, Alison is back at her palatial childhood home for her father’s funeral, but an intense migraine prevents her from going to the actual burial. After her family leaves, she has a flashback of herself as a teenager, walking in on her father, in flagrante delicto with two women who are not her mom. Her dad gets up from his complicated lovemaking and slaps Alison a few times across the face for barging in, then tears the crucifix from her neck and tosses it to the floor. Alison, in emotional distress, then runs to the washroom and slits her wrists. Luckily, her father (dressed only in a towel) discovers her moments afterward and calls for an ambulance.

Back in the present, Alison finds her old crucifix and begins to wear it again. While her boyfriend Michael is away working on a case (defending a convertible enthusiast), Alison decides to stay on the apartment hunt and meets with a realtor, Miss Logan (Ava Gardner), who shows her a fully furnished, giant brownstone apartment that is selling for a mere $500 a month. (This same apartment probably costs $25,000 a month today.) This is a bit more than Alison is willing to pay, and Logan quickly drops the price to $400 a month. (The landlords are motivated renters, apparently.) As they hash out details on the sidewalk, Alison notices an old man in the building’s top apartment staring at her. Miss Logan assures her it’s just Father Halliran (John Carradine), a mostly senile, retired Catholic priest who is entirely blind.

Sure sign of gentrification: your building has an aging, blind priest.

After securing her bargain of an apartment, Alison begins to experience further headaches, and passes out during photo shoots. She soon meets her neighbours, starting with Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith), a local busybody with a pet parakeet (Mortimer) and cat (Jezebel). He gives himself a tour of Alison’s apartment and tells her all the tenants are swell, save the priest on the top floor, who he doesn’t much care for. That night, as a friend mounts a slideshow of his recent vacation, Michael asks Alison to marry him, and she politely declines.

Alison then meets the downstairs neighbours, a pair of Germanic lesbian dancers, Gerde and Sandra, who invite her in for tea. Gerde, in a thick Teutonic accent, notes that Michael “seems an adequate lover,” while Sandra doesn’t speak at all; she just masturbates furiously in front of Alison while Gerde takes a phone call. Alison continues to experience devastating headaches at work and it begins to cost her gigs. (A commercial director played by Jerry Orbach with a skeezy moustache certainly isn’t impressed by her uneven performance.)

The next night, Alison is invited by Charles to a birthday party for his cat, Jezebel, and she meets all the remaining neighbours, none of whom make Alison feel anything but deeply uncomfortable. Following the party, Alison has a terrible nightmare. When she wakes, she hears footsteps and loud noises from the apartment above, and her chandelier sways wildly. The next day, she tells Michael about her terrible night. She also sets up an appointment with her realtor, Miss Logan, to complain about all the weird neighbours and the loud noises that bother her in the night. That’s when Miss Logan drops a bomb: there are no other tenants in the building. Just Alison and the old priest, Halliran!

These guys make the party guests in Rocky Horror look like squares.

Speaking of Father Halliran, he receives a visit from Monsignor Franchino, who cryptically informs him that he’s arrived to relieve him of his burden. Miss Logan offers to give Alison a tour of the building to show her just how unoccupied it is. When Logan opens up the rooms, they’re all vacant, with sparse or completely different furniture. Even Charles Chazen’s apartment is covered over in cobwebs. Alison asks how the old priest sustains himself, and Miss Logan reveals that the Diocesan Council of New York City owns the building and takes care of Halliran’s needs. Michael, meanwhile, hires shady P.I. James Brenner (Hank Garrett) to investigate Alison’s claims of the strange sounds through the night.

We don’t see Brenner enter the building, but we do see Alison awake from another nightmare to the sounds of heavy footsteps at 3:30 in the morning. This time, she takes a knife and flashlight and heads into the hallway in her nightdress. The first gruesome discovery she makes is Jezebel making a bloody meal out of poor bird Mortimer. But she continues on, undaunted, and enters Chazen’s vacant apartment to make a second gruesome disocvery. A ghoulish figure enters in the dark and strolls past her. Alison follows the figure and discovers it’s a zombified version of her dead father. He attacks, and Alison fights back, stabbing him in the arm, slicing across his eyeball, and even cutting off his nose (to spite his face, one would assume). She flees the building, covered in blood, and screams frantically. Residents of nearby buildings race out into the night to help her (which was nice to see, because you can’t really expect people in 1970s New York to do that).

Alison, given her unreasonable story, is admitted to the hospital. The New York City Police decide they might need to get involved. Detective Gatz (Eli Wallach) and Detective Rizzo (a very young Christopher Walken) interview Michael in a hospital waiting room and imply Alison’s public freak-out is somehow his doing. After all, they have a past with Michael Lerman. We learn Michael’s ex, Karen, jumped off a bridge to end her life, and that Alison (who Michael was having an affair with at the time) also attempted suicide (for a second time) when she learned of Karen’s death. Seems like Michael has a deadly effect on the women in his life. But Alison’s story, they say, is nonsense. The blood she was covered in was her own, and she claims to have stabbed her father, who died three weeks earlier.

Things take a quick turn to the police procedural. As already established, Alison claimed to have met a number of nonexistent tenants in the building. The police have a list of their names, and soon discover a strange connection. One of the women, Anna Clark, is a convicted murderer who was executed in 1949. Then the gumshoe, James Brenner, turns up dead in a car crash. The police look into Brenner and discover he was a former cop, fired for corruption. What if Brenner was Michael Lerman’s hired goon, tormenting the ladies in his life? They confront Michael with the death scene photos of Brenner, but Lerman claims he’s never seen the man before.

Alison enters a Catholic church where she meets Monsignor Franchino, and he takes her confession right there on the church floor. Alison outlines her past of adultery and attempted suicide: “I rejected Christ. I need to come back.” The Monsignor assures her that Christ will protect her if she decides to return to the church. When she returns home, Michael suggests they look through the apartment building again and try to figure out what happened the night of the stabbing. He’s gained access to the place using keys provided by one of his clients. (Michael has some very shady friends.) They return and Michael discovers Alison is seeing things that aren’t there. Notably, she finds all the books inside only feature the same Latin phrase written over and over. He asks her to read out the Latin words she sees, and Michael transcribes it to be translated later.

The doddering old Professor Ruzinsky (Martin Balsam) tells Michael it’s an older Latin (pre-Caesar): a passage from Paradise Lost (which is very post-Caesar) – in fact, it’s the same passage the secretive Catholic cabal was chanting earlier: the angel Gabriel’s warning to the angel Uriel, who guarded the entrance to Eden. Alison goes back to find the Monsignor from that very same cabal and discovers he’s not the priest at the church. The real priest has never seen him before. Curiouser and curiouser. We’re deep into Dan Brown territory now, with Michael entering the Diocesan Council and demanding answers about Father Halliran, the Latin phrase, everything. But they only stonewall him as if he were the Boston Globe. So Michael devises an alternate plan.

Who ever said Latin was a dead language?

That evening, Michael hires another of his questionable accomplices to break into the Diocesan Council. They go through their secret files and find Father Halliran used to be one Dan O’Rourke, an average joe who attempted suicide, but afterward disappeared from the public record. In fact, the files are full of people who attempted suicide, went missing, then reappeared as priests and nuns, living in Diocesan Council properties. Each one dying the same day the next person became a member of the holy order. And worse: there’s an unfinished file featuring Alison’s 8×10 glossy listed under “Sister Teresa.” She’s next!

Complicating matters, Alison is obligated to attend a fashion industry party that night. Michael, knowing that Alison has been essentially scheduled to join the sisterhood against her will the next morning, figures the party is a bad idea, but tells her friend Jennifer (Deborah Raffin) to not let Alison out of her sight – especially after midnight. Then he hops into his Mercedes-Benz and heads out on a secret mission.

The police have since discovered that every one of the tenants Alison can name, save the old priest, is a long-dead murderer. Michael arrives back at the old apartment – this time wielding a crowbar. He goes to the basement’s entrance and pulls down the boards that have been nailed over it. What was covered up was a message (in English; not Latin): “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” He’s then startled by the blind priest, Halliran, who’s made his way downstairs, and blurts: “The entrance to Hell!”

Michael has about had it with this apartment building. He frog-marches Father Halliran back up the stairs to his room and shouts at him to explain what’s happening, threatening to kill him if he doesn’t. Then he escalates to choking the old priest, and that’s when the Monsignor arrives. Back at the fashion party, Alison screams and passes out (as per usual). Her friends put her into the bedroom to rest, and moments later, she goes missing. She’s wandered out of the building and back to her old apartment. When she arrives, she finds Michael’s bloody cufflinks (“ML”) on the main floor and screams. Without hesitation, she locks herself in her old place.

Feeling she’s entered the belly of the beast, Alison kneels at her bedside and prays to God for help. Then she hears someone stirring and hides herself in the closet, clutching at her crucifix. But when the closet doors open, it’s only Michael. He extracts her from the closet and explains what he knows so far: Father Halliran is a guardian to the entryway to Hell and the tenants she claimed to have seen were devils who were trying to drive her to suicide. It’s the only way the devils will win and escape into our world. At this point, it becomes clear Michael is acting a bit strangely. He confesses he’s dead himself, and the camera pans over to a gaping wound on the side of his head. He was recently killed by the Monsignor for choking Halliran, and now he’s a devil himself. After all, he’s a sinner. He killed his ex-wife, he admits.

Burgess Meredith, unleashing hell (or leading a sing-a-long).

Fleeing from her devil boyfriend, Alison runs into Charles Chazen, back again, who seems to be ringleader of the devils. He calls up more devils from hell – half ghoulish tenants who we’ve seen before, and half random people with severe facial deformities (which is – to say the least – problematic). The ghouls also include – of course – Alison’s dear old dad, more corpsified than ever. But we also see the Germanic lesbians feasting on Michael’s corpse and her father’s lovers covered with rats.

Alison runs all the way to the top floor, where the devils surround her. Chazen presses a knife into her hand, encouraging her to just kill herself. Alison is moments from slashing her wrist when the Monsignor and Father Halliran arrive, holding aloft a crucifix the size of an eight-year-old boy. They make their way through the moaning devils and hand off the cross to Alison. At this, the devils shriek, many bleeding openly from their faces. Chazen hurls his knife into the devil Michael’s neck and they all retreat downstairs.

An epilogue features the building being demolished, and Miss Logan showing an entirely different apartment to a young couple. They ask about the other tenants, and Miss Logan notes there’s just a reclusive nun, Sister Teresa, on the top floor. The final shot of the film shows us Alison, now blind (for some reason) and wearing a nun’s habit, staring out the window across the harbour.

Who sentinels the sentinel?

Takeaway points:

  • What intrigued me most about the themes of The Sentinel is that for people to serve as sentinels, as gatekeepers between Hell and Earth, they need not have particularly strong faith, but do need to have attempted suicide. This is an unusual criterion for a Catholic job. Is it because these sentinels will have committed a mortal sin, but returned to the Church? Have they been closer to Hell than others? Whatever the reason – perhaps its explained in the book – I do like the idea of people who have attempted suicide depicted not just as troubled souls, but also heroes – in fact, they’re humanity’s last hope.
  • That said, though the Catholic Church are presented as the ‘heroes’ of this film, they are troubling heroes. For one, they’re extremely secretive, but I guess that’s to be expected in matters of Heaven and Hell. (Opus Dei and all that.) But the definition of ‘sin’ in The Sentinel is quite narrow (or perhaps a strict product of its time). For so exploitative a film (this is the guy that directed Death Wish, after all), it seems bizarre that lesbianism and adultery are positioned as some of the more reprehensible, unfathomable sins. Alison’s skin simply crawls when she meets Gerde and Sandra. (But then, she’s also unsettled by twins.) How can so prurient a film revel in so prudish a message? Furthermore, the Monsignor Franchino literally kills a man: Michael. (And that’s right in the Ten Commandments.) Michael Winner has somehow made a skeezy exploitation flick that was probably endorsed by the Catholic Church. Or certainly could be.
  • As hinted before, there is the issue of casting people with deformities as ‘demons’ who emerge from Hell. Even at the time (1977) it justifiably earned the film some bad press. After all, this is not a situation like Tod Browning’s Freaks, in which people with birth abnormalities are the principal characters of the film, given both plot and development. These actors show up five minutes from the end of the film, with no names and no dialogue, merely to scare the more squeamish in audience. They are presented as objects of fear and disgust and nothing else, and that directorial decision can’t just be overlooked.
  • Coincidentally, the book that The Sentinel is based on, by Jeffrey Konvitz, features largely in a very good chronicle of the horror paperback publishing boom, Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix. It’s essential reading if you like weird horror stuff.
  • The opening title font makes The Sentinel look like The $entinel, and I could not for the life of me figure out why. Unless the filmmakers were just being entirely up-front and honest about their efforts to cash in on 1970s Catholic horror chic.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: There are scenes that are terrifying. The sequence when Alison wanders the apartment building at night and encounters a zombie version of her dad is pure nightmare fuel. And the film is generally unsettling. In ways, it reminded me of an American Suspiria. But it’s also weirdly uneven and some of the acting could use a little work (in particular, Cristina Raines and Chris Sarandon, as the iffy anchors of the movie). It’s certainly an interesting movie worth seeing, with a few genuine scares, but not the forgotten masterpiece you may have been led to believe.

Alison, apartment hunting, looking for all the world like a killer bee.

Best outfit: Given Alison is a fashion model, she wears a lot of stylish late-70s clothing. And though I love Michael’s suit tributes to Tom Wolfe, there’s a black top and yellow skirt that Alison wears when she finds the haunted apartment that’s really fantastic.

Best line: “What do you do for a living?” Alison asks Gerde and Sandra. “We fondle each other,” Gerde responds.

Best kill: Alison killing her zombie father (which may have just been a dream) is by far the most gruesome and features the most impressive special effects.

Unexpected cameo: The Sentinel is star-studded, even down to the most minor roles, making it impossible to pick just one! A very young Jeff Goldblum appears as a fashion photographer, though his voice has been dubbed for inexplicable reasons. Beverly D’Angelo plays the randy Sandra in an early role. And even the apartment-seeking couple who appear in a single scene at the end are none other than Tom Berenger and Nana Visitor (a.k.a. Major Kira of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine)!

Unexpected lesson learned: In the 1970s, everyone was looking for fully furnished apartments. Who knew?

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: 10 Montague Terrace (the apartment building address), or The Diocesan Council of New York City.

Next up: Cat People (1942).

Jezebel approves of our next film.