The Horrors of New York: On The Sentinel (1977)



The devil certainly has a thing for New York women. Like its striking satanic predecessor Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Michael Winner’s The Sentinel (1977, based on the novel by Jeffrey Konvitz) is rooted within an everyday reality. This makes it intimately relatable and, therefore, appropriately terrifying. These films exploit the familiarity of our shared experiences: who hasn’t been sad, wanted a family, or had trouble with a significant other? They place the horror within the context of the “home” which, as a literary Gothic staple, has been going since the 1800s. Cinematically, it represents that postmodern shift into the urban space where your neighbors, friends and lovers are whom you should now fear the most. This is especially true if you’re a young woman, and only exacerbated if you’re a young woman living in a chaotic city like New York.

Encompassing both Manhattan and Brooklyn, The Sentinel is at its simplest a story about people chosen to be the gatekeepers between our world and hell. Situated on an extraordinary liminal boundary that’s located within a beautiful brownstone in Brooklyn, the Sentinel’s role is imperative to maintaining a life of balance. It’s a redemptive offer to a select few who have attempted suicide at some point in their lives; fulfilling this extraordinary sacrificial role will avoid eternal damnation. Allison Parker (Christina Raines) is the world’s next Sentinel. A troubled and beautiful young woman, she attempts to assert her independence when confronted with the prospect of marriage and settling down, but her traumatic past comes define her unexpected future as a guardian for God. Importantly, these struggles all unfold within the confines of architectural space: the city and the home.

In The Sentinel, British director Michael Winner opens with a montage of our leading lady, model Allison Parker, in various glamorous photoshoots throughout New York City. We are shown someone who is successful but also visibly fragile, the snapshots of her life reflecting her own fragmentation and the crowded loneliness of New York. It’s the same attention to the relationship between urban landscape and character Winner gave in The Joker and I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname to London and Oliver Reed and again to New York in Death Wish, where the city plays an ominous backdrop to an everyman vigilante. In The Sentinel, the city becomes the perfect spot for an epic ongoing battle between good and evil; it’s the site of temptation and potential, a crowded claustrophobic space to hide the otherworld in plain sight. It’s also the place where a woman can be violently confronted with the ramifications of her decisions.

The Sentinel is part of the proud horror tradition of using the home as a way to work through ideas of domesticity, feminism, and socio-political shifts. Looking at films made from the late 1960s to mid-1970s, there is a representation of a woman being “returned” to her proper role as mother and caretaker (Burnt Offerings) or there’s the emergence of the complicated heroine the “Final Girl” who escapes the deadly space of the home (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). We get a little bit of both in The Sentinel.


Three buildings amongst the ever-present cityscape function as key markers in Allison’s transformation. The first is the source of her mental instability, her childhood home. Shown when Allison attends her father’s funeral, its power is revealed in the vivid flashback of a particularly perverse scene where a school-age Allison discovers her old, skinny father with two other women (naked and presumably not her mother) naked and eating cake in bed. This gluttonous display more than hints at patriarchal inappropriateness but, more importantly, it leads to her first suicide attempt. Second is the apartment she temporarily shares with her sketchy lawyer boyfriend (Chris Sarandon). The “home” represents the marital commitment she’s so desperate to avoid—dependence on an unreliable man and assuming the subservient role of wife—and becomes the catalyst for her independence and stability. The third building is the culminated end of the first two; that brownstone in Brooklyn. Rented to her in the most mysterious of ways and at an unbelievably discounted rate, her new home seems to be the perfect answer to her personal discovery. It turns out to be the end of her life as she knows it.

This new apartment represents a fresh start to Allison but it’s truly a conflation of the past and the present in a surreal now. It is the housing site for demons masquerading as eccentric neighbors (Burgess Meredith with a little bird, a masturbating Beverly D’Angelo, her dead father) and a mysterious old, blind priest who resides on the top floor. But instead of granting her much-desired personal space, the apartment begins to close in on her. She begins to experience debilitating headaches and hallucinations as her career suffers and her personal life grows more complicated when her boyfriend’s desperate acts of control unleash terrible revelations.


Allison winds up being more dependent than ever, a hysterical woman who relies on a man to protect her and make sense out of her madness. As if that’s what she gets for wanting to be on her own. She isn’t crazy, she’s the next Sentinel. And what she’ll be confronted with is the ultimate act of autonomy as she must either show strength in taking control of her life by sacrificing it to a greater good, or to succumb to a suicidal weakness that will unleash hell on earth.

What sets The Sentinel apart from many of the woman/house/horror films is that its female lead has a conscious choice in her fate and that she’s had the ability to make choices all her life. It’s just that her mistakes and flaws bubble up, constantly battling with her in the present. Her opportunity is an extraordinary one and it’s entirely of her own making. Allison is the woman relegated permanently to the home, but she’s also the resilient Final Girl.


The Sentinel screens Friday, May 15th and Saturday, May 16th in 35MM at Brooklyn, NY’s Nitehawk Cinema. For tickets and info, see right here.

Caryn Coleman is a curator and writer based in New York. After a decade in the art world, she found a home at Brooklyn’s Nitehawk Cinema as their Senior Film Programmer. She is the co-editor of Incognitum Hactenus and received a 2012 Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Art Writers Initiative grant for her blog on art and horror, The Girl Who Knew Too Much.

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