There's nothing like a neck injury to help you catch up with a backlog of unseen 1970s horror films... especially if you leave the remote painfully out of reach. Now you are paralyzed anyway so it may as well be with fear... so bring on... THE SENTINEL!
I don't know what kept me away so long from this 1977 gem, but I'll never leave again! It's got it all: a super young Christopher Walken and super young Jeff Goldblum are in bit parts; PSYCHO co-stars Martin Balsam and Sylvia Miles hang out in case something cool happens; Burgess 'the Penguin' Meredith is a mincing elderly gay stereotype; Beverly D'Angelo is a freaky young lesbian stereotype... yeah, you heard me! She and her partner use masturbation as a weapon of uncanny frisson to creep out our already very creeped-out (straight) suicidal heroine (Cristina Raines), who is very naturalistic, and sexy, and screams well. And if homosexuality used as a device for creeping us out wasn't sketchy enough, a parade of many of freaks show up sans the compassion of Todd Browning.
I can't reveal another detail, but let me just add some more classic old faces: Ava Gardener, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, John Carradine and Eli Wallach, and lastly I must mention the very hot scenes in which Cristina investigates strange noises while wearing a sexy negligee, armed only with flashlight and butcher knife (see bottom last pic)... but forget it. You don't even need all that, because there are real freaks.
Real freaks. Genius! When have we seen real freaks outside of 1932's FREAKS (above)? Here in THE SENTINEL, the bizarre Thanksgiving parade (gooble-gobble!) of Browning's children comes to its final resting place 45 years later. THE SENTINEL reflects a time when homosexuality was akin to being a pinhead or a bearded lady and was all part of the exploitation of deformity and difference on which our circus sideshow culture is based. Here this tasteless shockmeistering gets a last, armless bow before the onslaught of liberal PC brainwashing "saves" the freaks by putting them out of work.
I could swear I recognized one of the pinheads from Browning's 1933 film--looking suitably older--in amidst the madness. Had these poor souls been traveling the carny back-roads all this time? Suffice it to say, this film provides a nice breather from political correctness not just in its callous exploitation of freak frisson, but of homophobia as well. As I recall from my childhood street-corner conversations in those pre-AIDS days, the very idea of same sex kissing and fondling was considered stomach churning, hence the pro-gay flak thrown at the lurid depictions of William Friedkin's CRUISING (1980), for example, which plays up the same sideshow affect.
If it's not quite in the same league as its 1970s compatriots (like LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH), THE SENTINEL'll do until some other movie with Bevery D'Angelo as a creepy lesbian masturbating in a leotard comes along. And as for the poor freaks, I am sure they appreciated the humanitarian concerns of not being exploited anymore, but they probably missed the paychecks. And isn't it sad this great American institution is gone forever leaving only a bunch of insane but non-deformed humans hammering nails into their noses and swallowing swords down at Coney Island's Sideshow by the Seashore?
THE SENTINEL is one of those great last gasps of 1970s split-level thinking: we're meant to recoil from the lesbians as if Robert Aldrich was directing, and to recoil from the freaks as if they're demons from hell, making this a conservative horror pic when all's said and done, validating the patron's conservative "wholeness" in contrast to filmic celebration of the grotesque and abject. In 1977, NYC was still where the family went to recoil in horror from X-rated film marquees, wobbling hookers and urine-stained winos until the theater started seating us. We wouldn't have dreamed it would all turn into Disney Stores and Nike flagships--and THE SENTINEL's not trying to impress you with its liberal bias, it's trying to scare you and creep you out, like a day trip to what NYC used to be--one giant sideshow up and down Times Square. See Ratzo Rizzo, half rat, half man! See Jackie Superstar! She thought she was James Dean for a day! Step right up!
There is underlying it all a rationale for the use of lesbianism and physical deformity as signifiers of horror--at least in the past--for when used as a measuring stick these films reveal our current culture to be more progressive than we sometimes give it credit for. Being publicly skeeved out by the thought of gay sex is on its last gasp now, but still a permissible reaction in the 1970s, and movies like CRUISING (w/ Pacino, pictured above) and THE SENTINEL played on that, but in the process they helped audiences grow acclimated. If familiarity breeds tolerance, it's repetition-compulsion disorder that breeds familiarity, and it's shock and horror that breeds repetition-compulsion disorder, therefore: Repeat repulsion = eventual tolerance = problem solved once some new repulsion comes along.
After all, even more skeevy than deformity and homosexuality back then was the most commonly used "free" horror effect: old age! First introduced in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) and ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), the idea that old age was inherently demonic--as in emaciated corpses with shambling gaits and nightmarish dentures--faded in the all-drenching teenage blood wake of Halloween and Friday the 13th, but man it used to scare the shit out of us! We recently saw David Lynch use old people for creepy effect in MULHOLLAND DRIVE, but you have to be a certain age yourself to be afraid of the elderly, and now Lynch is. Just as Niagara Falls is lovely from a window, but terrifying if you're stuck in the current; it's a matter of proximity.
So what is left now that old age, homosexuality and deformity are all no allowed to be horrific in and of themselves? Instead of "one of us! one of us!" we have ghosts coming through the computer screen. Instead of horror we have horror signifiers strung together cheerlessly like gold dollar signs in a rap video. Add an an eye through a key-hole, water leaking in the basement, a girl with dark hair drawing a pentagram, thunder! a chainsaw, add a girl in a shower seen from outside the steamy stall door; Satanic graffiti, hands scribbling in a journal while monks run down stone staircases; partial nudity highlighted in thick felt markers, and golden-hued car commercial subtext-- all bathed in a sugar crust of flashy editing and served with nu-metal flatware, and then the credits: please exit quickly the next show's about to start there will be no refunds step right up!
Read Tenebrous Kate's valuable take on Cruising here
and the Costuminatrix on The Sentinel here.