Reel Brooklyn: The Sentinel, Brooklyn Heights

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Reel Brooklyn is a biweekly column chronicling the definitive history of Brooklyn on-screen, one film—and neighborhood—at a time.

Perhaps it was the most extreme metaphor for Brooklyn gentrification ever: a swoon-worthy B-Heights brownstone whose only renters are adversaries in the Miltonic battle between God and Satan. A late-comer in the who’s-more-Catholic horror-movie fad that began with Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and reached pustulating white-head-ness with The Omen (1976), Michael Winner’s The Sentinel (1977) relocates the traffic to and from the sulphurous pits of eternal Hell in some of the borough’s sweetest real estate, literally claiming that a particular 1850 apartment house, besides being to die for, is the gateway to Hell, and thus must be guarded by a handpicked servant of God. We knew there’d be a price to pay for those fabulous original parquet floors and solid-mahogany pocket doors, not to mention the hectagonal-panoramic view of the river, right across the Promenade.

Alas, Brooklyn Heights never had to be gentrified—it was always hoity-toity and almost all white, from before the Civil War and through to today. Cristina Raines, as a skittish and oft-suicidal model, is offered an opulently furnished unit at 10 Montague Terrace, not realizing that the house is the Conduit of the Abyss, and she’s been chosen by the Vatican as the next titular watchman, to spend the rest of her life sitting at a top-floor window gazing out at Battery Park and Governor’s Island, making sure, what, the door stays shut, or something. It’s pleasant enough hooey, overpopulated with a veritable murderers’ row of character actors in day-work bit parts (Eli Wallach, Christopher Walken, Arthur Kennedy, Jose Ferrer, Martin Balsam, Jerry Orbach, Jeff Goldblum, Ava Gardner, John Carradine, Sylvia Miles, Burgess Meredith, William Hickey, a masturbating Beverly D’Angelo, etc.) However gorgeous, Raines is a lifeless heroine, and the house easily outacts her; Winner at least had the wherewithal to use the building inside and out, conjuring less a sense of scary Infernalness than of 19th-century haute-monde luxuriousness and swoony antique-shop interior design. Who cares if all the other tenants (save Carradine’s blind priest upstairs) are the ghosts of dead murderers trying to get you to kill yourself? Who would, and give this up?

Save for the shockingly unsavory use of real-life malformed and handicapped people for the film’s grim climactic parade of demons, Winner’s film is only memorable for its setting’s carefully preserved architectural identity, which is apparently unchanged now—besides having had its coat of ivy vines cleaned off, the building is much like it was in 1977, with monthly rents naturally equivalent to what you’d pay for a decent used car. One would suppose if the forces of Heaven wanted to lure the very best well-heeled residents to fend of an onslaught of slavering evil, then this would do the trick. If anything, in terms of real estate, a 2017 remake of The Sentinel would make considerably more sense—at these prices, only God and the Devil can afford to sign the lease.

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