It’s Freaky Friday again! That magical day of the week when all your cares fall away and you sink down, down, down into a deep, dark lake full of musty old paperbacks where the screaming never stops.
After William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist materialized in 1971 and defied the reviewers (“a pretentious, tasteless, abominably written, redundant pastiche of superficial theology, comic-book psychology, Grade C movie dialogue and Grade Z scatology,” raved Newsweek) to become a bestseller, and then the movie appeared in 1973 and defied the critics again (“a chunk of elegant occultist claptrap…a practically impossible film to sit through..establishes a new low for grotesque special effects,” cheered The New York Times) to become an Oscar-winning blockbuster, the paperback racks filled up fast with occult cash-ins.
There was Burnt Offerings, and Audrey Rose, and The Manitou, The Search for Joseph Tully, and… The Sentinel. Barely concealing its plan to cash in on The Exorcist’s success (it even sports a dollar sign for the “S” on the cover), it’s a Gothic melodrama about Catholic guilt, a battle between good and evil centered on one hapless woman, and it’s jam-packed with priests hiding secrets, sexual hysteria, and birthday parties for kitty cats… JUST LIKE THE EXORCIST. But author Jeffrey Konvitz wasn’t stopping there. He throws in predatory lesbians, gruesome murders, and New York models. Of course it got made into a movie — a movie featuring one of the most insanity-inducing endings of all time. Because in the world of The $entinel, too much is never enough. Especially when it comes to the polka.
Alison Parker is a top model in New York City but, like all beautiful women in 1970s paperbacks, she’s troubled by a dark past that mostly centers around her father. After flying home to attend his funeral, she returns to the city determined to move into her own apartment. She finds a dream pad in an old brownstone that comes complete not just with antique furniture but also with creepy neighbors like Charles Chazen, a lovable old busybody, his black and white cat, Jezebel, the Norwegian lesbians in 2A, and Father Halloran who sits in his unfurnished apartment on the top floor, staring out the window with his blind eyes, which are covered with a white film just to make them super-spooky.
Alison doesn’t realize it, but she’s in a Gothic novel. She’s a woman haunted by a mysterious past, with a dark and slightly sinister man in her life, who moves into an old house that poses great danger. Alison’s boyfriend is Michael Farmer, a top lawyer, whose wife killed herself when she discovered he was having an affair with Alison, causing Alison to try to kill herself, too. Michael believes in science and reason and occasionally smacking Alison around for her own good because she’s a silly woman with too much imagination.
Inevitably, Alison ignores Charles Chazen’s warning never to go into 2A. There, two European lesbians offer her coffee, then masturbate at her (“Masturbation and lesbianism. Right in front of me!”), then attack her. True to form, Michael dismisses Alison’s concerns by telling her she was basically asking for it. “You know how vicious a dyke can be if provoked,” he says, making lesbians the equivalent of hungry bears roaming Yellowstone Park looking for unguarded picnic baskets.
With no other choice, Alison begins to faint at random. Michael diagnoses her with sexual frigidity and hysteria, forcing her to go to the doctor and deal with the dark secret behind her multiple suicide attempts: when Alison was a kid she walked in on her abusive father having sex…WITH TWO WOMEN!!! She ran away in horror and her father chased her down and tried to strangle her with her crucifix sending her into a fainting, barfing frenzy that only ended when she kicked him in the nards, renounced the church, and stopped going to confession.
Before Alison can hit up her primary care provider, Charles Chazen invites her to a surprise birthday party for his cat. There, neighbors from all over the building (excluding Father Halloran because: blind) are waiting. They dance the polka, debate the polka, and wallow in the polka, all while Jezebel, wearing a party hat, watches inscrutably from her seat. Things reach a climax when the cake is brought out and Alison joyfully declares that it’s the first black and white birthday cake she’s ever seen, bringing the party to a screeching halt.
Mrs. Clark from 4B slams her plate down on the table, staring at Alison.
“Black and white cat!” she screams. “Black and white cake!”
Alison flees to her apartment where she’s attacked by the naked ghost of her father, her mind shatters, and Michael is forced to confine her to the loony bin like some kind of 18th century country lord chaining up his wife in the attic. When Alison’s released, her delicate grip on sanity completely explodes when she confronts the realtor who rented her the apartment.
“Why, Alison,” the realtor says. “No one lives in that building but you and Father Halloran.”
Cut to: photo of Alison at the Overlook Hotel’s Fourth of July Party, 1921. Aaaahhh!
In a nice change of pace, Michael actually decides to believe his lunatic child-bride and begins looking into matters practically, like a man, at which point The $entinel becomes a police procedural rather than a Gothic, and promptly loses most of its charm. Alison is sent to bed with sedatives, and Michael prowls the city, running afoul of a cop who believes he actually murdered his wife then staged it to look like a suicide. Michael discovers a Catholic conspiracy to groom Alison as a replacement for Father Halloran, who is 100 years old and the guardian (or $entinel, if you will) of the Gates of Hell. As a resident of New York, I’d like to point to point how absurd this is — everyone knows the Gates of Hell are in Williamsburg.
As the end of the book approaches, excitement mounts, mostly because of the movie. Jeffrey Konvitz wrote the screenplay for the film and while he’s only responsible for one other motion picture, which is Gorp, don’t hold that against him. With its all-star cast (John Carradine is Father Halloran! Burgess Meredith is Charles Chazen! Christopher Walken is Det. Rizzo! Jeff Goldblum is Jack! And Ava Gardner is “The Lesbian”!), and grimy urban atmosphere, courtesy of director Michael “Death Wish” Winner, the film features a finale in which the Gates of Hell spring open and vomit forth a legion of demons played by actual human freaks, people with birth defects, and victims of gruesome accidents. It’s pretty great.
Unfortunately, the book returns to Gothic mode at the climax, offering up a long boring explanation of the Gates of Hell swinging open, rather than any actual swinging. Someone gets stabbed with a crucifix, which is great for symbolism, but boring for the rest of us, and it all ends with a joke that sees the Gates of Hell transplanted into a luxury condominium. Which is funny, but a comedown for a book whose movie adaptation was described by film academic Robin Wood as “the worst — most offensive and repressive — horror film of the 70s.” As John Waters once said, “Good taste is the enemy of art,” and it’s a tiny tragedy that Konvitz suddenly developed some halfway through writing The $entinel.
Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his most recent novel is Horrorstör, about a haunted Ikea, while My Best Friend’s Exorcism (which is like Beaches meets The Exorcist) will be out from Quirk Books on May 17th.