Review: The Sentinel (1977)

It's somewhat ironic when a movie that is all but a carbon-copy of a previous film winds up standing up to the rigors of time better than the movie that inspired it.  And that's the case with The Sentinel, which owes about 90% of its plot, devices, and characters to Rosemary's Baby, almost 10 years its senior.
As I said in my review of it, Rosemary's Baby suffers greatly from time - it's really not as scary as it was when first released, but it's an interesting glimpse into the world of the late 1960s from an escapist viewpoint.  The Sentinel takes a lot of what made Rosemary's Baby work initially, but presents it in a different light, one that's less affected by time.  I had originally tried writing this review without comparing the two, but three drafts in I realized that's a losing effort.  In comparison to each other, you can really see some of what makes The Sentinal more lasting, and Rosemary's Baby more of a snapshot in time. 
First and foremost are the lead characters.  Rosemary seems more of a 50s romantic archetype of a woman, wife, and mother.  She's very dependent on those around her, and doesn't question authority, her husband, or her elders.  As the baby develops and she has odd cravings and constant pain, she doesn't question any of what she is told, she diligently follows the orders of her doctor and neighbors, ignoring the concerns of her close friends.  Alison, on the other hand, is a successful yet troubled mostly-independent woman.  In the first scenes of the movie, she is shopping for an apartment for herself, so that she can have a place of her own, rather than spend all her time with her boyfriend, who wants to tie her down and marry her.
Another key difference is the use of the city - both movies take place in New York, but Rosemary's Baby feels very claustrophobic.  Aside from the one scene where she walks right into the middle of traffic on a busy street, most of the scenes take place inside.  The Sentinel centers around a building, but uses the outdoors to far greater effect.  If a movie is set in New York City, you really expect to see some of the city - The Sentinel delivers on this far more than Rosemary's Baby.
I would have to say that the only place that Rosemary's Baby excels above The Sentinel is in its antagonists.  Burgess Meredith's "Charles Chazen" is far more over the top and obviously troubled than Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer's "Minnie & Roman Castevets" were.  Although the Castevets seem "off" somehow, they seem from the outset to just be a lonely, friendly older couple - genuinely interested in meeting the new tenants.
I'm sure there could be a lot said about the post-feminist implications of The Sentinal versus Rosemary's Baby, but I'm not really interested in the pseudo-political aspects of these films.  It's there, I'm sure it's been discussed before, but I'm just not going there.
Moving back to focus on The Sentinel, it truly is a good, well-paced, traditional haunted house story, with a slight twist.  There are two scenes that make this movie noteworthy, and if for no reason other than these I highly recommend it.  The first is #46 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments - a scene in which Alison's dead father appears while she is exploring the building, walking quickly behind her almost imperceptibly to her.  Words can't give this scene justice - it is one of the most truly creepy scenes I think I've ever seen.  The other scene is near the end, and involves a HUGE cast of deformed actors representing the demons attempting to break through onto the Earth.  There is simply no way imaginable that this scene could make it to the screen today, with all the politically-correct watchdog groups that would cry foul.  But there is a definitive effect that is provided (similar to seeing the sideshow players in Freaks) that sticks with you even after the movie has ended.  Reality often has a far greater impact than any SFX house can create.
And finally, if none of that is enough, the film is simply awesome for seeing so many current big-name stars in roles that seem so far beneath them it's almost amusing.  In addition to the lead roles - Chris Sarandon, Jose Ferrer, Burgess Meredith - you also get to see some early glimpses of Jeff Goldblum, Jerry Orbach, Tom Berenger, Beverly D'Angelo (naked, no less!), Christopher Walken, and more.  If for no other reason than checking out this glimpse back in time for these folks, you must check out this movie!