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When a beautiful model, Alison Parker (Cristina Raines), rents an apartment in a gloomy New York brownstone, little does she realize that an unspeakable horror awaits her behind its doors...a mysterious gateway to hell. Alison likes her eccentric new neighbors, so it comes as a shock when she's told that, except for a strange old priest, she's the only tenant. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

 Sentinel, The
At the end of his career, Michael Winner was known for increasingly trashy drive-in movies, smutty comedies, violent thrillers, and Death Wish sequels. During the interviews seen in Mark Hartley’s new documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, interviewees portray him as a sadist and actor/future filmmaker Alex Winter notes that the Death Wish series became an increasingly cartoonish, socially irresponsible spectacle of refined white people fighting ghettoized minorities. Many of these films are entertaining and expertly crafted, but there’s no mistaking the less than divine B-level quality of the subject matter. Yet, there was a time when Winner was considered a top talent and perhaps even an Oscar contender. The most interesting point in his long career was the intersection between his early promise as a ‘proper’ and diverse mainstream filmmaker and his descent into crypto-fascist exploitation (delightful crypto-fascist exploitation, don’t get me wrong).

This period begins with his first horror film, The Nightcomers (a prequel to Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, itself an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, 1971) and his first collaborations with Charles Bronson ( Chato’s Land and The Mechanic, both 1972). This period arguably ended with his best film, The Sentinel (1977). The Sentinel has found a modern audience, but was derided by critics at the time for its mix-and-match approach to the then-popular Hollywood horror conventions of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), and Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976), as well as its delusory tone and graphic violence. None of these objections are unreasonable, but they were made by people that weren’t interested in the greater heritage of ‘70s horror. These critics and audiences were framing The Sentinel in the context of yet another studio picture exploiting the public’s sudden concern with the terrors of Catholic dogma. Enough time has passed that contemporary fans can recognize the unique contributions Winner and screenwriter/novelist Jeffrey Konvitz (whose novel was written in reaction to the popularity of The Exorcist) made to the lexicon.

 Sentinel, The
It’s probably inaccurate to portray The Sentinel as a satire or post-modern reaction to the other Catholic-themed horror movies of the era, because it was certainly conceived as a cash-in on the fad, but Winner’s mid-‘70s aesthetic and thematic habits help set it apart. He joined Polanski, Friedkin, and Donner in painting the upper echelons of American metropolises as corrupt and cursed by irrational evils. The more relevant horror stories were found below the bedeviled high rises in the blood, sweat, and tears that stained the streets. As crime rates rose steadily over the decades animosity grew between communities, social classes, and racial classifications and only Winner and Friedkin (with Death Wish and The French Connection, respectively) made films that addressed both the wealthy/supernatural and the poor/realistic segments of popular film horror. Winner’s resume stretched further still to include an entry in the post-Watergate espionage cycle, Scorpio (1973), giving him a full view of the post-Vietnam horror atmosphere (albeit from a white, upper-class point-of-view).

Pseudo-intellectual discussion aside, The Sentinel works, because it is still so genuinely frightening. Winner drenches Konvitz’ already disturbing and paranoid story in a distinctively dark atmosphere. He combines diverse facets of the American nightmare into a gritty and paranoid neo-gothic style. The biggest scares are conventional and Winner is certainly adept with spooky pauses and well-timed jumps (the bit in the middle, where the apparition of Alison’s dead father walks out from behind the door, is still one of the all-time greatest scares in movie history), but the sustained mood keeps the audience on edge and primed for another scream. The unpredictable weirdos that inhabit the brownstone (clearly inspired by the Satanist neighbors and friends from Rosemary’s Baby) are at times more disconcerting than the more outlandish supernatural entities. Their threat is demonstrated via surrealistic dream sequences and over-the-top performances, but Winner also establishes unease with cramped compositions and abrupt edits between scenes that imply a sort of dream logic.

Even the film’s problems are interesting. The police subplot is completely unnecessary, since Alison and her boyfriend Michael (Chris Sarandon) do most of the expositional detective work for the audience, yet Winner makes great use of Eli Wallach’s charisma and young Christopher Walken’s striking façade (he barely speaks). Cristina Raines’ performance is strained (due in large part to Winner’s cruel on-set practices) and her presence is constantly overwhelmed by the supporting cast, but this was clearly part of the director’s design, because he surrounded her with such massive personalities. Winner’s politically incorrect streak is in full swing and applies mostly to the way he depicts the malevolent spirits. ‘Evil’ is signified by promiscuous lesbians, old age, Parkinson’s disease, and, during the infamous climax, physically deformed people (many of which are not special effects). It certainly is tasteless, but I’ll leave it up to the viewer to decide if it’s offensive.

 Sentinel, The

Video


I’m pleasantly surprised that a movie I really care about is getting a completely new transfer from the original 35mm InterPositive. Winner and cinematographer Richard C. Kratina shot a lot of The Sentinel’s more indelible moments in very low light, which has been a problem for stateside home video fans, who have suffered through impossibly foggy VHS tapes and full-frame DVDs that didn’t look much better. Universal eventually released a bare-bones anamorphic version, but even it was incredibly dark. This new 1.78:1, 1080p Blu-ray (the second Blu-ray release, following NSM Records’ German disc) is a substantial upgrade in terms of overall clarity. The troublesome darkness is softened for HD without losing the essential creepiness or revealing details that are meant to stay hidden (i.e. the scary scenes don’t appear stagey or overlit). The brightest shots and the more tightly framed close-ups include lots of texture that went missing on the anamophic DVD. On the other hand, there’s still quite a bit of grain and noise in the darkest wide-angle images, as well as some (possibly unavoidable) posterisation effects. The new scan has a cooler palette with pinker skin tones and slightly purple brown tints. I can’t say if this is more accurate or not, because I never saw the film in theaters, but it does match my memories of the VHS releases. There are signs of compression throughout, specifically minor edge haloes, a bit of blocking in bright reds, and a smattering of basic print damage (water damage, discolored dabs, and scratches).

 Sentinel, The

Audio


The Sentinel is presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. I get the feeling that the audio was culled from multiple sources or the magnetic transfer Scream Factory used was a bit damaged, because the sound quality is very inconsistent. Sometimes, the clarity and volume level with switch from cut to cut. The good news is that even the most muffled dialogue is fine, because I’d consider the better moments above-average for a mono track of this age, and the most noticeable problems occur pretty early in the film. The discrepancies could also just be the result of ADR issues. It seems a lot of the film was ADR’d, modts evident in the occasional lip-sync issues and the fact that Jeff Goldblum’s lines were dubbed by a different actor. Universal apparently wanted John Williams as composer (you can probably guess why he had to leave the project) and settled on Gil Melle, who does a slight impression of Williams’ more bombastic cues, but mostly makes the project his own. It’s a very eclectic and evocative score that sounds quite rich and full-bodied, despite the single-channel treatment.

 Sentinel, The

Extras


  • Commentary with writer/producer/director Michael Winner – This director’s commentary makes its US debut here, but had previously appeared on the UK DVD and the German Blu-ray. Winner, who died in 2013, appears solo and does a nice job filling the space with behind-the-scenes factoids and brutal honesty, even the parts that verify some of the worst rumours about his personal life. He is occasionally screen-specific with his words, but is at his most amusing when he goes off-script to do stuff like brag about an affair he had with an unnamed ‘very famous actress.’
  • Commentary with writer/novelist/producer Jeffrey Konvitz – The first brand new track features the writer and is moderated by Mondo Digital critic/owner Nathaniel Thompson. Thompson plays the role of interviewer at times, but Konvitz is quite prepared with his own material. He’s engaging, amusing, and, like Winner, very critical of his own work. He’s also pretty critical of Winner, though. This is perhaps the best all-around track on the disc for consistency and total information.
  • Commentary with star Cristina Raines – The second of two new tracks features lead actress and is moderated by Hill Place web blogger/critic Shaun Chang. This track runs like a feature-length interview, which is fine, because there’s already plenty of screen-specific discussion on the other two tracks. Chang keeps the discussion moving and Raines is not afraid to tell us what she really thinks of Michael Winner (it’s not much), while praising everyone else on the production.
  • Interview with assistant director Ralph S. Singleton (24:00, HD) – The last of the new extras (aside from image collections not seen on other discs) is a substantial discussion with the production assistant/location manager/assistant director covers his technical experiences onto and leading up to The Sentinel (as well as other Winner films).
  • Trailer & TV spots
  • Slideshow galleries that include stills, B&W press photos, posters, and lobby cards


 Sentinel, The

Overall


The Sentinel remains one of the most underappreciated major studio horror films of the 1970s. Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray is a sizable A/V upgrade over previous DVD versions and includes a nice collection of exclusive extras. I’d also like to casually institute some kind of unofficial septuple-feature collection of movies that represent the mythical Seven Gateways to Hell. The Sentinel fits with the likes of other movies about doors to Hades, including Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (1980) and The Beyond (1981), John Carpenter’s The Prince of Darkness (1987), Tibor Takács’ The Gate (1987), Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon (1997), and John Erick Dowdle’s As Above, So Below (2014). Those fatigued by the horror can substitute Ghostbusters and/or South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut at their leisure.

 Sentinel, The

 Sentinel, The

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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