Starring Cristina Raines, Chris Sarandon, Burgess Meredith, John Carradine
Directed by Michael Winner
Distributed by Scream Factory
When looking back at the cycles of horror, each decade tends to have one thematic subject that reigned above all others. For example, the ‘80s will always be known as the decade of slashers. The ‘70s were home to myriad films involving hauntings or possession; sinister unseen forces that controlled our protagonists who, more often than not, were women. The benchmarks for success on this topic are unquestionably The Exorcist (1973) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), but there are a number of similarly-themed films that have garnered their own acclaim – critically or cult – throughout the years. One film consistently lauded by horror fans is director Michael Winner’s The Sentinel (1977), which focuses on a beautiful young woman who inadvertently rents an apartment in a building that houses the gateway to Hell. Sounds like the sort of thing her realtor should have disclosed. Despite a near-total lack of agreement on set (just listen to the commentary by either Winner or Raines; they’re damning) the film stands as one of the better satanic thrillers in an era rife with them.
Fashion model and aspiring actress Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) is on the hunt for a new place to live by herself, choosing to pass on moving in with her shady boyfriend, Michael (Chris Sarandon). Alison finds the perfect brownstone in Brooklyn through her realtor, Miss Logan (Ava Gardner), who offers to rent her the unit for only $400 a month. It’s a deal that seems too good to be true, but Alison pays that no mind and moves right in. The only thing that seems slightly off is the occupant of the top apartment – a blind priest (John Carradine) who sits, unmoving, by the window. Upon moving in Alison is greeted by a host of neighbors, including the eccentric Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith) and his pets. After the move she also begins to experience strange dreams, including flashbacks to a difficult time in her life when she attempted suicide. When her neighbors begin making too much noise at night Alison returns to Miss Logan and insists something be done… only to be told there are no inhabitants in the building, aside from her and the priest.
It eventually comes to light the old building is owned by a clandestine society of excommunicated priests. The old man in the window upstairs, Father Halliran, is one of them and he has exactly one job: guard the gateway to Hell. And you thought you had pressure at your job. Fr. Halliran is nearing the end of his life, though, and a new sentinel must be chosen – someone young, someone able-bodied… someone like Alison. Her two suicide attempts make her the ideal candidate for the position, since now that her soul has been damned to eternal Hell the only chance for redemption is to man this demonic doorway for the rest of her life. Fair trade? Getting her to do the job may not be easy, however, because the residents of Hell who occupy her building are doing their best to make her crack and give suicide another chance.
Unlike some films of the ‘70s that took a very slow burn approach, The Sentinel is liberally sprinkled with moments of abject horror starting soon after Alison moves into her new place. Her nightmares are creepy and filled with bizarre childhood disturbances (her dad loved two things: cake and naked fat chicks), while her waking moments inside the multi-floored brownstone are home to some dreadful encounters with spirits. Even something as innocuous as meeting two female neighbors devolves into an uncomfortable visit when the women get frisky. Even worse is when Alison learns she’s actually alone in the building. That’s the sort of reveal most movies would have saved for the third act; here, it’s in the first. The longer Alison remains in the building, the more she starts to mentally fracture. The most horrific sequence in the film involves her father once again, only this time he chases her down in the building before she gruesomely stabs and hacks him to “death”. There may not be much tension regarding the film’s outcome – the poster plainly spells out that Alison will be the next sentinel – but there are a handful of creepy scenes that sell an unsettling vibe.
As if the threat of being stuck sitting at Hell’s doorway isn’t bad enough, Alison also has to contend with her scheming boyfriend, Michael. On the commentary track Winner makes it known he wasn’t a big fan of Sarandon (he had other actors in mind for the role) and, truthfully, he’s kinda right. Sarandon glides through this film with an ever-present smirk and the kind of mustache-twirling expressions that paint him as a cartoonish villain. He seems like the sort of money-hungry opportunistic lawyer type who enjoys telling people he’s banging a model, but wants no actual part in having a deep relationship. His character is the film’s weakest element.
The film dealt with some controversy due to the ending, which features at least a dozen deformed people running around like they’re Hell’s twisted ambassadors. Think the cast of Freaks (1932), only in color and more menacing. Exploitative? Maybe, but nobody held a gun to anyone’s head either… I assume. Keep an eye out for cameos aplenty, too, with the likes of Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, Jerry Orbach, Eli Wallach, Jose Ferrer, Beverly D’Angelo, Tom Berenger and (for a split second) Richard Dreyfuss all showing up in minor roles well before their primes. And as an added technical bonus, the film’s special effects were done by the legendary Dick Smith while the impressive, seamless matte work was done by Albert Whitlock. Top to bottom, this film is oozing with talent. The Sentinel might be devoid of any big, memorable showstopper moments but it maintains enough of a chilling atmosphere to keep fright fans engaged.
The 1.78:1 1080p image is in line with what viewers might be expecting from a nearly 40-year-old film print. Colors appear faithfully reproduced, though never overly “popping” off the screen. Definition and minute detail are minor in appearance, only showing off when the tight close-ups allow. Most of the film’s medium and wide shots are inherently soft. Grain is healthy and present, spiking only when either optical effects come into use or the image goes dark. Speaking of which, black levels are generally strong though details are almost entirely lose to the shadows. The only real issue I noticed was a series of random blue flashes (print emulsion issues?) that appear in the first act. Otherwise, this is an appreciable upgrade over any previous release.
An English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track delivers a nicely balanced track, with a surprisingly robust presence despite being so limited. Composer Gil Melle’s score is bold and chilling, with many unsettling cues. Dialogue is clean and defined within the mix. Subtitles are included in English.
First up is a new audio commentary with writer/producer Jeffrey Konvitz, who is absolutely brimming with energy and information. He goes into great detail about having his book adapted, working with Michael Winner, odd casting bits and much more.
Next up is a legacy track, this one with famously prickly writer/producer/director Michael Winner. The now-deceased director pulls no punches, making it known who he did and didn’t like on set, as well as egotistically boasting about bedding an extra who went on to become “very, very famous”.
Finally, actress Cristina Raines sits down for a new audio commentary. As she has been out of the business for quite some time, she’s not so hesitant to speak her mind and let it be known there was no love lost between her and Winner.
“Interview with Assistant Director Ralph S. Singleton” – After discussing how he got his career going, Singleton talks about how The Sentinel differs from most horror films made today, shooting on location and what it was like working with someone as famously tough as Winner.
The film’s theatrical trailer, a few TV spots, and galleries featuring movie stills, black & white press photos, lobby cards & posters are also included.
- NEW High Definition 1080p transfer
- NEW Audio Commentary by actress Cristina Raines
- NEW Audio Commentary with writer/producer Jeffrey Konvitz
- Audio Commentary with director Michael Winner
- NEW interview with assistant director Ralph S. Singleton
- Theatrical Trailer
- TV Spots
- Still Galleries – movie stills, press photos, posters and lobby cards