The Sentinel, released in 1977, is director Michael Winner’s way of following up on religiously-fueled horror movies of the time. There’s really no noticeable relationship to 1973’s The Exorcist or 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby on the service, but The Sentinel has a similar method of deploying religious themes and then slowly making them more sinister. The existence of God and Hell and the film is unremittingly black-or-white, a sentiment that one of the demonic ghosts utters in the film at one point; very little of Winner’s screenplay – adapted from a novel by Jeffrey Konvitz – defines God as an inherently good omnipotence. He is, instead, a passive Creator, and that makes The Sentinel‘s central plot even scarier by contrast.
The film follows Alison Parker (Cristina Raines), a model living in New York City with her boyfriend Michael (Chris Sarandon), as she gets her own apartment in a brownstone; unsure about living on her own without the help of her prestigious lawyer boyfriend, she wants to experience whether she can succeed by herself before she commits to Michael. Her apartment is fantastic and furnished, and practically handed over to her by the realtor (Ava Gardner) for a measly $400 a month (lowered immediately when she states she can’t pay $500). It’s an offer too good to pass up, even if the neighbors are a little rambunctious.
The Sentinel often takes the viewer off-guard in its opening moments, switching quickly between comedy and horror. It helps that one of Alison’s neighbors, Charles Chazen, is played by the delightful Burgess Meredith; he keeps things light and humorous, and that plays right into Winner’s more sinister undertones later in the film.
It’s difficult to get a handle on what the film is doing, too. Alison replays short scenes from her past, a time when she caught her father having a threesome with two women that led her to attempt suicide. And Sarandon’s character Michael is so smarmy and well-intentioned that Winners seems to be indicating that he’s behind the set-up. But The Sentinel goes for more supernatural territory in its final acts, opting to explain the brownstone as a gateway to Hell with a priest on the top floor who protects the world from any evil attempting to get through.
It’s a mystery that’s left open-ended throughout much of the film. Michael attempts to uncover the truth behind the apartment, wading through paperwork at the Diocesan Council about their ownership and the Father Halliran (John Carradine) who lives there. In truth, the mystery aspect of The Sentinel is the least interesting; unfortunately, it happens to follow a tough act where Alison experiences the craziness of the apartment including a masturbating Beverly D’Angelo and a party full of murderers and a cat.
The second act is a bit of a lull, but if you can get through it (and, with the help of a quick appearance from Jerry Orbach and Jeff Goldblum, I think you’ll be okay), the final act is off-the-rails nuts. Winner knows that what the viewer really wants to see is the culmination of the demons coming together to attempt to force Alison to kill herself before she can take over Father Halliran’s position as sentinel, and The Sentinel delivers – Winner pulls in real freak show performers to add to the demonic procession, along with the rest of the apartment residents, and it’s a good fifteen minutes or so of frantic tension as Alison attempts to escape her pursuers and understand that her suicidal ideation during her youth has now made her the perfect person to protect from Hell’s advances.
It’s this theme, of a nonnegotiable Heaven and Hell, that makes The Sentinel interesting. Michael’s death late in the film, during his attempted strangulation of Father Halliran, dooms him to a life of Hell along with the other murderers in the apartment. It’s not like he intentionally meant to commit murder; it was done as self-defense to protect from a religious cult he feels is attempting to do Alison harm. But he’s still thrown into darkness, cursed with traipsing the apartment building, because The Sentinel‘s view on religion is black-or-white – either someone’s good – or atones for their sins – or they’re evil and go to Hell.
That makes The Sentinel‘s encompassing plot more suspenseful than its story elements alone, and it elevates this film from becoming just another religious horror movie. With its highly successful cast and some good special effects, Winner chills the viewer with a glimpse of religion, and God, that doesn’t care as much about its followers as it does about protecting the good of humanity. That sacrifices must be made to God is scarier than the freaks (people, mind you) terrorizing Alison’s brownstone.
Scream Factory’s Blu-Ray of The Sentinel is loaded with special features, although not the kind that you might expect to see. The audio/video quality on this disc is excellent; there’s some healthy grain and fuzz in occasional scenes, but otherwise there’s no crushed blacks, surprising with all of the dark scenes. There’s also a subtitle option.
The main draw here is the three audio commentaries, two of them new to this disc. One comes from actress Cristina Raines, another features Jeffrey Konvitz (novel writer, producer), and the last is from director Michael Winner. That’s some massive bang for your buck, and it alleviates the need for a making-of featurette.
Still, there’s also an interview with Assistant Director Ralph S. Singleton wherein he discusses what it was like working with Michael Winner, as well as the number of familiar faces in The Sentinel. This is about 23 minutes long. Also, theatrical trailers, TV spots, still galleries, and a press photo gallery round out the features. Oh yeah, there’s also inside cover artwork, which could potentially be reversed despite not featuring the title information.