The Sentinel Review

There’s something about Michael Winner which makes it difficult to divorce the work from the man. Seeing the bouffant-headed clown shilling for an insurance company, in the apparent belief that he is a beloved national institution, has done nothing to endear him to me, and the more work he has done on his forehead, the more he looks like his own effigy. So when one sits down to watch The Sentinel, it’s hard to forget about his gurning mug and concentrate on the film. Luckily, concentration isn’t really required because this is little more than a post-Exorcist wallow in sensation with a cast of respected actors either hamming it up like there were no tomorrow or looking very bored and waiting for their cheques to clear.

Indeed, two of these actors turn up right at the start – Arthur Kennedy and Jose Ferrer – in a mystifying prologue set in remote Italy. Arthur and Jose are dressed up as priests and the former intones gravely, “There is danger!” Danger there is indeed, although it comes more from the pitfalls awaiting them in the script than from any supernatural force. Meanwhile, in New York, supermodel Alison Parker (Raines) is searching for accommodation away from her dodgy boyfriend Michael (Sarandon), he of the suspiciously well-trimmed moustache and shifty eyes. She finds the perfect place in Brooklyn Heights at a bargain price, although her suspicions should have been aroused by the fact that the estate agent, as played by Ava Gardner, appears to have severe difficulty moving her face; demonic influences perhaps, or just so many facelifts that she can’t see anything which isn’t directly in front of her.

So far, so familiar, but Winner throws into the mix Alison’s past of mental instability which was brought on by a horrible encounter with her father and two prostitutes who look like various parts of Jade Goody and Rick Wakeman. This flashback scene, culminating in a messy suicide attempt, is shot in Winner’s patented grotesque manner whereby things you don’t want to see are pushed into your face for no particularly good reason and for much longer than is required to make the point. Alison’s move into the apartment seems to bring on more troubles, including a memorably gory scene with her father’s ghost, but it soon becomes clear that the house – and its strange inhabitants - are a lot more sinister than they seem to be.

This part of the film is vaguely reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby as the heroine tries desperately to persuade all around her that she isn’t losing her marbles while her smooth talking husband tries to reassure her. The problem is that Roman Polanski’s film was played on the knife-edge between reality and insanity, never letting us be too sure, for the first three-quarters of the film, whether Rosemary was really being persecuted or if she was just undergoing a particularly difficult emotional reaction to her pregnancy. Here, Winner lays everything out in such plodding detail that there’s never any question that what we’re seeing is really happening.

Mind you, Alison’s mental state could easily be put down to the fact that she’s living with a group of bizarre character actors, including an infuriatingly fey Burgess Meredith whose annoying overplaying is compounded by the constant presence of a cat and a parakeet, both of which give him the excuse to never shut up. Equally peculiar are a couple of lesbian neighbours, played by Beverly D’Angelo and Sylvia Miles. The latter is a Teutonic nightmare who vaguely resembles Frau Blucher from Young Frankenstein while the former is a blonde tease who gets her jollies by masturbating in front of an understandably puzzled Alison. Indeed, D’Angelo is exploited in this film like there’s no tomorrow and it’s much to her credit that she survived with her dignity intact to build a career in rather better films.

What is the secret of the house? Who are all these outlandish people? Answers to both questions are revealed in due course, although only after we’ve sat through some agonisingly slow scenes of deduction involving policemen played by Eli Wallach – who manages to be fun despite a complete lack of help from his dialogue – and a somnolent Christopher Walken. As a professor of something or other played by Martin Balsam explains, the solution to the mystery revolves around the resident of the top floor of the house, a blind priest played by John Carradine. Everything winds up in a frenzy of tastelessness which includes cannibalism and blatant Catholic propaganda.

Although the acting of the supporting cast is hammy in the extreme, at least it’s reasonably diverting. The performances given by the leads are simply leaden. Christina Raines looks like a model and screams well enough but she’s not good at emoting anything except fear and she doesn’t for a moment invite sympathy or identification. As for Chris Sarandon, he’s shown himself to be a good actor in other films but he just looks bored out of his mind here. Much more life is shown in supporting roles by Jeff Goldblum and Jerry Orbach, both of whom could have played Sarandon’s role standing on their heads.

There is one serious point I want to make. Towards the end of the film, the legions of hell are unleashed upon the hapless Ms. Raines in the form of a group of genuinely deformed extras. One’s objection to this is not that these people were crassly exploited – they were probably used to that – but that it takes a person of very limited imagination, and even less taste, to equate evil with physical abnormality. It might seem pointless to find particular fault with a film which is so remorselessly ugly, both in content and cinematography, and which employs such crass devices as screeching music to jerk us awake. But rounding up unfortunates from carnival sideshows and hospitals to add a kick to one’s crappy little horror flick is one of the shabbiest and cheapest things any director could do and I think that’s a point eminently worth emphasising.

The Disc

Mediumrare Entertainment have released a couple of DVDs in the UK in association with Fremantle and they seem to have obtained the rights to some of Universal’s back catalogue. Their release of Same Time Next Year was nothing special but the good news is that both The Sentinel and Colossus: The Forbin Project are very pleasing discs indeed. I’ll be reviewing the latter disc soon.

The Sentinel is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. The image is quite strong with very accurate and nicely saturated colours and some sharp detail throughout. Grain is present but not to an objectionable degree and although some print damage is evident here and there, it’s not distracting.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is two-channel mono and sounds absolutely fine without being particularly distinguished. The music score comes across well and the dialogue is crisp and clear.

What marks this disc out are the extra features. We not only get an introduction from the insurance salesman himself, but also a full-length commentary track. As you’d expect, Mr. Winner is not backwards in coming forward and keeps referring to the movie as “a wonderful horror film”. This isn’t a track which will teach you much about making a film but it is certainly entertaining and packed with anecdotes which are sometimes only tenuously connected to the matter at hand. He manages to be fairly reticent on the subject of Jeffrey Konvitz, time having perhaps healed some of the wounds. As usual, Winner exercises his usual mixture of indiscretion and coyness; an anecdote about a “top model” with whom he allegedly had an affair is somewhat circumscribed by his refusal to give any names. Also on the DVD are the somewhat hysterical theatrical trailer and a brief photo gallery.

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