Michael Winner is definitely one of the most fascinating (and polarizing) figures in the world of schlock cinema. He started out as a semi-respectable director of British comedies and dramas in the 1960’s, including some excellent work with a young Oliver Reed. His early champions were surprised when he mutated into a commercial journeyman-cum-schlockmeister in the 1970’s after getting worldwide success with a string of commercial action films and thrillers. He also struck up a partnership with Charles Bronson that resulted in cult faves like The Mechanic, The Stone Killer and everyone’s favorite vigilante-flick evergreen, Death Wish.
His post–Death Wish career was just as prolific but it became wildly erratic in quality. However, schlock fans won’t mind because the further he continued, the trashier his films got. By the 1980’s, he was cranking out deliriously bad sleaze like Death Wish II and III, not to mention the still-unsung Scream For Help. One of the most amusing entries in his rogue’s filmography is the all-star horror flick The Sentinel. The marriage of Michael Winner and shock horror turned out to be a match made in schlock heaven because this is easily the sleaziest of all big-budget attempts to cash in on The Exorcist.
The Sentinel was adapted from a trashy hit paperback by Jeffrey Konvitz. It’s premise freely blends The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby as it tells the story of Alison (Cristina Raines), a model with a troubled past that includes 2 suicide attempts. She moves into her own apartment, much to the chagrin of her marriage-desiring lawyer boyfriend Michael(Chris Sarandon). It’s also worth noting that the neighbors range from cheerfully kooky, like Burgess Meredith in a typically hammy late-1970’s mode, to disturbing freaky like Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo as an eccentric lesbian couple (D’Angelo introduces herself by frantically pawing at her own crotch while sitting next to the heroine!).
A prologue dealing with Catholic priests praying and looking worried in Italy has already let us know that something is wrong in the spirit world so it’s no surprise when Alison starts having fainting spells, seeing bizarre Latin text in English-print books and having to fight off an apparition of her dead father with a knife. Her freakouts draw police attention, making Michael sweat because he has some skeletons in his closet to deal with, and a priest seen in the prologue starts popping up in weird places. It all culminates in a truly absurd shock ending that is as tacky as it is creepy.
As the above synopsis should reveal, The Sentinel is a mess. Its attempts to boil down the source novel (which was pretty convoluted in its own right) into a 92 minute running time. The end result is a bizarre mélange of soap opera characterizations and deliberately overcomplicated plot surprises, plus a handful of grindhouse shocks to keep the audience paying attention.
The direction of this mess is typical low-road Winner: it’s stylish in a chilly way (lots of shots taken from the far side of the room), maintains an atmosphere of straight-faced camp and revels in pure, in-your-face unpleasantness when delivering its shocks. A good example of the latter is how he depicts Alison taking on her father’s zombie – she not only stabs him in the chest but gouges out an eye and hacks off his nose… all in extreme close-up.
Winner’s approach is way too ham-fisted to create the chilling ghost story this would like to be and the scares turn out as ludicrous as they are nasty. His approach to the gruesome aspects of the material can be summed up by his decision to use real deformed and handicapped people as the minions of Hell during the stunningly tacky finale. Any last chance at spookiness is kneecapped by a lousy performance from model-turned-actress Raines, who never met a line of dialogue she couldn’t flatten with her leaden delivery.
That said, The Sentinel can be quite a fun mess if you are into Hollywood-gone-schlock messes. The chaotic, distastefully-handled ending and the explanation for Alison’s haunting are both so ludicrous that they make it worth a viewing for trash fans alone. The film’s rancid appeal is further enhanced by the parade of name actors that populate virtually every speaking role in this film: in addition to the cast members mentioned earlier, the film also features Ava Gardner, Martin Balsam, Eli Wallach, Jerry Orbach, Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum. This cast makes it feels like a disaster movie for trash-horror addicts — and that is the best way to approach The Sentinel.
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