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.