THE SENTINEL (1977) Blu-ray
Director: Michael Winner
Scream Factory/Shout! Factory

Another example of a major studio trying to milk another EXORCIST or OMEN out of the genre, THE SENTINEL was Universal's star-studded answer to the demonic horror craze of the 1970s, and it now arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory.

In Italy, two Catholic holy men (Arthur Kennedy, THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE, and Jose Ferrer, DRACULA’S DOG) smell danger, which just happens to be brewing in Manhattan. Popular television and print model Alison Parker (Cristina Raines, NIGHTMARES) rents a brownstone from real estate lady Miss Logan (Ava Gardner, GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE), who tells her that a blind old priest (John Carradine, HOUSE OF THE SEVEN CORPSES) who lives on the top floor, constantly stares out of his window. The pill-popping (and at one time, suicidal) Alison is immediately taken back by the other eccentric tenants, including a gnome-like prune played by Burgess Meredith and often-nude Beverly D'Angelo and Sylvia Miles as a couple of touchy-feely lesbians in ballet leotards. This is all made worse by the sounds of pacing from upstairs in the middle of the night, as well as the ghostly image of her recently dead father (Fred Stuthman, THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD) who she mutilates with a knife. When Alison meets with realtor to complain, she is told that no one has lived in the building for the past three years besides the blind priest. Her overprotective lawyer boyfriend, Michael (Chris Sarandon, DOG DAY AFTERNOON) does some investigating which leads to a long history of suicide attempters who end up guarding the upstairs room, which in actuality is the doorway to hell!

Based on the novel by Jeffrey Konvitz, who also wrote the original screenplay before it was re-written by the director, THE SENTINEL seems to toss in nearly every horror movie device – conventional and unconventional – including lurid dream sequences, cataclysmic flashbacks, and macabre surprises lurking out from behind the shadows. British director Michael Winner, who had previously helmed the somewhat gothic THE NIGHTCOMERS and DEATH WISH, manages to blend some stylish creepiness with outright gore and exploitation to deliver a sometimes plodding, sometimes lively genre pic that has its share of scares and sleaze (but oh, what a cast!). The film, with its NYC setting, has a slight feel of the unmatchable ROSEMARY'S BABY, and its heavy-handed plotline and "twist" ending (while somewhat intriguing) both seem clichéd by today's standards. The climatic depiction of the Gates of Hell comes off quite disturbing, using real circus freaks in front of the camera (some you'll recognize from other films like THE MUTATIONS) in an unforgettable sequence, and the graphic effects by legendary makeup maestro Dick Smith (HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, THE EXORCIST) still manage to send some chills up the spine (his fine work permeates the film in frightful spurts).

But for all its unevenness, THE SENTINEL (which was shot on location in Manhattan and Brooklyn) now plays more as an absorbing curiosity piece than anything else, mainly because of all the horror films with similar foreseeable plot elements made before or since (including CARNIVAL OF SOULS, BURNT OFFERINGS and THE SIXTH SENSE). The incredible cast of mostly New York-based thespians (probably more “stars” were assembled for this than other genre picture) also includes the great Eli Wallach as the detective on the case along with a rather silent Christopher Walken as his partner, Jerry Orbach as a TV commercial director, Jeff Goldblum as an ad photographer and Deborah Raffin (GOD TOLD ME TO) as Alison’s best friend and fellow model. Martin Balsam (PSYCHO), Tom Berenger (SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME), Hank Garrett (from the classic “Car 54, Where Are You?” series) and William Hickey (PRIZZI’S HONOR) are also present and accounted for. Look closely for an uncredited Richard Dreyfuss, talking to a woman in a red sweater on the sidewalk somewhere around the 7:05 mark. Although John Williams was originally set to do the score he suddenly pulled out (to do some movie called STAR WARS) and Gil Melle (“Kolchak: The Night Stalker”) was brought in. Melle’s score can be effectively chilling, even when his overbearing, melodic TV movie tendencies are all too obvious.

Previously available on DVD from Goodtimes (open matte) and more recently from Universal themselves, Scream Factory has licensed the film, presenting it in a new High Definition transfer taken from the Interpositive, with the expected glorious results. With THE SENTINEL being in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and in 1080p, colors are nicely saturated and distinct-looking, fleshtones appear handsomely realistic, and filmic grain is intact but never overwhelming, even in darker scenes. The Interpositive used shows no damage, so blemishes are virtually nonexistent. The image is perfectly sharp and well detailed, with black levels being as deep as they should be. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track has strong fidelity, with dialogue always sounding clear and well-pronounced, and Melle’s score and the various creaky sound effects also coming through nicely. Optional English SDH subtitles are provided.

Scream Factory has provided two new audio commentaries for THE SENTINEL, along with one conducted with the late Winner (he passed away in 2013) originally recorded for a U.K. DVD. Winner is solo on the track, telling how he was commissioned to write the script before he was even asked if he could write! He goes on to reveal how he wrote it in about two weeks and that he met with Martin Sheen and wanted to cast him in the lead but Universal head Ned Tanen refused (because of the actor’s then-current association with television) with Tanen later asking, “who was that awful Greek waiter” when seeing Sarandon in the final film! His recollections on working on major motion pictures with big-name stars is quite fascinating, and here he has mostly very kind things to say about his cast, including Ava Gardner (and her lack of confidence) and that he thought D’Angelo would have been much better in the lead. He also states that the film was made totally on location, and goes on a bit about how his fondness for the horror genre which goes back to his childhood (having seen such films as THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN as “Abbott and Costello Meet the Ghosts”) and he doesn’t hold back when it comes to joking about the more ridiculous parts of the story in THE SENTINEL.

Nathaniel Thompson moderates a new commentary with writer/producer Jeffrey Konvitz, who talks about the writing of the book and selling it to a major publisher (it was first released in 1974), and eventually turning it into a movie. Konvitz goes on to talk about how popular the book was (as a paperback), about director Don Siegel being attached to the film early on, about Winner rewriting his script, the production meetings that went on, that he too wanted Martin Sheen in the lead and he also tells a funny anecdote about getting a phone call from TV gossip columnist Rona Barrett in the middle of the night upon the film’s release. Konvitz also expresses what he likes and dislikes about the movie, writing the sequel “The Guardian” (which was never made into a movie) and he briefly touches upon SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT; an earlier cult/horror movie he wrote and produced. Actress Cristina Raines has a lot of fun with moderator Shaun Chang (he had previously interviewed her on the blog “Hill Place”) on the new third commentary track. Raines starts off telling how she was a Universal contract player and was then called into a meeting with Winner, and that she quickly got the part. Topics discussed include her reaction to the script, the unpleasant experience she had working with her director, her makeup man Smith, and that everyone else on the set (including the cast) besides Winner were incredible to work with (she became good friends with Raffin afterwards). The actress, who is also discusses some of her other film and television work, is actually seeing the film for the first time during this commentary, and when asked about it, she expresses how she felt the movie and its box office failure hurt her career in the long run. “Working With Winner: THE MAKING OF THE SENTINEL” (23:56) is a solid interview with assistant director Ralph S. Singleton, who talks about his entrance into the film world, and he describes Winner (who he also worked with on DEATH WISH) as “creative but tough” and that the two had mutual admiration and trust. Singleton states he was responsible for finding the locations for the film, and he shares a bit about what it was like shooting in the brownstone that they rented for it. Also included is the film’s original theatrical trailer, two different TV spots, a movie stills gallery, a black & white press photos gallery, and a lobby cards and poster gallery. (George R. Reis)