I really, really love Michael Winner. The dude gave us the first three – and best – Death Wish flicks, at least one other awesome Bronson vehicle with The Mechanic, had Marlon Brando get kinky and creepy in The Nightcomers, and gave us the unabashedly mean spirited adaptation of The Big Sleep starring Robert Mitchum in 1978. This is a guy that oozed class, sophistication, and machismo. And he titled his autobiography “Winner Takes All” which makes perfect sense. But, for my money, his biggest – and most unfairly overlooked – accomplishment is the 1977 utterly batshit crazy ghost picture The Sentinel.
Winner isn’t a filmmaker that many would consider eccentric, yet with The Sentinel he manages to be just that. Having spent the majority of his career up until this point churning out workmanlike, brute force genre cinema, the gothic trappings of the source material (this is based on a book of the same name written by Jeffrey Konvitz) seem to take Winner out of his comfort zone. And the shift is jarring and wonderful. The ghosts of The Sentinel aren’t those of Robert Wise or Jack Clayton, rather, they appear more akin to the extras in a Fellini flick or the grotesque curiosities more suited for a Eurotrash crowd. These entities are deformed, naked and appear to be in some constant state of agony. It’s safe to say that you aren’t in “boo” scare territory here.
What really sets The Sentinel apart from the other paranormal cinema of the time is how outwardly bacchanalian it is. There are orgies that wouldn’t be out of place in a Radley Metzger flick and a scene featuring Beverly D’Angelo masturbating through bright red leggings while someone watches which may be the most aggressive spectacle of Winner’s career. And then there’s Jezebel the cat’s birthday party. Which is fucking terrifying. It’s like Rosemary’s Baby as co-directed by Kenneth Anger and Jerry Springer. And that’s all excluding the bits featuring Ava Gardener, Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, and Eli Wallach. It isn’t the scariest ghost flick out there, and it may not be the best either, but it’s decidedly bonkers stuff and Winner is able to make it work, wearing its excesses with pride.
Scream Factory have brought The Sentinel to Blu-ray for the first time and it looks solid. The source looks to be in a good shape with very minimal wear present and compression artifacts are kept to a minimum as well (though I did see a couple). Colors are bright and blacks are black. It’s definitely the best this has looked on home video. Audio is in DTS HD 2.0 and it sounds good and balanced. I noticed no distortion problems or popping on the track. Quality presentation here.
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much for supplements on this release. I actually didn’t think people even cared about it until now! But, as a big fan of the film, I’m happy to report that SF have gone the extra mile here. We start with three (three!) audio commentary tracks. The first is by writer and producer Jeffrey Kovitz (who also wrote the book) and it’s a solid, talkative track that is more casual than expected. Kovitz is an engaging speaker and spends a good deal of time letting us know how he got his start and what lead him to the project as well as talking about the film itself. The second track is with Michael Winner (this was obviously recorded a while ago as he’s no longer with us) and it’s a typical, warts and all, track by him. Winner pulls no punches and talks shit about just about everyone involved – well, maybe not everyone – yet doesn’t come off as overly spiteful in the end. He seems to like the finished product and he offers a lot of anecdotes (both good and bad) as well as technical details regarding the production. The third and final commentary is with actress Cristina Raines and it’s a more casual track, with a good deal of time being spent talking about her rather hostile relationship with Winner, which makes sense coming after his track. After all of that, we get a 20 minute interview with assistant director Ralph S. Singleton which is pretty tech heavy and also discusses an interesting work relationship with Winner. We wrap things up with trailers and stills galleries.
The Sentinel is not your average ghost movie. It’s a sleazy, aggressive beast of a film that is the obvious product of Michael Winner. I never thought that it got the attention it deserved, but hopefully now is the time. Scream Factory have brought it to Blu-ray for the first time with a solid A/V presentation and a healthy batch of supplements that should please fans very well. Recommended.