Friday, 19 October 2012

The Sentinel (1977)

If Michael Winner was anyone else he'd surely have a bit more recognition from people. But he's Michael Winner. He's the annoying windbag who went from directing movies to critiquing restaurants and telling people in the most patronising manner to "calm down, dear" while advertising insurance. And he had the cheek to do that after "glorifying" vigilante justice with a the first few Death Wish movies. Here's the thing that's easy to forget. Death Wish was a very good film. As was The Mechanic. And The Jokers. The Sentinel is an unfairly neglected horror that manages to throw in some real mystery, real shocks and some great performances. Unfortunately for those who hate him, it was developed into a screenplay (based on the Jeffrey Konvitz novel) by Michael Winner, produced by Jeffrey Konvitz and Michael Winner and directed, of course, by Michael Winner.

The Sentinel is all about a beautiful young woman who moves into an apartment and then starts to worry about her sanity as she starts to see stranger and stranger things happening around her, things involving her strange and creepy neighbours. Maybe it's all tied in to the old man who lives upstairs, the one that she never sees out and about because he never goes out and about. He seems to just sit there, gazing out of his window, like some kind of sentinel.

The script and direction don't really seem to be all that spectacular here but as the movie builds towards a fantastic and horrific climax it becomes easier to see that, in fact, everything is almost perfectly crafted. The film has a real sense of mystery and develops the plot beautifully. Even if you remain a step ahead of the film, it's a pleasure to see how every detail is revealed and how the unreal horror continues to pile up in a surprisingly realistic manner.

Another pleasure here is the cast. Winner managed to get himself a superb cast here, with some big names even in small roles. There's a fleeting appearance by Jeff Goldblum before he became a well-known actor, Christopher Walken gets a bit more screentime but was also in the very early days of his career and then you also get to see Ava Gardner, Beverly D'Angelo, Burgess Meredith, Eli Wallach, John Carradine, Jose Ferrer, Martin Balsam, Sylvia Miles, William Hickey and Jerry Orbach. Each and every one is a great actor, with Burgess Meredith being one of the very best. Then there's Chris Sarandon in a main role, doing an okay job, and the beautiful Christina Raines playing Alison Parker, the beautiful young woman. Heck, Tom Berenger even appears in the last minute or so for perhaps the smallest role of his career.

There was (and, indeed, still is . . . . I suppose) quite a controversy regarding the decision made by Winner to use people with real deformities during a scene in which "denizens of Hell" appear but, for some reason, I didn't find this bothersome. Perhaps I should have, and future viewers have been forewarned, but I didn't. In fact, that sequence felt as strange and disturbing as the rest of the movie, which meant that it felt as if it belonged right where it was.

I really like The Sentinel and I encourage others to at least check it out. It might be fashionable to automatically dislike and mock any Michael Winner movies but it's a lot more enjoyable to give them a chance and maybe even be entertained by them.


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