After the release and subsequent success of films like Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, horror cinema spawned a new obsession: religion. The ’70s witnessed the release of a slew of religious-themed horror films, many of which came and went, but a few managing to capture audiences’ attention and/or maintain cult importance. Titles like The Omen and Carrie further preyed on the universal fears the former titles brought to screen. To this day, Religious horror is a beloved and continually evolving genre. Whatever the reason — be it the implicit fear of the unknown or supernatural — it is almost humorous that religion, something that should comfort people, is so easily converted into something terrifying. Two of these kinds of titles, The Sentinel and The Legacy, have made their way to Blu-ray in recent months via Scream Factory, giving us another reason to reexamine the fascinating interaction between religion, supernatural, and horror cinema.
Of the two releases by Scream Factory, Michael Winner’s The Sentinel is by far the superior film. The Sentinel — which not so subtly borrows a great deal from Rosemary’s Baby — follows Alison Parker (Cristina Raines), a model who takes up residence in an aged Brooklyn apartment building in order to maintain independence from her husband to be (Chris Sarandon, in a somewhat thankless role). However, shortly after moving in, Parker begins to suffer from psychological strain, including flashbacks to an earlier botched suicide attempt. To make matters worse, Parker’s house-mates are an eccentric bunch: the fay Charles Chazen (played effortlessly by Burgess Meredith) and his black and white cat Jezebel — who’s birthday (yes, the cat’s) will serve as the central point for one of the film’s best sequences; an aging dancer named Gerde and her enigmatic, mute lover Sandra (Beverly D’Angelo); and, most unnerving of all, a blind priest who remains transfixed and gazing out of his top-floor window, his silhouette a constant reminder of the apartment’s ethereal atmosphere.
Michael Winner is, perhaps, best known for his work on the first three Death Wish films. This has also given him the unfortunate reputation for being a cruel, some would go as far as to say a sexist and racist, director. Winner was not always the best at defeating these claims, as he seemed to gleefully revel in the attention and bad press during interviews at that point in time. However, when you look at the complete body of work — especially the titles that predate the Canon-era Death Wish titles — you’ll find a much different picture. Winner wasn’t a schlock artist; he made rough films but ones with challenging ideas. The first Death Wish, love it or hate it, barely resembles what the genre would go on to become.
The Sentinel is no exception. Even though it is clearly spawned in the shadow of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, the similarities have been far too stressed. The film is more interesting in the ways that it diverts from these films than in any of it’s superficial similarities. It’s worth mentioning that The Sentinel is adapted from the novel of the same name by Jeffrey Konvitz, so many of the similar narrative aspects to the aforementioned titles originate in Konvitz work. Winner does a fantastic job bringing Konvitz words to screen. The film shines brightest it it’s most esoteric moments. While the film has aged a bit in its time, there are numerous scenes in the film that are as effective as ever. Reality is meshed with fantasy and flashbacks, creating a slipping sense of stability that works in the favor of the film. Lead by strong performances across the board, Winner’s authoratative direction, and a stunning climax, The Sentinel remains an effective and jarring horror film. Oddly, despite Winner’s familiarity with the crime thriller, the aspects that seem to drag the most are those that involve a set of detectives bent on pinning a murder to Parker.
The Legacy, released just two years later in 1979 (but somehow manages to feel far more dated), is more of an uneven effort. Directed by Richard Marquand (probably best known for Return of the Jedi), The Legacy follows two American interior designers, Margaret Walsh (Katharine Ross) and Pete Danner (Sam Elliott ), who find themselves stranded in a luxurious British mansion after they crash their motorcycle in the countryside. Shortly after arriving, Margaret and Pete are joined by five wealthy, powerful people. The couple are apprehensive at first but slowly begin to feel comfortable in the setting, that is until members of the house starting dying inexplictaly.
Unlike The Sentinel, The Legacy was not adapted from a novel. In fact, perhaps in order to capitalize on the success of the religious horror novel-to-film adaptations, the producers commissioned a novel to be written from the script and released before the film’s theatrical open. Regardless of the effect that had on the film, what is evident, now, is that Marquand was not a particularly effective horror director. The film feels far too quaint and British, without benefiting from the stylization of the great Gothic tradition of the country. It also lacks the atmospheric edge of something like The Sentinel. Ultimately, it is a fairly innocuous film that, while never faltering in any major ways, leaves a lot to be desired. Elliot and Ross are fine in their roles but they are not given a lot to work with. Marquand does handle the violence well but there is nothing to really sink your teeth in, save the film’s final act — which does do a great deal towards saving the film.
If religiously-tinged horror is your thing, both of these Blu-rays should satisfy your hunger. For those less devoted to the genre, The Sentinel is the safer bet but both should offer enough to warrant interest. Scream Factory offers a modest presentation for both discs but they are not as stacked as their Collector’s Editions — for obvious reasons.