If there was any theme to horror movies — particularly big-budget studio pictures — in the 1970’s, it was religion and the occult. For every Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Halloween, there was a wave of movies centered around ghosts, ghouls, the undead and the possibility of the Antichrist turning up on your doorstep, thanks to the success of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 and, most notably, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist in 1973. From knock-offs like Beyond The Door and Abby to prestige pictures like The Omen series, the genre was filled with possessed moppets and sinister clergymen. Scream Factory gives us a double-dose of late ‘70’s occult mayhem with The Sentinel and The Legacy, two Universal titles which dish up slick tales of sinister evil couched behind smiling faces and luxurious surroundings.
Michael Winner’s The Sentinel (1977) is one-half frightening thriller and one-half weird curiosity piece, with a cast packed with up-and-comers (Chris Sarandon, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken) and industry veterans clearly in it for the money (Burgess Meredith, Ava Gardner, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy) in a tale of Alison Parker, a fashion model (Cristina Raines) who moves into a New York brownstone which hides a hidden secret. Well, not all that hidden as the film’s ad campaign all but gives away the third act— that Raines is being groomed to be the eponymous “Sentinel” of the building and plugging the opening of a gate to Hell, a theme itself later knocked off by Italian goremeister Lucio Fulci in 1980's City Of The Living Dead.
Death Wish’s Winner, working off a script written by himself and Jeffrey Konvitz (off Konvitz’s novel), delivers a creepy vibe and it’s easy to see, as Konvitz and Raines mention in their respective commentaries, how this could be fine-tuned as a potential remake (currently in development at Universal/Blumhouse). Here, however, Winner focuses less on the eerie — i.e. John Carradine’s blind priest, with excellent make-up by the late Dick Smith — and more on the absurd and grotesque, including a ghostly three-way and an aside where Beverly D’Angelo, playing half of a lesbian couple (along with Midnight Cowboy’s Sylvia Miles), pleasures herself for no reason than to make Raines and the audience uncomfortable. And that’s before the insane climax where Winner utilizes real deformed carnival freaks to serve as minions from Hell! Raines delivers a good performance as Alison, who’s plagued by her troubled past, and the rest of the cast is as solidly professional, but one wonders what was going through Burgess Meredith’s mind surrounded by groaning, disfigured carny folk at film’s end.
Scream Factory delivers a packed special edition of The Sentinel, showcasing a sharp and clean HD transfer and a booming mono track that emphasizes Gil Mellé’s score, which, as Nathaniel Thompson accurately mentions in his commentary track with Jeffrey Konvitz, is mixed almost to the point of swallowing some of the dialogue. In addition to the effective theatrical trailer, several TV spots, stills, posters and lobby cards, we get an informative interview with Assistant Director Ralph Singleton, who details how he pushed his way into the film industry and working with the temperamental Winner on this and Death Wish. We’re gifted with three commentary tracks— one with writer/ producer Jeffrey Konvitz (moderated by Nathaniel Thompson) where he reveals the differences between the source material and the film; one with the late Winner, who died in 2013, who comes off as a bon vivant and something of a prima donna (he doesn’t have many positive things to say about Sarandon and Raines); and one with Cristina Raines (moderated by Shaun Chang), which is the most convivial and relaxed of the three. Raines had serious issues with Winner on the set— to the point where she reveals she’d never seen the movie before now! The consensus of all three commentaries is that all of the veteran actors took this material seriously and were consummate professionals despite all the craziness, both in the story and on-set, that surrounded them.
The Legacy, another Universal horror film from the same era (completed and released in the UK in 1978 but not shown to U.S. audiences until a year later), takes a much more genteel approach to the genre than the more lurid and over-the-top The Sentinel. Here, Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott, already sporting that trademark mustache, star as a couple who travel to England on a mysterious interior decorating job, only for their motorcycle to be struck by a limousine containing British aristocrat Jason Mountolive (John Standing). The gregarious Mountolive puts the two up in his mansion and promises to get their bike fixed— only for five others (“beneficiaries” of his estate) to turn up, including Nazi arsonist Charles Gray and music-industry playboy Roger Daltrey (who isn’t given much to do, unfortunately). Asking about Mountolive, Ross’ Margaret Walsh learns that he’s actually an aged and deformed old man on life support upstairs and, when she goes to see him, he slips a signet ring on her finger — one she can’t remove — and she eventually learns that not only is she Mountolive’s great-granddaughter, but that he’s rigged all of this to get her into his inner circle. Soon, the various beneficiaries start dying in mysterious ways connected to their infamous pasts and Margaret realizes a deeper evil is at work.
The Legacy feels more like an Old Dark House thriller than an actual horror movie— where The Sentinel revels in how far it can push things, the R rating here conceals some fairly tame proceedings. The big kills are only vaguely effective — this writer has been freaked out about the surface of a swimming pool solidifying, trapping a hapless swimmer below, ever since he saw the trailer as a child — but are going to seem mild to modern audiences, particularly compared to the similarly inexplicable deaths in the Final Destination series, and aren’t all that imaginative. The Satanic/occult angle is downplayed to the point where it barely registers and one expects more from veteran Hammer Films screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, who was responsible for penning the studio’s iconic Frankenstein and Dracula movies in the 1950s (there are three credited writers, however). The piece is stylishly directed by Richard Marquand, who would later helm Return Of The Jedi, but much of the unease is undercut by Michael Lewis’ upbeat score (and a truly awful title track by Kiki Dee). In the end, what could have been a truly frightening and creepy piece is undone by its own respectability.
Scream Factory’s Blu-Ray of The Legacy is top-notch, with a sharp, clean transfer that makes the most of the English countryside and plays up how luxurious Mountolive’s estate, “Ravenhurst,” is. Special features include an playful interview with editor Anne V. Coates, whose career stretches from Lawrence Of Arabia to 50 Shades Of Gray and another with journeyman makeup artist Robin Grantham, who reveals how much work went into shots that were cut down to mere seconds in the final cut. The theatrical trailer, TV spots and a still gallery round out the extras.