Friday, October 12, 2012
Maybe being in such an intoxicating setting -- huge screen, more than a thousand like-minded horror fans -- added to my enjoyment of "Sinister" but I have to say I went in with some hesitations and came out impressed and quite pleased.
"Sinister" does falter but it does so early on and finishes strong so that you leave the theater with the best bits fresh in your mind and the disappointing ones starting to fade. The film begins slowly and awkwardly with unnecessary and pedestrian plot exposition. The filmmakers feel the need to lay everything out for us. We're told -- repeatedly -- that Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a writer who had one career making book but has been struggling ever since. He's desperate for a new story idea and lands on the notion of moving into a house where a gruesome mass murder occurred but not let his family know anything about the house's history. We're also ploddingly informed of the hostility between Oswalt and law enforcement based on how he depicted the police in his first non-fiction book. We also get all the other horror clichés for this kind of formula -- tension between husband and wife, child with sleeping disorder, found footage.
But the surprise of the film is that once we get past this familiar set up (and it is rather long), the film slips into a much more assured storytelling with even a few hints of freshness.
Here are some of the things that I found most welcome. First, the found footage was just one element in the story and it was old home movies and shot well (not shakycam and overcut, I'll give credit to cinematographer Chris Norr for this although the found footage might have been handed off to a second unit crew). The home movies pull you into the story and its mystery and creepiness. The home movies -- and this is not a spoiler since it is in the trailer -- show the murder victims and eventually hint at the killer. Another pleasant surprise was that the shots that looked to be spoilers in the trailer turned out not to be in a number of cases. Horror trailers really annoy me because the recent trend is to reveal everything and tell the whole story in the trailer so that there are few surprises in the actual film. "Sinister" had some shots in the trailer that seemed to giveaway a scare but that's not always the case and I was glad to still find a few startling moments in the film.
Also welcome is comic relief that's nicely built into the story rather than being forced on the film. Most of the comedy comes from an over eager Deputy (James Ransone) who looks to be a dumb hick cop (think Andy in "Twin Peaks") but he proves to be smarter than you think and the comedy comes from his particular character rather than from him falling into horror film tropes. And finally, "Sinister" does want to scare you. It may have some laughs but it is not one of those self-reflexive, jokey, "Scream"-style flicks that goes for laughs because it's too scared to go for genuine horror. But "Sinister" is willing to embrace the darkness and take its story to a logical extreme. And thankfully, it also embraces an R rating.
At FrightFest writer C. . Robert Cargill introduced the film and provided an interesting tidbit of information. When director Scott Derrickson first talked to him about the project, he made it very clear that he didn't want to tap into any existing mythology for the supernatural aspect of the story; he wanted to create something new. But he wasn't looking to create something new just to be fresh and original but rather because he didn't want to piss off any demons or other entities by messing with them or their backstories. To me, that reveals why -- at least in part -- the film succeeds. Derrickson may not believe in the supernatural but he has a modicum of respect just in case and that I think allows him to tap into what scares us. What the filmmakers come up with is something they refer to as The Bughuul, and he's a creepy looking gent with a nasty streak for violence. The mythology/backstory for Bughuul plays out convincingly and with a few effective moments.
"Sinister" arrives after my friend and Horrible Imaginings programmer Miguel Rodriguez screened George A. Romero's "Martin" for a horror program at UCSD's ArtPower. Rodriguez noted that "Martin" (1976) represented a shift in horror from the early supernatural roots to more real world serial killers and slashers. So now it seems perhaps horror is moving the reverse direction and "Sinister" -- along with the "Paranormal Activity" franchise, "The Possession," "The Woman in Black" -- reveals a move from real world horror back to the supernatural. As people feel real problems weighing down and still a bit uncertain about the future, perhaps their fear over a lack of control over the real world is being reflected in a return to supernatural horror where the laws of reality have no place. And "Sinister" does the supernatural well. It also makes good use of the supernatural with modern technology -- be it found footage or computers and the Internet -- to deliver a few nice chiller/shocker moments.
"Sinister" (rated R for disturbing violent images and some terror) is not a great film but it is a refreshing horror film that displays smart style and a willingness to embrace the darkness.
Companion viewing: "Fallen," "Blair Witch Project," "The Devil's Backbone"
And check out my list of the best films at FrightFest.