Friday, October 19, 2012

True Crime Spree

There are few certainties in life but I know at least one thing; if there's a new horror movie coming out, Todd will invariably want to go see it. There are exceptions, of course (she has no interest in the new Paranormal Activity flick), but for the most part if something involving ghosts, demons or poltergeists is on the way, Todd's all in. It's also the main reason Sinister popped up on both of our radars, as a film from the director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the producer of Insidious was bound to attract our attention. While the horror genre has seen some love thanks to the animated ParaNorman, nothing else in 2012 has stood out thanks to a sea of mediocre or worse releases thus far. While I AM looking forward to seeing Paranormal Activity 4 this weekend and Silent Hill: Revelation the next, Sinister likely represented the best option for a new, original scary movie this year. I'm quickly learning that I LIKE to be scared, and I'm constantly hoping that this next release is going all out to succeed.

CSI: Middle of Freaking Nowhere.
Author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is desperate. In the ten years since his breakthrough success true crime book Kentucky Blood hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, he has struggled both creatively and financially, with one of his books actually allowing a known criminal to walk out of prison. In an effort to redeem himself and his work, he and his family move into the home of his latest subjects, a family who were found hanged from a tree in the backyard, the youngest daughter gone missing. With the police unable to solve the mystery as to who murdered the family, Ellison hopes to find something to crack open the case and perhaps even locate the missing family member. But a box of 8mm tapes found in the attic forces him to admit that things are not as that at first appear, and that the mysterious force that has been killing families for decades may have found its next victims.

Nothing good comes out of 8mm tape.
This is very much a one-man show. When Ellison is wandering his new home at night, hearing this or that creepy noise, Sinister is at its spine-tingling best. Director Scott Derrickson knows how to use his environments to create mood, and he constantly raises the tension to nearly breaking points throughout the movie, which largely takes place at night within the Oswalt home. While Hawke himself stumbles a few times, he also does more than his fair share in conveying the terror his character goes through and carries the movie's limited story forward. He has a believable relationship with his wife and children, fraught with good and bad moments, and the scenes in which he reflects upon his earlier success (back when he didn't care about success) are charmingly believable and more in-depth than most horror films get with their subjects. It's easy to see how Ellison can get sucked into the horrific nature of his subjects when they are the only things that don't make him feel like a failure.

Checking out his "Best Of"'s not long.
Unfortunately, Ellison's portrayal is about the only thing that feels polished in Sinister. While the film has scares-a-plenty - and even when you know they're coming, they're still effective - just about all of them are in the trailer. The few that aren't might frighten you for a minute, but at one time I turned to my companion and muttered "They're STILL doing this?" One major exception relates to the 8mm tapes, each of which depicts a grisly scene (and one in particular that will freak you out), and are definitely Sinister's highlights. It's been a while since Derrickson made The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and perhaps his definition of scary is different than mine. But while I found the whole thing creepy, I almost never got to the payoff of being actually terrified by a movie that was painfully predictable in its execution.

"Why 8mm?"
Sinister's biggest problem is its complete lack of lore. We eventually learn that the force behind this mess is a pagan demon named Bagul. But while the child-consuming, trapped-in-pictures (and completely fictional) monster has the basis of a good movie in it, Derrickson chooses to completely ignore anything in that vein to focus on Ellison's story. I get the decision, but I believed the movie could have been big enough for both of them, and that by not going deeper in characterizing Bagul (or the just silly Mr. Boogie, as he's occasionally called), or even basic information about his past victims, the director left a lot of opened doors that don't connect to anything. I don't need ALL my questions answered, but how is it that Bagul is trapped in photos, but can manifest a box in his victim's homes? How did his spree get started (the tapes stretch back to the sixties but there's no indication of how it all began)? How does he control or coerce his victims? Why does he abduct the children? What does he get out of the family slayings? Why would anyone ELSE keep watching the tapes? Why wouldn't any of THEM go to the authorities with what they found? There are simply too many open questions, and you get the feeling that some things (like the demon's reliance on an out-of-date film type) were used not because they actually made sense, but because they made the movie as a whole creepier. That's lazy filmmakeing, the type of thing that made The Apparition one of the year's worst.

By far the creepiest kids of the year.
Still, with the emphasis on Hawke and his reaction to the story's elements, Sinister at least manages to slip its way into the realm of "not bad" horror films. It's far too similar to modern (and classic) haunted house fare, and the twists are projected too far ahead and too easy to discern quickly. This was one that demanded a more intricate telling, though at least Hawke gets some acting support from Vincent D'Onofrio, theatrical actress Juliet Rylance, Law & Order's Fred Thompson and The Wire's James Ranzone, not to mention creepily talented child actors Claire Foley and Michael Hall D'Addario. Still, the scares are far too infrequent to be an effective horror movie and the story is far too light to make for a deep character study. Sinister lingers far too long in mediocrity to stand out, and I'm left hoping that the next of its ilk will be more conscious of its narrative, rather than focusing solely on mood just to keep things going.


Bev said...

Honestly, I only went to see the film because of Vincent's 3 minute cameo. I'm not a horror movie fan typically because I'm a big chicken. Saying that I survived which doesn't say much for the film. You hardly see anything of the actual villain, just a couple children with bad make-up jobs. I also found the ending rushed and it didn't tie in with the intensity of the rest of the film.

Mr. Anderson said...

Thanks for the comments, Bev. Yeah, the bad guy is VERY hands-off with his victims. I didn't get what was supposed to make him such a big deal.