19 October 2012

THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS

Officially speaking, Sinister shares only a couple of producers with Insidious, but their bond goes much deeper than that. Fairly uniquely among contemporary horror films, they are both straight-up ghost stories of a very old-fashioned "sit around trying to freak out the other kids by piling on details one after the other" variety, which manifests in things like the new film's escalation of grotesqueries from "this family was hung from a tree" to "this family was stabbed in their beds" to "this family was run over by a lawnmower in their back yard". Both films work almost exclusively with jump scares, which are typically the chintziest, laziest scares in all horror, relying less on artistry and the creation of a sustained, compelling mood, than on having a sound editor who can get the "SKREE" sound in the score lined up just right with the whip-pan to the monster; and yet they both make a positive, undeniable virtue out of this cheap trick, and manage to be downright rattling when they should be hokey. Both films have one-word titles that are adjectives which are broadly synonymous with "evil", but neither quite understands specifically what that word means.

Perhaps most importantly, both films center on grown-up protagonists with children, which is the rarest thing of all in the genre, although here is where I must draw the line: for Sinister, despite doing a lot of things like Insidious and doing them all well, has less well-defined characters, characters who spend a lot of time not acting the way people do, characters who just don't sell the terror their living through quite as well. I guess it's just that writer-director Scott Derrickson, and co-writer C. Robert Cargill aren't screenwriters at the level of Insidious's Leigh Whannell, and in the long line of things that I never expected to happen in life, the newest is that I would ever vocalise the opinion that, "the co-creator of Saw just writes better characters then these guys do." It kind of makes me feel dirty.

Anyhow, Sinister, though no Insidious, is a real corker of a horror movie, the kind that makes you jumpy and all, without, I suspect, giving too many people too many sleepless nights. A most delicious kind of horror movie, that; it's why we like to tell ghost stories around the campfire, for that little chilly jolt of scared that gives us a nice adrenaline boost and otherwise doesn't linger. It is about the Oswalt family, newly moved to a community in Rural Texas, Pennsylvania, where dad Ellison (Ethan Hawke) is planning to research the death, a year prior, of four members of a local family, after which tragedy their youngest child went missing. For he is a true crime novelist, with a classic of the form under his belt ten years ago, and two sloppy, underselling attempts to keep the Ellison Oswalt Magic alive in the interim. This new book is the make-or-break one for his career, which is why he's going to such extremes to get it right: including the very important fact that he understandably but idiotically hides from his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), which is that the house they moved into, getting such a good deal on, is the very same house where those murders occurred.

Knowing what we're info, we aren't nearly as confused as Ellison is to find a cache of Super 8 reels in the attic that unambiguously were not there when the police made their close examination of the crime scene; if nothing else, we saw the original murder in the opening of the movie, filmed on Super 8 by persons unknown. Not having any idea what he's about to see, Ellison starts to watch the films with innocuous titles like "Family BBQ" and "Family Hanging Out" - one of the fun things to do is guess in advance what gruesome murder lies behind each pun - and find that they are savage snuff films, and more importantly, that they are evidence that he's actually investigating the latest in a decades-long chain of ritual killings, and uncovering that will be huge for his book. Which explains why he chokes on taking the film to the police, and why he becomes so obsessed with reviewing them for every minute detail, despite the fact that near-constant exposure to this stuff, on top of all the other financial and personal stress in his life at the moment, is swiftly turning him into a crazy person.

Part of the movie, obviously, is about how Ellison's work - or maybe, just living in this psychically untenable house - kicks up an evil spirit (with the disastrously goofy name "Bughuul" - it only took 35 yeas, but we finally have a more comical-sounding demon than "Pazuzu") that makes life hard on him and harder on the children, Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario), who begins suffering from intense night terrors, and Ashley (Clare Foley), who starts painting horrifying imagery on walls. The bigger part, though, is about the strain of the Oswalt family, before and because of this particular crisis. What we know from the start is that Ellison and Tracy are having a tough time in their marriage: she wants to be supportive, but is growing tired of his bullshit (one of the biggest flaws in the script, for me: I could never convince myself that they wouldn't have already separated, at least a year or two prior), and he's just diving further and further into it. And it's this new situation, his increasingly intense focus on these Super 8 movies and this grisly crime, as it effects their relationship, that makes up the deepest, darkest conflict of Sinister. The danger is not that Bughuul will devour them and their souls - okay, that is, actually, the danger - but that the Oswalts will survive his onslaught only to be forever broken apart as a family.

Again, the characters aren't as strong; so it doesn't work as well as Insidious in this regard. Though, Hawke's performance is really quite good - I enjoy looking at his portrayal of a frustrated writer trapped in a stale marriage with kids he doesn't understand, and pretend that this is the bridge movie between Before Sunset and Before Midnight - and that makes up for quite a lot. Also, Sinister doesn't make an epic dive into shit during the third act, as does Insidious, as do many horror films; though the more we see of Bughuul, who looks like a super-angry clown interrupted before he finished putting his make-up on, the less of a credible threat he is.

Still and all, it gets where it needs to be, generically speaking. It's stuffed the gills with top-notch "boo!" moments, nothing sticks to your ribs, but it's a good time. It will not be fondly remembered 20 years hence as a great horror classic - though I guess it's as likely to hit that threshold as anything else from 2012 - but in this October, right now, it's a fine, durable bit of spooky fun.

7/10

3 comments:

Not Fenimore said...

I enjoy looking at his portrayal of a frustrated writer trapped in a stale marriage with kids he doesn't understand, and pretend that this is the bridge movie between Before Sunset and Before Midnight

Somewhere, Richard Linklater just woke up in a cold sweat and he doesn't know why.

...Slightly more seriously, first time posting, I've greatly enjoyed your blog and found it very interesting. The whole formalism thing is something I haven't really heard a lot about before and it's kind of a cool direction for a reviewer to come from; plus your willingness to force yourself through e.g. six straight Leprechaunmovies is a credit. Keep up the good work. ;)

Chris said...

The one thing that started out a little distracting before morphing into something that I almost couldn't forgive was Ellison's refusal to flip on a damn light switch. Seriously Tim, I think this was a darker movie than The Descent. Not sure if the filmmakers were doing that to try to establish mood, but all it did for me was piss me off.

The Super 8 movies were very creepy, though.

RickR said...

I understand your complaint, Chris, but after one especially dark sequence with Ethan Hawk (the one where he falls through the ceiling), it's stated that there has been a power outage. It IS a dark movie, though, in all senses, and I'm coming to really appreciate that in horror movies. I'm tired of "scary moonlight" scenes filmed with stadium lights and all the blue filters in existence. Give me Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Pulse", with scenes so dark I had to lean close to my screen to try to make out what I was seeing. Done well, darkness in a movie can be extremely unsettling. And it's done very well here.

Oh, and BUMP.

I enjoyed the hell out of "Sinister". It's kind of a perfect "short story" of a movie rather than a "novel". The characters are quickly and broadly sketched, the situation is simple, and the plot unfolds with the speed and momentum of a freight train. And like Tim mentioned, it doesn't turn to shit in the third act, an impressive feat all by itself!
I was really impressed by the aggressive soundscape, pounding and unnerving. And the Super 8 movies were disturbing as hell, reminding me of the cursed VHS tape imagery in "The Ring".

tl;dr- good stuff for horror fans!