Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Review: Sinister

Sinister is an original story with buckets of potential that fails to deliver a final, satisfying punch. It doesn’t really matter, though, because the experience is still so chillingly unique and enjoyable.

Ethan Hawke plays Ellison, a down-on-his-luck writer who’s ten years out from his first (and only) bestselling book, a true crime novel that exposed a murderer and put Ellison’s name on the maps. We quickly learn, from the unfriendly town sheriff, that Ellison’s follow-up book floated another theory about a different crime that not only turned out to be wrong, but also helped to free a killer from prison. Thus the reason the sheriff is so loathe to welcome Ellison and his family to town: Ellison hopes to revive his writing career with a book about a girl who went missing after her entire family was murdered – in the very house he’s moved into.

I think you can see where this is going.

It’s not long before Ellison finds a box of Super 8 “home movies” in the attic, labeled with seemingly innocuous titles such as “Family hanging out” (points if you can already spot the double entendre!). In the name of research, Ellison dutifully sets up the film projector and begins to watch the films. As you probably already know from the trailer, that’s when shit starts to get real.

First of all, I was thrilled to find that the plot revolved not simply around a nondescript “writer” character, as so many horror movies do. The true-crime angle was an unexpected and interesting little twist on an old horror standby, and served to make Ellison’s presence in the town, and the house, much more believable. It also helped avoid the standard question – “Why don’t they just move?!” – as things got worse and worse in the house. The answer? Ellison’s greed and hunger for fame simply won’t let him. He hangs onto the possibility of a New York Times bestseller like a dog with a bone, and as we see him in his study watching old videotapes of himself on talk shows, discussing his one and only success, we can almost sort of understand why.

I think that is the film’s strongest aspect: it’s determination to take old horror tropes and shake them up a bit. Take voyeurism, for example. There is something implicitly creepy and wrong about watching people who don’t know you’re watching them. Horror is basically all voyeurism, but Sinister, like some other horrors (most recently in The Cabin in the Woods), takes it a step further. We’re watching the characters, who are watching something they probably shouldn’t be watching, which only makes us feel like maybe we shouldn’t be watching. We watch the home movies with Ellison out of morbid curiosity (and they are horrible, not in an explicitly gory way, but in a disturbing, blood-curdling way), even though we know better, even though we know he’s eventually going to pay for the indiscretion. The films themselves, and their back-story, are simply a new twist on something that dates back to, and calls to mind, much older films like Peeping Tom and Rear Window.

Then there’s the musical score. Frankly, I’m not even sure you can call it music, as much of the score seems to be made up of whispered words and repetitive sounds (such as the opening click of the projector). Regardless, it works. The score is just about the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard. Not only that, but while it doesn’t distract, it truly adds to the suspense and ambience of the film. The sound is a character unto itself.

Which brings me to my final point, and my only grievance. The film does such an amazing job of building suspense throughout; it’s a slow burn, which, again, evokes much older horror films and keeps the audience (most of which is so desensitized by constant jump scares) on the edge of their seat. But although the plot is, in my opinion, quite original, it’s also somewhat predictable. Not in the sense that we’ve seen it all before, but in the sense that there is a clear trajectory to the story, and despite the fact that Ellison seems blissfully unaware of that trajectory, we can see where it’s headed fairly early on.

That’s not a problem in and of itself; there’s nothing wrong with a clear-cut storyline, as long as the story itself is good enough to take the audience for a ride. The problem is in the payoff, though. The entire movie builds dread by showing only enough to tantalize, to hint at the horrors that lay ahead. In the final act, however, everything is on the table. Everything is shown, and instead of upping the creep factor, it dials it back. What was once terrifying because we couldn’t quite see it as it skulked in shadow… well, that’s now in full daylight (figuratively speaking), and much less scary. It’s a bit of a disappointment for such a spectacular buildup.

Despite my last point, Sinister is fucking scary and hella good. What’s more, it’s unlike almost anything else we’ve seen in horror lately, and that alone makes it something for horror fans to celebrate.

Final Rating (out of 5):




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