Sinister Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 11, 2013 at 12:55 AM

  • Movies review

    Sinister Review

    After an unfortunate, and seemingly endless spell with no working PC, I can now finally return to the comforts of the AV fold and get down to some serious reviewing. And what better way of getting back into the swing of things and regaining my mojo for the macabre than with a trio of terrors fresh to British Blu? A great day was spent perusing BDs of Sinister, From Beyond and the forthcoming Studio Canal release of a Special Edition of Evil Dead II. All of which I will be reporting on.

    So let's get underway ... with Momentum's UK edition of Sinister.

    Brimming with genre-slanted accolades, bolstered by a lucrative take at the Box Office, and highly favoured by Horror's ambitious teen brigade of new blood aficionados, Sinister arrives on UK Blu with dark desires and a serious intention to inspire shuddery, sleepless nights. Penned by AICN's C. Robert Cargill and directed with moody deliberation by Scott Derrrickson, the man behind The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and who also had a hand in the spooky scribing, this shadowy descent into grim obsession is high on atmospherics and sudden spasmic jolts, and benefits from a superbly intense performance from Ethan Hawke as a true crime writer who moves his unwitting family into a stigmatised house of evil so that he can get his ailing career back on track by producing a book on the terrible atrocities that were committed there.

    "Ellison … we didn't move in a few doors down from a crime-scene again … did we?"


    Ominously bequeathed a cine-projector and several cans of 8mm home-movie footage from some mysterious benefactor, all found in the decidedly creepy attic, Hawke's ulterior motivated Ellison Oswalt discovers that he has gained horrible evidence of the mass hanging of the family who lived in the house before he helped his own duped clan into unpacking their belongings downstairs. The shocking prologue that depicts the bizarre lynching in the back garden becomes the first breadcrumb in a blood-chilling trail of celluloid carnage. Like the fairies who mended the shoes for the old cobbler in the old folk-story whilst he slept, someone or something keeps leaving Ellison new cans of film for his perusal, but each one reveals yet another family being wiped-out in some other part of the country, all true unsolved crimes. Titled with gallows humour – Hanging Around, Summer Barbecue, Pool Party, Lawn Work – it is clear both that whoever is leaving them is moving freely about the house, and that they are surely the killer. Gradually, Ellison pieces together a horrifying connection linking each massacre – that in each case, a young child from the doomed family has never been found, and with increasing surrealism, a satanic figure with a twisted countenance is making its presence felt within the frames of footage, its influence breaking through into the real world.

    When it appears that his actions may well have placed his own family in dire jeopardy, Ellison is forced to seek outside help in the form of a maverick professor (Vincent D'Onofrio) with somewhat screwball knowledge of pesky Babylonian demons, and one in particular – the child-gathering Bughuul – which he believes lies at the heart of the deepening mystery. But is it already too late to thwart the author from penning his own family's tale in terror in blood, and is the Bughuul soon to embroider the Oswalts deep into its latest tapestry of torment?

    We have been here before, most recently, perhaps, in the slick but lacklustre Insidious, which hails, somewhat unsurprisingly, from the same team that went on to produce Sinister. A young family move into a house with a history and inadvertently – well, quite determinedly in this case – incur the wrath of the bothersome bogies that stalk the limbo-realm within. Clearly, the shuddery one-word title works as both films were extremely well-received. My own son was raving about Sinister way before my BD copy turned up. “Dad, we've got to get this film. It's sick!” (Sick as in awesome, for you oldies not down with the jargon.) Turns out that his mate had a hooky disc of it and a group of them had freaked themselves out with it instead of playing footie in the park. Well, I'd already seen it at the flicks, of course, and knew that it was certainly decent … but I was a little bit bemused by the amount of enthusiasm that he, and a fair number of his buddies, all of whom are still some way off the certified age of 15, I should add, had generated for what is, in truth, just an average entry in a very crowded bracket. Personally, I was watching material like the uncut Evil Dead (miraculously obtained from the US just at the start of the Video Nasty purge), Zombie Flesh Eaters, Suspiria and Texas Chainsaw when I was slightly younger than him, so his viewing of relatively “tamer” films is not a concern for me. But I can't help thinking that even though kids have always pored-over subject matter that society watchdogs deem unsuitable for them, a huge new breakthrough for the Horror Genre at large, was achieved when the (albeit trimmed in the UK) version of Hammer's The Woman In Black filled cinemas with palpitating pubescents. I remarked throughout copious coverage of that particular fright-fest that this would prove to be a watershed for the genre, introducing, as it did, a whole new audience to the vicarious thrills and chills of the Horror Film as a sort of My First Scary Film litmus test.

    Teen slasher-pics are one thing, and they have been here since the seventies, but the supernatural thriller is something that I have to admit I am pleased to have found has inveigled its way into the psyche and imagination of younger minds. Still, if you look at what this latest broth of conscientiously less graphic material is doing, you have to admit that it is tackling some tricky themes. Woman In Black, Insidious, The Possession, Sinister and now even the very enjoyable and wonderfully disconcerting Mama all present us with younger kids who are placed in deep jeopardy and the very horrible notion of home invasion and the murder of mummy and daddy. (Whilst still eminently hokey, Mama succeeds because of some ingenious visual trickery and a couple of simply mesmerising performances from the two young girls who are the focus of the titular entity, and I will be looking at that properly soon.) Interestingly, if this trend goes on, we could well have far more taboo-breaking themes creeping into mainstream younger-orientated fare, like cannibalism and torture-porn. Although these less-severe films help to guarantee healthy profits for the studios, the potential side-effect is an evolving sophistication in the youngsters who go and see them. And I believe that is certainly a good thing in the long run.

    Although nowhere near as wowing to more mature and genre-versed minds, Sinister still packs a punch with its relentlessly downbeat tone and escalation of chapterised set-piece executions. Ellison is watching snuff-movies, when all said and done, and that treacherously pervasive allure is made chillingly acceptable because he is doing it for the purpose of solving a crime. What is clever about this conceit is that as devastated as he is when each new slaying is splashed before his horrified, though incontrovertibly rapt eyes, we know that he is simply itching to see more, drawn back to the sordid film cans like a moth to a flame. And, quite naturally, we are right there beside him … and possibly even more eager to see such depravity being committed than he is because we are doing all this simply for our own entertainment.

    This voyeuristic bent is far too common a noose for the seasoned to feel troubled by, though it still makes the ensuing drama all the more cloying and dirty.

    "Any worship of this deity would involve a blood sacrifice, or the wholesale eating of a … a child.”

    In a simply brilliant early scene, we learn all that we need to know about the history of the house and of Ellison Oswalt, himself, as well as the fragile relationship that exists between him and the law enforcement agency and the attitude of the haunted neighbourhood, during an awkward, ground-rule setting exchange between the author and the local sheriff, played with taciturn excellence by a cunningly underused Fred Dalton Thompson, as the new family first move in. Without even realising that you have just been virtually engulfed in a swampy stew of exposition, the sequence comes across as profoundly character-based and highly in-context, and is provocatively well-written. The two combatants remain impeccably polite throughout, but both stick to their respective guns and deliver their reasons and standpoints with perfectly reasoned opinion. After the scene ended, I felt like clapping my appreciation at such canny execution of what would surely be clunky as hell steered by most other hands. Sadly, the rest of the movie does not stick to such an incisive and naturalistic stance, but in a genre tale of this younger-foisted ilk, this element shows real screenwriting and directorial promise.

    Ethan Hawke has always been a strong actor. Even way back when he played opposite a heroic wolf in the Disney wilderness fable White Fang in 1991, he was able to fend off the scene-stealing pluck of the loyal lupine with a strain of melancholic individuality that he first revealed in the classic Dead Poets Society. He has since honed and refined this much further in the likes of Gattaca, Snow Falling on Cedars and Training Day. Sporting a sparse but unkempt beard here, he looks an awful lot like Alien-era Tom Skerrit, his harassed and perpetually anxious scribe becoming a pale and cadaverous ghost that wanders the shadows of the spook-house in a self-perpetuating turmoil and subjects himself to nightly re-runs of retina-scorching familial genocide in a dogged attempt to unravel the grisly truth. He genuinely looks tired and haggard. He inhabits Ellison with intuitive and believable fallibilities. With a name like Ellison Oswalt, you could be forgiven for thinking that he would be portrayed as some Dickensian eccentric about to be visited by spectres from his own sinful past, yet Hawke paints a consistently blighted modern man embroiled in what is, essentially, a fetishistic predilection for dissecting others' misery. Many observers of his performance here have over-embellished his character's distancing from his own family – the archetypal obsessive artist forgetting those that matter most in the earnest drive to reach creative fulfilment – but I feel that Hawke achieves this with far more subtlety than they give him credence for. Yes, there are short tempers and burning secrets, home-truths brandished like knives when the masquerade of why he insisted they move to that house and no other finally falls away (especially as the one they already own is a gorgeous mansion!), but I find that Ellison is totally identifiable with. Perhaps, as a writer, myself, I sympathise more swiftly with his focus, totally in-tune with the corrosive attitude such a self-imposed and fiercely selfish duty incubates, and fully aware of the detriments it creates for those nearest and dearest. But I don't see Ellison's intensely personalised mission as being overly melodramatic. Hawke plays him as a loving father, but also as somebody whose fame and renown have since slipped, leaving him irascibly desperate to reclaim his former glory. To him, another success like those he achieved with his earlier bestsellers is precisely what he needs to make him “happy” again, and the man his family need about the house.

    It is the eternal and mischievous dream of the artist, though. What he cannot see is that the more he struggles to find that lightning-in-a-bottle, the more desperate he becomes and the more irresponsible in his endeavours. And in this scenario that could well lead to tragedy.

    Often relegated to swinging a baseball bat at the dubious shadows, Hawke portrays the tortured soul, whose own prior success is now his Achilles Heel, with a weary, though addicted conviction. A twitchy turn in the second half reinforces his believably wits-end characterisation.

    "Mr Oswalt, if this guy is still out there, you not only sped up his timeline … you put yourself in it.”

    Whilst D'Onofrio has only limited, slightly loopy screentime, Hawke is ably supported by Juliet Rylance as Ellison's long-suffering wife Tracy, whose bonafide English accent lends the proceedings an air of stifled, semi-betrayed dignity even if her onscreen chemistry with Hawke occasionally appears less than convincing, and James Ransome as the eager young copper who yearns to be some sort of Dr. Watson to Ellison's Sherlock Holmes. In a neat little move, we never even learn his name as our boy, reluctant to be in the pocket of a police force that he has made a career out of upstaging, never bothers to get it, referring to him only as Deputy So-and-So. As the film progresses, however, the script ensures that this Dudley Do-Right actually does come up with important nuggets of intelligence, his character suddenly revealing hidden depths of sleuthing that the arrogant Ellison would be prudent to take on-board.

    The film is a hybridised strain of J-Horror, found-footage and cyclic curse. It is far from original, of course, and the genre-savvy can happily tick off the well-worn elements that have influenced it. From The Shining to Ringu, by way of The Woman In Black and Insidious, Sinister treads an all-too familiar path that is, ironically enough, never particularly hampered by being strewn with such an array of thematic rich-pickings. Though it likes to concentrate on the morbid fascination that images of death and mutilation inspire in us all, and the story eventually meanders into the realm of the demonic to sift its skeletal fingers in the soup of existential angst, the film actually works best as a simple haunted house flick. Derrickson entices us into every insomniac's ever-waking nightmare with seemingly endless bangs and clatters throughout Ellison's eternal night-time investigations, almost subliminal snatches of fleeting spectres clenching the sphincter with a steely proctological grip. Yet, in spite of the clinical precision with how he handles all these nocturnal prowlings, Derrickson slips the leash on the all-too vital suspense by creeping through the house and the attic with almost ceaseless repetition, until we run the risk of becoming immune to the next insidious revelation. And, worse yet, he fills these set-pieces with lurching stingers so abrupt and noisy that would they even disturb old frozen Jack Torrence out in the Overlook's garden-maze let alone the rest of the writer's family, who seem totally oblivious to the midnight search-and-destroy missions that the man of the house is undertaking with such clumsy determination. Far too often, the attic trap-door is flung open, or something gets hurled about with a dreadful hullabaloo in the stillness of the wee small hours – but does anyone else come out to see what's going on? Nope. And you can't count the Oswalts' restless teenage son, because he's sleepwalking anyway.

    It is strange that some of the most bizarre images come courtesy of a troubled teen’s ostensibly innocent, and unsettlingly unconscious, nocturnal wanderings. By playing with parental concerns that we already know have been downgraded in the father’s blinkered mind, the film can deliver a couple of wild sucker-punches that remind us, quite stunningly, of what is actually at stake – and it is quite clearly a case of Ellison being heedless of the wood for the plethora of trees that makes our growing appreciation of the overall situation all that more acute. A suddenly glaring face in the bushes is a starkly perverse reminder of the film’s Asian-flavoured DNA, but the earlier contortionist reveal is straight out of the extended cut of Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Hollow, regurgitated frights many of these may be, but the cumulative effect is still disturbingly pertinent and a sure-fire hook to keep you engrossed and on-guard, even if you have already guessed where the whole shebang may be heading.

    To be fair, though, some of the shocks are actually quite severe. There is one brilliantly constructed, and unashamedly manipulative sequence of home-cine-murder that is destined to become a minor classic of its kind. And the best thing about it is that you can see what is going to happen from a mile away but it still has you leaping from the seat as though spiked with a cattle-prod. I'll just … lawnmower … and we'll leave it that. Part of this is the quite skilful manner in which Derrickson and his editor Frederic Thoraval cut to walloping reactionary shots of Ellison as he recoils in abject revulsion from the images burning across the screen. Although the meta-wall is broken with ghostly manifestations that gain life and substance via the playback of the films, conjuring a demonic figure that is a pure caricature of eeeee-villll,a more revealing portrait of viewer-complicity is evoked via reflections in the lens of his glasses, reminding us that we are hardly removed from the barbaric acts of murder by the simple safeguard of a hi-def panel or a cinema screen. As Ellison watches the horror unfold we, too, are part of the chain of events that he has kick-started. There's been far too many of these media-scrutinising stories of bad medicine inhabiting and then escaping the confines of a film, or a photograph, or a cellphone, and what was once a clever take on the old superstitious folk-tales of passing a curse along – runic parchments, saying a demon's name five times in a mirror etc – has now become all rather trite and tedious, with the bogeyman infiltrating all forms of technology and social networking. Derrickson and Cargill deserve some credit, then, for managing to keep their saga from straying too deeply into frankly absurd ghost-in-the-machine territory. Which, given the intended market, is no mean feat.

    "Bad things happen to good people. They deserve to have their stories told.”

    One of the greatest horror film composers of modern years, Christopher Young, supplies the eerie and unsettling score for Sinister. The thematic genius behind such bold and hugely orchestral gothic delights as the first two Hellraisers, The Fly II, Urban Legend and opts for a more avant-garde and unusual approach via effects and stingers, his attention to weird and off-kilter sound design appropriately aware of the whirs and clicks synonymous with projection equipment and dark, aberrant tones of stretched doom. He is no stranger to such terror tactics, what with the highly unorthodox music concrete that he created for Tobe Hooper's semi-shunned remake of Invaders From Mars, and the style he adopts for this new nightmare certainly suits the edgy, tainted mood that Ellison's unhinged crusade inspires. But lovers of his more popularly grand and sweeping compositions may be a shade disappointed to hear his creative energies locked around another minimalist stance. And aiding in the cruel knee-jerk ambience is the impressive cinematography from Christopher Norr, who turns suburban luxury into a labyrinth of shadow, threat and depravity. The sumptuous widescreen may seem idly used, due to the intense pockets of inky shadow that hold sway over large areas of it, but this creates a superbly clammy and claustrophobic feeling of encroaching danger as Ellison huddles down to watch each new segment in his darkened office, or goes peekaboo with his tiny torch up in the attic or out in the back garden.

    Scott Derrickson previously made a complete mockery of Robert Wise's SF classic The Day The Earth Stood Still with that shambles of a remake starring Keanu Reeves, but he is on much safer ground here. For every three or four stock shocks, there is at least one that stalls the blood-flow, and even if the finale is glibly signposted and all a bit feeble, the cumulative effect is one of slow, seeping dread. Under-age kids, like my son and his mob of threshold-testing cronies, may not be the most reliable of barometers for a horror film but, as I said earlier, they have more understanding of the threats that surround them and more sophisticated imaginations than many parents would probably like to believe. In this context, I think films like Derrickson's actually provide a valuable stepping-stone to those coming fresh to the genre. It is far from classic and much too derivative to be remembered beyond some showboating instances of vivid knuckle-whitening, yet it provides a conveniently gruesome conduit to greater terrors to come.

    At the end of the day, Sinisterdoes enough to keep you interested in the bizarre plight of the oddball Oswalt, and it offers plenty of chills and sudden shocks to give newcomers something to talk about afterwards, but there is little here that is fresh or exciting for the seasoned horror-hound to fully delight in. The target audience lapped it up, however, and nobody will be surprised to learn that there are definite plans for a sequel in the works already.

    Let's put it this way … if you enjoyed Insidious, you are sure to be grimly rewarded with this but, at best, it can only earn a 6 from me, folks.

    The Rundown

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