Sunday, September 29, 2013

Horror Film Review

Sinister (2012):  That was unexpected.  The sum total of my knowledge of this film going in was this - Ethan Hawke, creepy house.  So I wondered which it would be this time.  Angry ghost, psycho killer, hungry critters living in the walls?  Um, no.  Not so much.  It's so much worse, and in a way, so much better than any of those things. 

Former best-selling true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Hawke) moves his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and kids Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) and Ashley (Clare Foley) into the house of a recently murdered family in a last-ditch attempt to reclaim literary glory.  Right away, the local sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) lets Oswalt knows his presence isn't exactly welcome as his books tend to paint law enforcement in a none too flattering light.  On the other hand, his deputy (James Ransone) is a star-struck fan.  Most of the humor in the film comes from Ransone.

Anyway, Oswalt finds a 8mm projector with a number of film tins in the attic.  They're snuff films.  The first shows the family in whose house he now lives being hanged from a tree in the back yard. Older ones show bound and gagged families dragged into a swimming pool and drowned, burned alive in a car, hacked to pieces with a lawn mover, and another getting their throats unceremoniously slit.  He transfers the images to his computer and searches for clues, finds strange symbols and also a face that is the stuff of nightmares.  Instead of turning this new and disturbing evidence over to the sheriff, Oswalt realizes it's exactly what he needs to write his comeback book.  Self-interest and hubris in a horror movie...what on earth could possibly go wrong? 

Footsteps, thumps in the night, strange sounds  wake Oswalt every night and send him exploring the darkened house armed with either a baseball or butcher knife.  Some turn out to be sleepwalking Trevor who suffers from night terrors.  Others are not Trevor.  Oswalt slowly unravels, mentally.  He confides in the deputy who looks into the previous murders.  In every case, a child has gone missing.  No trace of any of them.  Also, it turns out every murdered family had lived in the same house as a previously murdered family.  Uh-oh.  Of course, Oswalt doesn't find this out from the deputy until after he's bailed and moved the family back home.  The one time in a horror film where they do the smart thing and leave the spooky house and it bites them in the ass.  Clever, if not manipulative and contrived. 

Here's the thing.  Oswalt finds out from a professor (Vincent D'Onofrio) that the symbols left at the crime scenes represent an ancient pagan god who's known as the eater of children's souls.  The god, according to legend, possesses the kid and feeds off his or her energy for years.  So after he moves back home, Oswalt finds the same box with projector and films in his attic (this is a bit odd since he burned the lot back at the murder house); however, in this box, he finds additional footage.  Footage that reveals the real killer, or should I say, killers.  It's at this moment Oswalt realizes his coffee's been drugged.  Coffee prepared by his daughter.  I'll say it again...uh-oh. 

A few things worth mentioning, so I will.  The music score complements the film beautifully.  It's strange and scary and ratchets up the tension to near unbearable levels.  Our first encounter with a Trevor night terror is one of the freakiest things I've ever seen.  It's one of those where you're pushing yourself back into your chair while saying, "What the hell !"  I also must mention the snuff films.  Disturbing is a kind description.  Sick, twisted, and fucked up is closer to the mark.  Effective, though.  As for what bothered me about Sinister, same as always.  Killing kids.  But in this case, it's doubly bothersome for reasons you've probably puzzled out by now.  Still, it's a horror flick that's rated R, so I can't really expect kittens and rainbows, can I?

The Skinny

Acting:  Hawke is sincere and believable as the almost Shakespearean Oswalt.  The kids are fine (D'Addario as Trevor should get an award for that one night terror scene), and Ransone is just fun to watch as Deputy So-and-So.  Really.  That's what he's called.
Story:  Splicing true-crime with pagan folklore and the paranormal is ballsy, if not a case of overreaching.  It works, though.  Can't help but thinking it could have been a TV-MA episode of Supernatural.  By the way, the dialogue is snappy and not clich├ęd.  Liked that.
Direction:  No wasted scenes and no lull in the second act that plagues most horror films.
Production Values:  There's a lot of bang for three million bucks.  Not only because of the talent involved, but also because it looks like a much more expensive endeavor.  The actors must have worked for scale.
Gore/FX:  There's not exactly a lack of blood, that's for sure.  Yet they chose not to show the nastiest parts of the snuff films, so no hardcore gore.  The tiny bit of CGI used for the ghost parts was acceptable.
Scares:  Plenty of those, too.  There's one that's so subtle, so out of the blue, it literally sent a shiver down my spine.  I always thought that phrase was created by pulp fiction hacks.  Nope.  It's a real thing.  There are others that may give your bladder control a run for its money.
Ending:  Frustrating and about as cheery as a funeral dirge.  Of course, it's not as if you don't see it coming. 
Verdict:  Should you see Sinister?  If you enjoy being freaked out, creeped out, and seriously unnerved, then it's worth a look.  If you enjoy storybook endings where the bad guys get their comeuppance, then really...don't.

Rating:  4 out of 5

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