Sinister, directed by Scott Derrickson
Last night I got a chance to see a preview (for Canada at least) of Sinister. I hadn’t a clue what it was about but my friend said it was a horror and my first thought was, “Oh god, I hope it’s not gory.” I don’t like gratuitous gore and found Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs too graphic for me, while Silence of the Lambs, which should have been worse, didn’t linger on the truly horrific aspects.
So, what about Sinister? Is it like Saw, which I’ve never seen (but have been told is gory) or is it like a well-conducted symphony? I should mention that we had to sit right at the front of the theater so there was a weird distortion with the characters looking huge on our side and tiny on the other, and everything as if in a funhouse mirror due to the curvature of the screen (why do they put seats that close). Oh and there will be spoilers but I’ll announce when.
Starring Ethan Hawke and Juliet Rylance, this grainy and dark film is directed by Scott Derrickson who seems fairly new to directing. He directed The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and definitely likes the horror/thriller genre. I’ve not seen any of his previous works so I have no preconceptions.
True crime writer Elison Oswalt hasn’t had a hit in a long time and needs one so his family can keep a roof over their heads. The movie starts with them moving into a neighborhood where a grisly murder took place, so that Elison can research close at hand. Of course, what he doesn’t reveal is that they’ve moved into the house where the family was murdered, except for the one little girl who disappeared. And would you believe, gosh, no one even bothered to remove the tree limb in the back yard that was cut and used as a counterweight to hang four people. Right away, even as they’re moving boxes into the house, creepy heavy music and sounds begin. Scrapes, thunks, crackles, pops and indiscernible whispers/voices pervade the soundtrack of this film so much that it is contrived and heavy-handed. Really? You need scary music just because someone walks into a room?
Ethan Hawke ponders if his furrowed brow can keep the suspense going in Sinister.
After smashing a scorpion in the attic, Elison discovers an old projector and super 8 film reels that depict several mass murders of families since the 60s. Later on a snake appears under a lid in the attic, which Elison narrowly avoids yet he never bothers to kill it or have it removed. As he watches the horrific reels more terrible noises accompany them, but they don’t differ enough from all the atmospheric background of Sinister so I’m not sure if they’re part of the super 8 films. This annoyed me a great deal and while I don’t watch many of these movies perhaps it inured me for the cheap trick scares that were to come.
Not so everyone in the audience since there were some pretty good shrieks from some younger girls, but early on before the really creepy stuff begins. And here’s your warning; from hereon in I’m giving spoilers, though I have to say the poster for the film does that. Elison, with the aid of the terrible films, pieces together a serial murder that happens once per decade, where a family is killed but one child is always missing. It didn’t take me long at this point, especially when he starts to notice a creepy face in each film, that it is the children who are the perpetrators. The face introduces the supernatural element, taking this away from a regular crime. Thankfully, as the murders are revealed, the more bloody ones are usually cut or there is a pull away at the crucial instant. I give kudos to Derrickson for not wallowing in the gore and letting the suspense dwell more on the tale than the horrid imagery.
However, though the movie is filmed to be shadowy, every time there is a thunk or rustle or some other movement–in the house–at night, does Elison ever turn on a light? Noooo. That would be like, what, smart?Much better to crap your pants with creepy shadows in every corner. The first time he goes hunting about after the power is cut he uses his cellphone because no one has ever heard of flashlights. Too many of these cheap tricks and obvious manipulations irked me so that the sudden reveals were never a surprise.
Eventually the audience is pulled in to see more than what Elison sees. Why the switch, but only halfway through the film? Because we need more thrills as we see these creepy dead or transformed children that killed their families. And we find out about some old Babylonian god who was the eater of children (either flesh or souls), yet when you see ole Bughuul he does not look that Babylonian, nor will you or I have ever heard of him. Though he’s obscure he’s managed to keep the ritual alive to eat souls every decade.
Elison finally freaks out, dumps the project and takes his family back to the old home, after burning the films and the projector. Oh, you think, if you’re naive, a film that lets the protagonist escape the dire ending. But this is horror and horror is about the fight of the little guy and the inevitable descent or succumbing to the forces of evil. The deputy (who was the comic relief for the relentless darkness of the film) keeps calling him but Elison ignores the calls, because, you know, it’s the call you ignore that could save your life. When Elison goes up into the attic of his home, guess what he discovers, the films and the projector, and a new little envelope says “extended cut edits.” You know he can’t resist watching them, late at night, in the dark, where all is revealed. Why yes, indeed, the little monsters killed their families. But it’s too late because his sweet little daughter has drugged the family (where she got these drugs, who knows) and then happily chops them up with a big axe. Not that a little girl would ever have problems wielding such a big axe, nor chopping through the human body, which thankfully, is only depicted in the pictures she adds to the macabre images on the projector box lid.
I don’t go to movies to have the crap scared out of me, but good suspense and tension can be handled deftly like a conductor with his wand rather than a woodcutter with an axe. Unfortunately, the axe was swung too far and wide, with Derrickson succumbing to the tried and tired tropes of the genre. The acting was competent, the story could have been creepier and the suspense was contrived. I give this 4.5 axe whacks out of 10.