Sunday, October 14, 2012

In Theaters: SINISTER (2012)

(US/UK - 2012)

Directed by Scott Derrickson.  Written by Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill.   Cast: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Vincent D'Onofrio, Fred Dalton Thompson, James Ransone, Clare Foley, Michael Hall D'Addario.  (R, 109 mins)

Horror fans can often the most demanding, nit-picky, and impossible-to-please movie audience out there.  I include myself in that to a certain extent and of course there's things one could grumble about in SINISTER but they're relatively minor and for a film dealing with the supernatural and a demonic serial killer with the possible ability to traverse realms of existence, you can't complain about something not being "realistic," or, as one IMDb commenter states, "The wife sure is a heavy sleeper!"  Just shut up.  SINISTER is one of the best horror films to come down the pike in some time, and if you're tired of CGI silliness or torture-porn excess or creatively-bankrupt remakes, then you'll forgive the minor lapses in logic and the lack of documentary realism.  For the most part, SINISTER is smart, character-driven, deeply unsettling and genuinely terrifying. 

True-crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) hasn't had a hit book in ten years.  In a slump and running out of money but with no desire to go back to teaching or editing textbooks, he moves his family--wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), 12-year-old son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario), and young daughter Ashley (Clare Foley)--into a new house in a small town so he can research the ritualistic killing of a local family the previous year, with the disappearance of the family's youngest daughter still unsolved. What Ellison doesn't tell Tracy, and what the grumpy sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) tells him is "in poor taste," is that they've moved into the murdered family's house.  Ellison finds a box of Super 8 films with a projector in the attic, the film cans labeled "Hanging Around," and "BBQ" among other innocuous titles.  To his horror, Ellison watches the films and discovers that they seem to be homemade snuff films of a series of ritualistic killings of families dating back to 1966.  Transferring the films to his laptop and inspecting the footage in more detail by adjusting the contrast or zooming in, Ellison discovers repeat appearances of a demonic, white-faced figure lurking in the background or reflected in mirrors.  A series of children's drawings on the inside of the box lid identifies both the names of the murder victims and this figure, known as "Mr. Boogie."  Ellison starts hearing footsteps in the attic (inexplicably finding a snake and a scorpion at different times), the film projector starts turning itself on in the middle of the night, Trevor has incidents of night terrors, artistic Ashley starts drawing images from the films that she couldn't possibly have seen, and at one point, Ellison accidentally snaps a cell phone pic of himself while falling through the attic floor and when he looks at it, sees tiny hands attempting to drag him down.  Then he looks out of his office window and spots Mr. Boogie watching him from some bushes in the distance.

With some help from the sheriff's starstruck deputy (James Ransone), Ellison is referred to Prof. Jonas (Hawke's close pal Vincent D'Onofrio, who Skypes in his entire role), an expert in occult crimes who recognizes a symbol found in the footage as that of an ancient Pagan deity named Bhaguul, who was able to move from various dimensions through visual means such as drawings--or, in more modern times, photos or film.  Ellison starts to find concrete connections not just with Mr. Boogie's involvement in the ritual slayings, but also between the victims over the half-century of collected footage.

Directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson (THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE and the 2008 remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL), SINISTER is a rare kind of fright film for these days:  there's very little gore (some snippets on the footage, and a couple of throat slicings reflected in Ellison's glasses as he watches), and an unusually diligent focus on mood and character.  We get to know Ellison and the family before the terrible things start happening, and Derrickson makes a brave decision in making him somewhat unsympathetic.  It's hard to get behind a protagonist who keeps important information from his family and stubbornly insists on staying because of his ambition and need to resuscitate his fame.  The story progresses organically, so it doesn't even feel like a cliche when Ellison starts hitting the bottle and neglecting his family.  SINISTER creates a mood of suffocating dread the likes of which aren't typically seen in mainstream, wide-release genre fare.  And yeah some of it may come off as illogical--for some of the atmosphere to be effective, it's necessary for Ellison to wander around in the dark using his light from his cell phone to guide him when he could just simply flip a damn light switch--but from start to finish, SINISTER works.  We see just enough of Mr. Boogie to make him scary, where many films would have him front and center and probably be a wisecracking smartass on top of that. 

Sure, Derrickson does go for a few cheap jolts, but he knows there's tension and terror in the waiting, and on several occasions, he and veteran composer Christopher Young (the score here is fantastic) work together to hypnotically lull the audience before dropping a pants-shitting scare.  There's something inherently ominous about any use of grainy film stock in horror movies (think the "shared dream" bits of John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS), and it's a hard scare tactic to screw up, but Derrickson not only makes it work, but he makes it scarier than usual (the instant-classic lawnmower scene had the audience buzzing with assorted "Jesus Christ!"s ,"Holy shit!"s and "Daaaaaamn!"s, followed by several minutes of nervous chuckling and breath-catching).  SINISTER has a lot of things in common with James Wan's INSIDIOUS from last year, but where that film started cutting corners (Really? This mystery woman is openly lurking in the background of every photo ever taken of you in your life and you never noticed it until now?) and falling down on the job with a ludicrous third act, SINISTER finds the right tone and maintains it all the way through to its grim and uncompromising day-ruiner of a finale.  This film earns its cred the old-fashioned way, relying more on the horror of the unseen and the imagined rather than explicitly depicting it in graphic fashion.  And even better--it's a self-contained story.  Sure, there could be a sequel (I hope there's not), but it doesn't wrap up on the kind of cliffhanging, open ending that almost every modern horror films seem to do.  Well-acted, smartly-written, bleak and disturbing as hell, SINISTER is the real deal.

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