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Entries in Sinister [2012] (1)

Tuesday
Oct162012

Sinister (2012)

Up to Snuff

It feels like I've proclaimed one genre or another dead at least once a month this year. Well, if there's such a thing as a three-quarter-mark resolution, here's mine for the remainder of 2012: I will not write about how surprised I was to find quality, mainstream filmmaking at the multiplex. There has been a ton of great stuff at the movies lately, and I suspect the people who say otherwise are either not actually going out, or they're not paying attention.

From the found-footage revolution happening in pictures like Chronicle and Project X; to Dredd's bold assertion that 3D filmmaking can not only be exciting and artistically interesting but also absolutely worth paying for; to The Possession's imperfect attempt to make a creepy-kid movie that's more for adults than teenagers, there's a fine crop of creators out there who won't let horror in the early twenty-teens go the way of horror in the mid-nineties.

Count Sinister among the year's very best mind-changing films, an authentically disturbing new horror mythology that leap-frogs over most of the pitfalls that films like it are known for. The premise is a mash-up of The Shining and The Ring: a once-successful true-crime writer named Ellison Oswald (Ethan Hawke) moves his family into the home of a mysterious quadruple homicide. He doesn't tell them, of course--nor does he mention the box of film canisters and the old projector he finds sitting in the otherwise bare attic. Upon playing the movies, he realizes that someone stalked the family he's now investigating and filmed them being hung from the backyard tree.

The other movies in the box show similar murders, and reveal a disfigured, hooded man hiding in the shadows and reflections of various frames. Ellison believes he's stumbled upon the work of a serial killer, and he confides in a local fan/sheriff's deputy (James Ransone) to help gather information on the victims. The murders' timeline spans decades and states, and each killing is more inventive and gruesome than the last: one family is set on fire while bound in a chained-up car; another is strapped to deck chairs and dragged into their swimming pool; and on and on. As the investigation deepens, Ellison realizes that one child was apparently spared from each massacre, only to turn up missing.

Sinister has three big pluses working in its favor. The first is the way Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill treat Ellison's mystery. Because we in the audience have seen the film's trailer, we know there's a malevolent, supernatural force behind the killings. But our protagonist is a man of facts and logic, and is convinced that there's a concrete explanation for all the weirdness. Much of the movie unfolds like a TV police procedural (complete with appearances by Fred Thompson and Vincent D'Onofrio as different kinds of investigators), with Ellison jotting notes and piecing together clues. In the classic obsessed-cop tradition, he ignores his family's unhappiness while convincing himself that he's doing right by them; this book, he thinks, will put them on easy street for good.

Ellison and his family seem to have a real, complicated life and a deep history that play out as undertones in the present. Dad is a slightly more hinged Jack Torrance who doesn't so much lose his mind to the creeping influence of evil spirits as to the desperation that comes with wanting so badly to fulfill his life's dream of fame. As an Internet writer, I can fully relate to his starry eyed dreams of "making it" and the wistful look in his spouse's eyes as she remembers a time when her husband wasn't so busy all the time. The Oswald family was in trouble long before the monster showed up.

That monster is the film's second selling point--more accurately, the score that announces him is. By watching the attic movies, Ellison has unleashed Baghuul (Nicholas King), an ancient, mouthless deity who feasts on the souls of children. Each snuff film plays like a found-footage horror vignette, and has its own haunting, unique theme. Watching the movie, I was unsettled and intrigued in a way that I hadn't been since Hellraiser--which makes sense, because composer Christopher Young scored both films. We don't see a lot of Beghuul, but the expertly subdued, creepy music and sound design that act as his signature are far more effective than a cackling, bogeyman could ever be.

Lastly, I'd like to congratulate Sinister for having balls. Unlike most movies of its kind, wherein a family faces down the forces of darkness and everything turns out okay at the end (except for the requisite, pre-end-credits "sequel stinger"), Cargill and Derrickson take their story in the darkest, cruellest direction imaginable. I won't spoil it for you, but I left the theatre as profoundly depressed as if the Nazis had popped up at the end of Schindler's List and mowed down all the survivors. This depression made me strangely elated. Sadly, that's the best mix of emotions one can hope for with modern horror movies.

I seriously doubt this is the case, but Sinister feels like a response to last year's silly horror blockbuster, Insidious. Where that movie slapped a glossy coat of cheap scares and carnival-ghost makeup on a Poltergeist-lite skeleton, Sinister mines the cerebral and emotional core of its inspirations, and then lightly sprinkles some crazy supernatural imagery on top. But you don't need a PhD to have fun here; the film is also fun on a purely visceral level. One scene made me jump in my seat, and another gave me rolling goosebumps,** which I don't believe has ever happened before.

In a recent interview, Cargill mentioned that the filmmakers submitted Sinister to the MPAA with the intent of garnering a PG-13 rating (yes, they deliberately shot it as PG-13). To their confusion and eventual delight, the board slapped their picture with an "R", for "disturbing violent images and some terror". This implies that the graphic content is tame, but the themes and imagery are too scary for children; it also goes to show that R-rated horror movies don't have to overflow with boobs and blood to be for adults.

Though its story is wide open for a sequel,*** I sincerely hope that Derrickson and Cargill work on another, stand-alone horror movie in the future. They do fine, Tarantino-original work together, and this is a definite step up from Derrickson's previous film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose--which also aimed for an adult bent, but quickly devolved into nonsense. Powered by a great cast, a chilling score that I love but refuse to have in my house, and a relentless, black, beating heart, Sinister is a movie for people who claim they hate these kinds of movies.

*Like 'em or not, they found new ways to stimulate the lifeless body of the shaky-cam fad.

**During a skillful pan across a room, I was treated to a very unsettling image that made my skin crawl; the camera kept moving to reveal something even creepier, and I've been checking the corners of every room in my house ever since. True story.

***Sinister's very last shot is a cheap gag and the only indication of the film's intended rating. I'd love to see it excised on a director's cut.