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Non-Review Review: Sinister

Sinister is a few great ideas, wrapped in a hokey plot and executed in a reasonably efficient manner. To be fair, this latest movie from “the producers of Paranormal Activity and Insidious works best when it adopts a minimalist approach, with director Scott Derrickson and composer Christopher Young providing a suitably overbearing and overwhelming atmosphere. However, the movie runs into problems when it’s forced to play its hand, and when it feels the need to “follow through” on its scares with something more substantial. At that point, the movie becomes a bit clunky, which seems quite a shame – as Derrickson otherwise minimalist approach creates an unsettling canvas to set the story against.

Reel life…

There’s something almost old-fashioned about Sinister. The movie is packed with references to classic old-school horror. Our lead character is a writer named Ellison. He moves to a place in New England named “King County”, which feels like an affectionate homage to Stephen King. When a large dog menaces him in the back yard, he swears to his wife, “it was Cujo big!” The plot seems to recall King’s The Shining, as a struggling writer moves to an eerie location for inspiration, only to find his grip on sanity slipping as an otherworldly force seems to toy with him. (Ellison’s weapon of choice is even a baseball bat.) It also portrays a world where children are more sensitive to the supernatural than their parents.

The film itself seems more traditional in its tastes. There’s actually relatively little gore on display, with the film resisting the urge to drown its audience in red paint. There’s a lot of strange noises and swinging doors, and objects turning on and off at will. In a way, the film works well because Derrickson plays these devices quite cleverly. When he finds stereotypically creepy recordings of the family who used to live in his house, he notices that the footage is clearly filmed and edited. Like a film critic reviewing a dodgy take on the “found footage” genre, he jots a note down in his little diary, “Who is filming?”

“Gimme the bat!”

In order to work Sinister needs a lot of the same conceits that we expect from films like Paranormal Activity. In those films, we wonder who people would stay in a house like that. I’d be gone the first night. I certainly wouldn’t be worrying about editing together a compilation or having expository conversations inside my clearly haunted house. Sinister works in the same way. In order for the plot to advance, we need to believe that (a.) Ellison would not report anything that is happening or that he finds, and (b.) that he would remain in the house.

Derrickson actually comes up with a clever way of explaining these two crucial hurdles for any haunted house horror. Ellison doesn’t alert anybody because he plans to exploit his findings for his own profit. A one-hit author, he’s searching desperately for a hit book. When some exclusive material pops into his lap, he considers sharing it with the authorities, but he resists. He holds back vital evidence to satisfy his own sense of pride. It fits quite well with the film’s traditionalist horror leanings.

He’s been on fire with his latest book…

In order to be punished, Ellison must make some sort of transgression, and the film cleverly constructs that transgression so that it also establishes a reason for Ellison to keep doing incredibly stupid things in a clearly paranormal environment. It’s to the credit of both Derrickson and Ethan Hawke that we buy this character motivation as well as we do. Ellison is never a truly sympathetic lead, and it’s hard to invest completely in such a selfish jackass, but he’s believable. We understand why he acts the way that he does, and I think that makes Sinister so effective.

A lot of the fascinating stuff in Sinister has little to do with the horror or the scares. In fact, every time that Derrickson goes for a jump scare, the movie seems to lose its step a little – as if the tone has been lowered slightly. It’s disappointing, because those scares are inevitable and a little cliché. I don’t want to go into too much detail, lest I accidentally spoil some crucial plot element, but Derrickson’s supernatural imagery feels a little lackluster. When Ellison spots a mysterious figure at work in various video footage, it looks like an enlarged version of the puppet from Saw. When we catch glimpses of the intruders inside his house, it seems like Derrickson simply grabbed the nearest horror cliché to jam in the film.

“Still less disturbing than my parents’ last holiday slide show…”

In contrast, the film is strongest when it’s doing nothing. Derrickson cleverly frames his shots with a lot of black space. Characters are typically positioned to one side or the other and filmed from a low angle. He cuts rapidly back and forth, even conversations. While it might mean we don’t get a performance-driven film, it works quite well to establish an unnerving atmosphere. There’s so much dark and empty space in his shots that we honestly believe that, at any given moment, something could pop out that had been there all along. Unfortunately, things often do – and the actual appearance of some ghoulish object is far less unsettling than the inference.

All of this is a bit of shame, because Sinister actually works quite well as an exploration of horror, and how we relate to it. To work on his novel, Ellison moves his family into a house where a family was brutally murdered. When his wife chews him out about it, he protests that they weren’t killed in the house – they were hung from the tree in the yard. “You think that makes a difference?!” his wife demands. It does to Ellison. That tree is separated from the house by a door. A glass screen door. We see it before the movie starts, but we first see it “for real” when Ellison sees it through the glass screen – literally separated from the horror by a screen.

Investigating… like a Hawke…

Ellison interacts with horror through a collection of super-8 reels that he finds in the attic. As with the filming of the footage, the movie is shrewd enough to make its strange appearance a plot point. It never asks us to accept that the cops somehow missed a trunk full of evidence Ellison lucked upon. Ellison watches the footage, in a format that was – just last year – used as a celebration of the power of film.

Derrickson, as mentioned above, avoids gore, but it’s telling that one especially brutal shot is seen reflected in Ellison’s glasses, as if to emphasise his consumption of the horror. Most of Ellison’s interactions take place through screens. He seldom seems to leave the house during his investigation. He communicates with the obligatory occult specialist through web conferencing. He relives past glories by watching taped interviews he gave years ago.

The unkindest cut of all…

All of this is done, of course, through handy product placement. Ellison recruits a local deputy to assist him, but his real sidekick is Apple Media Centre. The sound of his iPhone ringing echoes through the film. We get lots of lingering shots demonstrating how Apple might be the technology of choice for the next generation of supernatural experts. I’m not complaining, but I just found it fascinating how blatant the product placement was.

Sinister is never quite as smart in its meta-textual commentary as Cabin in the Woods was, but it always feels relatively smart to make a horror film about horror films. It seems that the unholy presence in Ellison’s house takes firmer root through the footage – the more he watches, the more powerful it gets. By the time we reach the third act, Ellison has literally found an envelope labelled “extended cut endings.” Perhaps there’s a bit of implicit criticism directed at the current state of horror genre there, just like the way that Ellison finds himself watching nothing but establishing shots of happy people followed by their brutal murder. I’ve sat through films that felt a lot like that.

“Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin…”

Sinister falters a bit as it enters its third act. That is, of course, the point where a horror movie has to deliver on its promises, and it means the director traditionally moves away from the more implicit scares and takes a more direct approach. So we get a bunch of stuff that is less scary when it’s made overt. We also get a plot twist that seemed pretty obvious when it was telegraphed and promptly dropped in the first act. The fact that Ellison missed such an obvious thread suggests that he was probably lucky to have even one hit book.

Christopher Young’s score is superb, and adds a great deal to the atmosphere-heavy scenes, the sequences that are more unnerving than any of the times the movie actually showsus anything. There’s a rather clever idea used, with the score clicking into full effect when the super-8 footage is rolling. When Ellison encounters disturbances in the real world, they sound like short extracts of the score of the footage he was just watching. it’s really wonderful sound design, and it creates a rather ethereal quality to the movie.

Have they got him dead to write…?

Sinister runs into problems with its jump scares. It’s much better at atmosphere than it is at pay-off. However, it’s still a fascinating central premise that I think a lot of horror buffs will enjoy. It’s certainly not the strongest horror movie of the year, but you could do a lot worse if you’re looking for some old-school horror.

2 Responses

  1. Wasn’t perfect, but yet, it wasn’t all that bad either. I had a great time when it would just scare me for fun, but still feel deserved and not one of those typical, cheap ones we see in so many crappy horror movies of today. Nice review Darren.

    • Yep. i think it’s better than a lot of horror films, even with significant flaws. It has a great deal more ambition, and a lot more character – I’m inclined to forgive it a misstep (or three) for that.

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