I was tired enough of “found footage” movies, but V/H/S completely obliterated my appetite for it. There’s no way I could bring myself to sit through another found footage horror film, not so soon after that nauseating experience. Moreover, as much as I enjoyed Paranormal Activity 2, my enjoyment came mostly from all the momentum that film generated in pushing the franchise forward. Alas, it appears that the series did nothing with that momentum, and the franchise’s growth is remarkably stagnant for one that’s now four movies deep.
But then came the punchline: My local theater is one of many to show Paranormal Activity 4 in IMAX. Take a moment to think about that. A found footage movie — shot mostly with webcams and digital cameras that glitch at the arrival of ghosts — on an IMAX screen. All of that shaky, glitchy camerawork on an all-encompassing screen. Someone has got to be fucking kidding me.
The weekend’s other new release is Tyler Perry’s big action vehicle, Alex Cross. Though Perry has certainly proven himself as an uncommonly skilled producer, the man has put so much time and care into nurturing his fanbase that nobody else has any reason to like him as an actor, writer, or director. Then again, it’s not like Perry is directing Alex Cross. No, that honor went to Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious, xXx, Stealth, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), otherwise known as the guy who makes Michael Bay look like Christopher Nolan. Throw in a pathetic critical reception and this film was off my watch list as well.
Seriously, Hollywood? This is what you give us after Argo and Seven Psychopaths? I thought we were on an awards-season roll here. *sigh* Well, at least I’m now blessed with an opportunity to talk about a film I missed out on last week.
Sinister has been on my radar for a very long time, mostly because it’s the screenwriting debut of one C. Robert Cargill. Formerly known as “Massawyrm” to those who read “Ain’t it Cool News,” he was easily one of my favorite critics on that or any other site. The man brought a wonderful kind of snark, humor, aggression, film knowledge, and flair for language that I deeply enjoyed reading in all of his reviews. In many ways, his style of reviewing films and compiling year-end lists was a great influence on me as a critic. So, when Massawyrm left the site to focus his time and energy on making a movie, I was of course all too eager to see what he’d come up with.
And honestly, I expected a lot more.
Let’s take it from the top. The movie opens with a very disturbing scene, as four people stand calmly with hoods and nooses over their heads. The nooses are hooked up to a tree branch which slowly breaks off from the trunk, falling to the ground as our lynching (?) victims are pulled up. The idea is very clever in a grotesque way, and it’s genuinely shocking to watch. With this opening, the film very admirably sets a dark and disturbing tone for the terror to follow.
But instead of terror, we meet our main characters.
Our protagonist is Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a true crime author who just moved his family to some off-the-map town in Pennsylvania. He’s there to write a book about a local unsolved murder, in which four people died and one little girl went missing. Yes, gentle reader, it’s the same murder we witnessed at the start of the movie. And Ellison gets to witness it as well.
Before long, Ellison starts unpacking in the attic of his new home, only to find that the attic isn’t completely empty. Waiting for him is a box of old Super 8 film reels and a projector to play them on. He of course starts playing the film reels, only to find that each one depicts a very brutal murder scene, one of which is the prologue hanging. So Ellison becomes set on researching these murders and publishing them for the world to read, even as freaky supernatural shit starts happening all around him.
…Wait a minute. This is (1) a horror movie, with a narrative focused on (2) a collection of home movies on an obsolete format, each of which (3) focuses on a grisly supernatural murder. Sweet Christ, V/H/S is just going to keep haunting me all month, isn’t it?
Okay, I’ll grant that this movie succeeds in a lot of places where V/H/S failed. For one thing, all of these home movies were shot with a steady hand, and none of them pose a serious risk for motion sickness. Secondly, these films work equally well as self-contained films and vital pieces of the overall plot. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we do eventually get (creepy, scary) answers as to who made these films and why.
The Super 8 reels are easily the movie’s greatest strength, as every one of them is loaded with some genuinely horrific imagery. In particular, the lawnmower film serves as a sterling example of how to do a jump scare right. Granted, the film does have more than a few fake scares — particularly in the first half or so — but this movie is terrifying when it really gets on a roll.
The movie even goes so far as to turn the projector itself into a motif, to very effective results. There’s something inherently chilling about a device that appears so innocuous, impartial, and lifeless, even though it’s actually something very strange and very dangerous. We only ever see the projector working as it should, audibly and visibly winding film through its reels at a constant pace, but we know that its operation signals the presence of a far greater unseen evil. Even the sound of the projector running can be quite scary in context.
I will gladly admit that the movie’s creative premise and its chilling scares are very effective. The only problem is that they’re wasted on these characters.
First of all, we’re explicitly told that the film’s monster targets kids. Children are absolutely central to this movie, which makes it all the less fortunate that talented child actors are a rare commodity. The child actors in this movie are all terrible, none more so than Michael Hall D’Addario and Clare Foley, who play Ellison’s kids. Not a single line out of their mouths was delivered in a convincing manner, and they utterly failed to get any sympathy out of me. Foley turns in some good work at the film’s climax, but that’s about it.
Then there’s Ellison’s wife. Tracy (Juliet Rylance) fails as a character because she and Ellison have absolutely zero chemistry. I’ll grant that their marriage is supposed to be on the rocks, but that excuse doesn’t go far enough. Not once in the entire movie did I ever buy these two as a married couple.
I could talk about the supporting cast, but there’s really no point. We get a demonology expert (Professor Jonas, played by an uncredited Vincent D’Onofrio, of all people), who serves only as a contrived font of exposition. We get an unnamed Deputy (James Ransone), who fluctuates between incompetence and intelligence as dictated by the plot. We also get the local sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson), a thinly-veiled “crotchety old man who cryptically warns our protagonists to leave before something awful happens” character.
Still, the worst character in this film is unquestionably our protagonist, Ellison. I realize that all horror movie narratives are “idiot plots” to some degree, but this character has being stupid and unsympathetic down to an art. For every time when he makes a semi-rational decision, there’s at least one more time when he does something phenomenally stupid. I could point to any number of examples, but honestly, this character lost me practically from the start of the movie.
Very early on, we learn that Ellison moves his family to the location of whatever unsolved crime he’s writing about at the time. In fact, he has a penchant for moving his family only a few houses away from where the crime scene happened. Just process that for a second. Imagine that your husband or father knowingly purchased a house only a stone’s throw away from some place where a grisly murder happened, then said “Pack up the kids, we’re moving!” And not just once, but multiple times.
Understandably, Ellison’s wife and kids are sick and tired of all the mental trauma and the dirty looks they get from locals. So Tracy makes her husband promise that there isn’t some crime scene waiting just down the road. A few moments later, we see a familiar tree in the backyard, one with a particularly large fallen branch.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Ellison –the protagonist of this movie, remember — purposefully bought the site of a family’s unsolved murder, brought his wife and kids (who were quite vocally unhappy about the move to begin with, I might add) to live there with him, and then lied about it afterward. Seriously, dude, fuck this guy.
To be fair, Tracy does eventually find out about this, and she gives the guy a thorough chewing-out on our behalf. The only problem is that nothing comes of it. Sure, Ellison is very shaken as a result, but it’s not like anyone packs up and leaves right away. Not only does this make our lead characters look even more stupid, but it confuses the matter of how we’re supposed to feel toward our protagonist. Are we supposed to like this guy or not?
Also, as long as I’m harping about the film’s numerous flaws, I have to point out the screenplay’s many problems. I’ve already gone over some of the movie’s failings in dialogue, character development, exposition, and feeble attempts at disguising cliches, but the film’s plot has a great deal of problems as well. As much credit as the film deserves for its creativity and horror, too many twists and scares were telegraphed in advance, either by clunky set-ups or by the film’s own trailer. Also, it bears repeating that so much of the plot depends entirely on the idiocy of our main character to go forward.
Otherwise, the film is very good on a technical level. Christopher Young’s score may be over-the-top, but it certainly does a good job of setting the right mood. Chris Norr provides the camerawork, and his shot compositions are quite good. The lighting, unfortunately, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the visuals do a great job of using darkness and shadows to set an eerie tone. On the other hand, I’d think much more of Ellison’s intelligence if he’d just turn on a friggin’ light.
The bottom line is that Sinister is at its best when the movie gets down to business and brings the horror. When the film is exploring its various mysteries and delivering the scares inherent in its premise, the proceedings can be a lot of fun to watch. The only problem is that most of the film’s more shocking scenes were crammed into the back half. Up until that point, we have to deal with these godawful characters and their godawful dialogue and their godawful development.
If only this movie’s premise, creativity, scares, and technical skill had been applied toward a cast worth a damn, this might have been a great one. As it is, my reaction could best be described as “mixed to negative.” The film might be worth a rental or a second-run, but it’s definitely not worth the full ticket price.
Not that it matters, of course: Any fans of Paranormal Activity out there will already have dumped this movie by the wayside. If, on the other hand, you’re not a fan of the franchise, do yourself a favor and just pick out a DVD instead.