Saturday, 24 November 2012

Horror Double (Part Two) - Sinister

The biggest issue I had with Silent Hill: Revelation was that it had the atmosphere of an IKEA store. Atmosphere is very important in horror: a good sense of dread and tension can help to elevate a movie from simply (temporarily) scaring the viewer to sticking deep in their minds, threatening to haunt them whenever they let their thoughts wander.  It’s one of the reasons why Nosferatu still holds up to this day, despite being ninety years old. Hans Erdmann’s score (or whichever version is featured on the DVD) is foreboding and combined with the unnaturally proportioned Count Orlok it makes for creepy viewing; I caught a glimpse of Nosferatu at a young age and for a long time, Orlok haunted my fevered dreams.

As I stated in the previous review there was no reason to the supposedly scary monsters and scenarios, they simply happened with no real build up or purpose. A good film will provide a context for its scares; it’d be hard to imagine The Creature (From the Black Lagoon) randomly showing up for an obligatory cameo, without any prior mention. And no, “Because it’s Silent Hill” does not count as context. One of my favourite horror films of all time, Jacob’s Ladder, heavily utilized random, surreal imagery: but as the movie was an exploration of the mind of an insane man, it all made sense. So yes, atmosphere and build up are vital; which leads us rather nicely to Sinister

I’ll admit I wasn’t particularly looking forward to Sinister. Marketed as a jump scare flick of the same vein as Paranormal Activity and Insidious, the film appeared to be another attempt to capitalise on an already oversaturated sub-genre.  The principal people behind Sinister didn’t inspire much faith either; taking up the director’s mantle was one Scott Derrickson, the man behind Hellraiser: Inferno and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, he also co-wrote the film with C. Robert Cargill, best known for voicing Carlyle on So I prepared myself for a film with lofty ambitions and ideas, which it would utterly fail to capitalise on in favour of more mainstream, predictable scares. And of course I was right; this is The Crusades of a Critic, not the Armond White show you know.    

Sinister follows true crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) and his obsessive investigation into a quadruple murder, and a related missing person case. During the course of his investigation he discovers a series of innocently labelled Super 8 reels (Lawn Work ’86, BBQ ’66 and Sleepy Time ’98), each of which contain snuff footage; with humour like that, I’m surprised the perpetrator isn’t writing for 2 Broke Girls.  The film opens with a rather unsettling sequence which involves a family being hung from a tree. It’s grim, sombre and jarring, and sets the tone perfectly. The reels are probably Sinister’s greatest asset: Super 8 films have a grainy quality (not to mention lack of sound) which makes their content even eerier. I must single out composer Christopher Young for creating some truly perturbing background pieces – which I can only describe as occultist-aborigine-industrial -  for the projector scenes; he’ll shortly be receiving my bill for all the Xanax I needed.

It’s a simple set up, one which presents the protagonist the threads of a mystery for them to attempt to unravel. But, because of how personally invested Ellison becomes in solving the murders, it works, and makes for compelling character based conflict. The increasing paranoia and obsession of the protagonist, driving them toward a single goal, is a common film trope and something which films like Rear Window and Memento have explored to great effect. It becomes apparent just how obsessed he is with his investigation when it is revealed he has moved his family into the house where the victims were killed, just mere months after the (unsolved) crime was committed; which as far as brass balls go, is up there with Goldilocks.  

This face appears in the nightmares of Bears everywhere
We spend the majority of the first half of Sinister alone with Ellison and the Super 8 reels, becoming as equally absorbed as he is by the horror that’s unfolding on the projection screen. It’s in these moments that we see Ellison becoming increasingly conflicted, as he wrestles with the moral implications of using the information he uncovers for himself, and is clearly warped by the mentally scaring imagery he is exposing himself to. As the film progresses he becomes more and more reliant on alcohol, implying that he either previously had an unhealthy drinking habit, or is developing one. What makes the scenes so powerful is the sense of isolation: whilst Ellison isn’t exactly alone in the traditional sense (his obnoxious family see to that), he is alone in carrying the burden of what he uncovers.

In many regards, Sinister is reminiscent of The Shining; Ellison is a well meaning but deeply flawed individual, struggling with his demons and his desire to leave a legacy. Like The Shining’s Jack Torrance, Ellison’s hubris is that his selfish desires become more important to him than his own family and their safety. Similarly, Ellison’s obsession actually averts a lot of the usual horror movie logic - “I think I’ll remain in this dangerous haunted house, there has to be a reasonable explanation for that gateway to hell” - allowing the movie to be carried by his personality flaws as opposed to sheer stupidity and bad choices. Another commonality The Shining and Sinister share is the quirky, almost dysfunctional, family dynamic. Whilst the family exchange tender moments, they are clearly strained by having to constantly move around for Ellison, who in turn is actually quite dismissive toward them. 

The family’s key purpose is providing a sense of conflict toward the irrationality of the protagonist. Matriarch Tracy (Juliet Rylance), actually pulls Ellison up on a lot of his flaws (cumulating in a great discussion regard their living in a crime scene), and provides a more grounded view regarding his frustration with life. The children come across as somewhat disturbed and withdrawn –possibly an act of foreshadowing regarding the nature of the villain - especially son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) who suffers from night terrors, which is used for cheap jump scares on exactly two occasions; including one particular moment that involves the most ludicrous use of a cardboard box outside of Harry Houdini’s bedroom.

After such a strong first act the film rather disappointingly begins to stagnate around the mid-way point, when more of the story begins to unfold. Part of the problem is that with the film relying heavily on psychological tropes, the story is only ever interesting when it’s intentionally vague. Once Ellison goes from scrutinising the reels for clues to being haunted by ghost children prancing around his house, like they’re auditioning for The Mariinsky Ballet Company, the carefully crafted tension and pacing really goes downhill.

Sinister suffers from the same issue responsible for preventing Insidious achieving greatness. Both are slow building affairs reliant on character and atmosphere, and both blow their load in their third acts faster than Jim Levenstein in a lap dancing club staffed by FHM’s 100 sexiest women: becoming heavily steeped in supernatural elements completely detrimental to the semi-realism prevalent in the first act. In Sinister it is revealed that a child eating pagan deity - known as Bughuul – is responsible for the murders by way of corrupting and influencing the children. This is a major third act revelation, but considering the missing children are the common link between all five cases, and the way Bughuul appears on the films suggesting he couldn’t possibly be the one filming, the ‘twist’ was as surprising as Mario learning that the princess is in another castle.   

The whole ‘the children are the killers’ shtick was probably intended to be shocking, given Humanity’s inherent belief in the innocence of children. But personally, I would have found Bughuul actually committing the murders to be far scarier. Yeah sure, it’s not terribly original, but just look at Bughuul, he looks like an unholy amalgamation of Voldermort and ‘Helena’ era Gerard Way; he’s horrifying! Killer children are just a pointless avenue for films to explore; I live near a council estate, I’m already terrified of children. Bughuul not being the killer takes a lot of power away from the film’s scariest idea: that art –something extremely fundamental to human culture- can serve as a pawn piece for evil, literally, in Bughuul’s case, allowing him to ‘imprint’ himself onto his victims via paintings, photos, drawings and videos. But to survive, you only really need to avoid children; Bughuul seemingly has no real power, other than the ability to convince minors to do debased things in front of a camera.

I have mixed feelings regarding Sinister. On the one hand, it’s an interesting, if derivative, premise and has a fantastically built up villain and atmosphere. But ultimately, it squanders all of this when it enters jump scare territory, not that I have anything against jump scares, but here the majority of them have no substance and are employed rather lazily (loud noises, camera close ups, etc); though I was caught out by THAT lawnmower moment. The scariest moments in the entire film are spoilt in the trailer, because they needed to find something visceral from a mostly subtle movie to showcase, right? On first viewing the bleak ending seems rather predictable and hackneyed, but it gains an emotional significance upon rewatching when you’re able to see every pitfall Ellison falls into as he heads toward his inevitable doom. It’s still worth seeing, if only because of its strong first act and James Ransone as Deputy So-And-So:he manages to somehow be both the comic relief and the straightman. Watching James interact with Ethan Hawke is like imagining watching First Blood with the role of Sheriff Teasle being played by Les Dawson.  

Just imagine Teasle doing the sex maniac joke